The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
Sarah Walker Caron is an author and editor at the Bangor Daily News.
It crashes over me, a tsunami of crushing emotion and devastation, and for a moment I am caught in the surf. At the top of my inbox, the seemingly innocent meeting invites for Dec. 14 are currents pulling me down.
But it’s all in my head and my heart. It’s just me, the parent of a survivor.
Every year, I approach this time with a flicker of hope that it will be different. This will be the year that the anniversary of the Sandy Hook School shooting won’t drag me under, an angry tide threatening to drown me. Every year, everything is OK until it isn’t.
Nine years ago, on a cold December morning, I sent my son off to second grade with a lunchbox packed with a hastily assembled peanut butter and jelly sandwich and whatever fruit we had handy. He had his favorite stuffy with him and was wearing the adorable striped hoodie I’d splurged on during back to school shopping. He was so small.
After crossing the street to board the bus, he did something he’d never done before: he turned around, waved and yelled out that he loved me.
That was the last time I knew what normal was.
My son survived that day, but not before he heard the shouts of mettle, screams of terror, the explosions of bullets and the hope that was a child encouraging his friend to run to safety. She survived. But 26 others did not.
Nine years ago, the person I was disappeared with a single email: “Due to reports of a shooting, as yet unconfirmed, the district is taking preventative measures by putting all schools in lockdown until we ensure the safety of all students and staff.”
It took seconds to learn it was my son’s school. That was the first time the waves yanked me under. Lost and uncertain, I didn’t know what to do.
When we were reunited, the details were scarce, but the tenor in the firehouse where the kids were taken was clear: something very bad had just changed them all. Tear streaked-faces sat, jarred, shoulder to shoulder.
Later, my blood curdled as my 7-year-old son told me his principal was dead and he’d heard screams and gunshots approaching his classroom — not over the intercom, but in the hallway steps away.
No parent should have to hear those words from their baby’s lips.
That day, the gunman entered the classrooms across the hall. A simple choice of left or right separated our reality from that of 26 families who had to bury someone in the coming week. I know their names and their faces, but they are more than that: they were part of our community. I was blessed to have my son come home that day, but to focus only on that is to ignore the reality that no one was spared.
Childhood was paused. The questions, the memories, the worries. They didn’t go back to school for weeks. When they did, students in my son’s class were spooked by the smallest unfamiliar noises. Moved to a quickly converted, borrowed school in a neighboring town, they broke up math lessons with stops in the hug room and trips to the classrooms above to understand what they were hearing. Every day, they passed through layers of security and learned to trust the officers in the building and guarding the entrances. Outside of school, there were horrible memories to come to terms with and night terrors to ease them through.
For the parents, there was a deafening knowledge that we couldn’t keep them safe. As threats poured in on a near daily basis, the school was in a constant state of safe lockdown. Every call from the school was a fresh wave of crushing anxiety and fear.
For the last nine years, I have fought to give my children back their childhood. We’ve jumped in puddles, skipped rocks, had tea with dolls, built LEGO towers, read books, played soccer, hiked, swam, twirled around Disney World and tossed water balloons. When it seemed like they couldn’t heal anymore in Sandy Hook, we moved to Maine and the healing continued.
To know them now is to know two well-adjusted teenagers. If you didn’t know that my son survived what he did, you’d have no idea of the trauma we lived through. But that doesn’t erase it.
People wonder what this life is like, being the parent of a survivor. The best I can answer is this: It’s gratitude and joy, relishing every moment. It’s parenting children who’ve used all the tools they needed to heal and succeeded. It’s being the loudest spectator on the sidelines and the most enthusiastic clapper in the audience.
But it’s also knowing that no amount of locks and security plans will stop a deranged individual from bringing a gun to school and using it. It’s having conversations about how to survive should it ever happen again. It’s wearing a shroud to disguise the deep worries and fears that percolate when that dreaded day approaches.
Being the parent of a survivor isn’t dwelling in the tsunami, it’s weathering the crashing waves when they appear. It’s being pulled under and still rising to the surface again to breathe another day.