Most of them were crying by the end of it. The conductor, too, who held them all still longer than necessary, so they could gather themselves. They were members of a community band, but most of them had children who’d attended this high school in which they were performing. Some audience members sniffled. At one point the first chair trumpet solo’ed what we had been told beforehand was Columbine’s fight song from a box seat. People really lost it then.
I was trying to understand how they’d feel, as parents who had watched this happen in 1999 but whose children had escaped unscathed so far. But I have no idea what it would feel like. I only know how it felt to watch as a student then and in the years after, and how, sitting at my desk closest to the door at work as I do, the first (and only) in line of sight as I am or would be, I scripted long ago what I’d scream, if I had the chance. (Maybe I wouldn’t. Maybe I’d be taken out in the head or the throat or something.) What I’d do, if I were at first hidden (as I often am, popping my pelvis back into place under the desk), how I’d try to do what I could from behind. How I’d probably die but then I’d been thinking I’d probably die since 1999. Like everyone else my age.
The conductor introduced this piece with that background: that it was written shortly after Columbine and before 9/11, and Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook and Boston. How now it could be seen to encompass so many more things now, though no one wished it could. Before the band played there had been a children’s chorus, and all of those kids (plus brothers and sisters, and the children of band members or the adult chorus or the orchestra) sat now in the audience, and I wondered what their parents had told them about these events. As nine year-olds, what had they been told about Columbine? If nothing, surely they would now ask, or could anyway, since the word had been put into their brains as the impetus for a whole song they had to sit and listen to. These kids wouldn’t even have been alive yet. Had their parents been forced to dredge the whole thing up after Sandy Hook? Was all this information fairly new to them? Were they frightened?
I had expected the Columbine piece even before the conductor’s introduction, because my mother-in-law told me that my father-in law had trouble getting through it; he teared up halfway through and couldn’t read the music anymore. I intuited that this was an emotional intimacy not necessarily granted to those closer to him, and my husband in his shock when I conveyed this to him confirmed it. We are each other’s emotional informants. Each of our parents shares with the other something too tender, maybe, to stand alongside the images of themselves they built up as parents over decades—too tender to be shared with your kid. So you share it with your kid’s wife, and she tells your kid and vice versa, because these are the parts of our parents we crave.
As the music climbed to its peak, not mournful but warm and welcoming, I rebelled against it with the visceral sense that the shining tones of all the instruments together were like my mom’s squeeze of my hand as doctors huddled with scalpels and tweezers over part of my face after an injury: it was consolation I couldn’t accept. I held completely and totally still, controlling my breathing, not squeezing back even a hairsbreadth, because to do so, to welcome in that comfort, would be to take in more tenderness than I could deal with. Shittily-applied topical analgesics and needles sticking through my face I could take, if barely, but someone acknowledging that that must suck, and that they would make it better if they could, would derail me. It was also, I thought, scrambling desperately to come up with analogies for the situation to distract myself from the music’s onward march, like the feeling I got when offered a tissue at my grandmother’s funeral, watching my dad cry at the podium as he attempted to read the book she’d read to him when he’d had scarlet fever when young. I shook my head fiercely when the offer came my way; I refused to look at the tissue box. Or when my calculus teacher said I’d rather not know my grade. I am more wrecked by your attempt to help me than by whatever you’re attempting to help me survive.
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So I looked at the nine-year olds and the eight year-olds and the seven-year olds in the audience, surrounded by adults sniffling into tissues and sleeves, and wondered how much they understood. And how much their parents thought they understood. I imagined there was a fairly large discrepancy there.
And maybe it’s a necessary one. Maybe everyone needs to continue the fiction of the kids being all right, in order for there to be any hope of the kids being all right.