I went to church today and cried. This is nothing new. I am, as a general rule, a complete and total crybaby – always have been – and I often cry at church. And this last weekend? Well, I’ve been crying a lot.
Because the rest of my family had stuff going on today, it was only my son and I going to church. And because I wasn’t sure if the school shooting on Friday would get a mention during Mass, I sat Leo down and explained what happened. His sisters already knew, but I resisted telling my son. His over-fascination (starting at around age nine months) with guns. His rough play. His little-boy-bravado masking some very real fears. I don’t know. I hadn’t worked out exactly how to handle it.
So I told him that a bad man had done these bad things.
I told him that little children had died.
But I also told him that there were ladies at the school – the principal, the teachers, brave brave ladies, who had laid down their lives to save children. How they hid their children in closets and cupboards and put their bodies in between the bullets and their beloved students, and saved who they could.
I said, “Those women died as heroes, but they did what any teacher would do. Your teacher, your principal, your aides and secretaries and janitors and substitutes – they will do anything to keep you safe. So will your dad and I. You and your sisters and your classmates and your friends, you are all precious to us. I am telling you this not because I want you to feel afraid. I’m telling you this because, just like those children, you are so loved.” And then I hugged him.
Tragedies like the one in Connecticut are emotionally complex for parents. We cycle through garish and overwrought emotions – each one tearing into us like a speeding truck with its high-beams on. We are frozen; we are blinded; we are hit. We imagine those little children in the path of a madman’s bullets, and we see the faces of our own children. We hear them scream. We watch them die. Our imaginations are merciless and cruel. And, over and over again, we grieve with the families whose lives are shattered as we clutch our own offspring to our chests and feel waves of love, then terror, then relief, then guilt.
(and oh! those hands! and oh! those faces! and oh! those poor parents! and those children, those little, little children!)
I do not know what my children feel. They took it in and didn’t say much. I do know that my son, who usually is a right pain in my behind at church listened intently during the homily. (He was still a pain in the other sections of the Mass. He still is, in the end, his very Self.) It’s the third week of Advent – season of Light, season of Hope, season of the promise of peace. During Advent we are reminded that a single candle can illuminate the darkness, and that Heaven is not an abstraction, belonging only to the dead. Heaven is here. It grows inside us, waiting to be born. It is ruddy and squalling and precious and alive.
This is what they said at church, and afterward, Leo had questions.
“What did they mean that Heaven and Hell were right now?”
“Well,” I said, “What do you think it meant?”
That, ladies and gentlemen, was answering a question with a question. It’s a jerk move, and Leo wasn’t having it.
“So,” he said, “if I don’t feel love, like right now, am I in Hell?”
“No, sweetheart. You have never known a time when you weren’t surrounded with love. You have always been with love, but you don’t notice it because it just seems like the regular world. What they meant is that Heaven is love, and Heaven is connection, and Hell is hatred and disconnection and loneliness and despair. That’s what they meant.”
Leo thought about this. We were in the car, driving from Minneapolis and Saint Paul. It’s strange weather for December – all fog and low clouds and odd warming/icing patterns that are part of this larger weather weirding due to climate change. I don’t approve of it. Particularly now, when our feelings are complicated and muddled and foggy. I miss the stark brightness of sun-on-snow, and the searing cold of winter.
Finally, “So the people? Where the shooting was? Are they in Hell?”
He heaved the question over the seats of the car. It landed on my lap like a stone.
“Well,” I said. “Yes and no.”
I brought my hand to my mouth and felt my breath on my fingers. Out, warm. In, cold. I listened to the buzz of the wheels on the road, the rhythmic swish of the wipers. I wished we were on a couch, that he was on my lap, that he was looking at my face and not the back of my head, the occasional flick of my eyes in the rear-view mirror. I sighed.
“Here’s the thing, buddy,” I said. “Evil exists. Bad things exist. God gave us free will, do you know what that means?”
“It’s choosing,” he said.
“Right,” I said. “We are free to choose. And we can make good choices and bad choices. We can do good things or evil things. But the thing is? When terrible things happen, it doesn’t mean that good things won’t happen as a result. When there are terrible natural disasters, people help each other. They rebuild. They become closer to their neighbors and discover friends that they didn’t know they had. Old arguments stop being important, and people become more connected. And that’s Heaven – or a little bit of it anyway. That bad man, I don’t know why he did what he did, but my guess is that he wanted people to hurt. He wanted them to feel pain and despair. He wanted them to be in Hell. But the thing is? People have a tendency to come together. When bad things happen, they go out of their way to love each other. And love increases. It multiplies. There is massive amounts of love welling up in every single person that you see. It’s pouring out of their eyes and leaking from their hands. They’re leaving trails of it on the ground. They don’t know what to do with all that love. So they are hugging their kids and checking on their neighbors and sending all of the prayers and energies and extra love that they have to the people who are hurting. And they’re doing what they can to make our world safer and more just. And that’s not Hell at all. That’s Heaven. Or a little bit of it. And so that bad man? He was wrong. He was so so wrong.”
Leo thought about this.
“So you’re saying God did it on purpose? Gave free will so there would be more Heaven just lying around?”
“I don’t know, honey. But that’s a good guess.”
“So, God is tricky. He is full of tricks. Just like me.”
“That’s right, buddy,” I said. I tried to keep my voice even. I failed. “Exactly like you.”
The rest of the drive was silent, except for the wheels and the pavement and the whirr of the defroster. The sound of my son breathing. The beating of his heart. His maddening, fascinating, complicated Self. Wild, precious, and alive.
A thousand blessings upon all of you, dear readers. May your love shine in this time of darkness, and may your aching hearts be eased. Heaven is here and Hell is here, which means that we all have work to do. May we all have the courage to do it.