The End of the World

By Lisa McElroy (written on Friday, Dec. 14 but posted Sunday afternoon, Dec. 16)

This morning, I am on my way to Belize, where my eleven year-old daughter and I will participate in Mayan rituals harkening the end of the world.

As I fly through the clouds, I’m exquisitely aware that, for numerous parents in Newtown, Connecticut, today is really the end of the world.  Unlike mine, their children are not sitting safely beside them, begging to watch one more show on Direct TV, chewing gum to keep their ears from popping painfully.

Instead, the popping their children heard in their ears this morning was that of gunfire; the pain they felt was that of bullets penetrating their skin.

I’m trying hard to understand just how that could be, on all kinds of levels.

Why these particular children, in this particular town, at this particular school, on this particular day?  Why not my own children, who attend a school much like the one in Newtown?  Why any children at all?

When I was six months pregnant with my first daughter, I attended a Senate subcommittee hearing on domestic terrorism as part of some research for a book I was writing.  As the Senators droned on, I took dozens of notes, not because I needed them but because the room was hot, the hearing was boring, and I was hugely pregnant – I needed to keep myself awake.  But all of that changed when, almost imperceptibly, an aide walked up to the bench where the Senators were sitting and slipped the committee chair a note. 

Suddenly, everything stopped.  The Senators began whispering to each other.  In these early days of the internet, before most people carried cell phones, when even the mobile phones that existed were far from smart, the spectators turned to each other and raised their eyebrows.  No one knew what was going on, but it was clear that it was something big.  It took a few moments before the chair cleared his throat and told us.

The “something big” was Columbine.

As a mother – not even yet a mother – I would never see the world the same way again.  I honestly asked myself that day, in that boiling hot subcommittee room, whether I was doing the right thing, bringing a child into this world.  I comforted myself, though, with denial.  Nothing like this could ever happen again, I was sure.  The very Senators who sat before me, who cared about domestic terrorism, who represented parents with little children and even had little children of their own, would see to that. 

Thirteen years later, the horror of that subcommittee hearing plays in my consciousness every time another school shooting hits the news.  These days, we get the news on our phones, even as the terror plays out (today, I learned of the Newtown shootings while changing planes in Houston, as I sat on a runway waiting to taxi into the terminal).  And still, each time, we seem to be in denial.  Over and over again, Facebook friends post about how unbelievable the news is, how incredible that something like this could happen, how close they will hold their own children.

But is hard to understand why it is still so unbelievable.  It is far from incredible.  In fact, I’d wager that the parents of these slain children in Newtown posted about their disbelief just a few months ago, when a movie theater in Aurora exploded in the night, or earlier this week, when a shopping mall in Oregon echoed with gunshots.  I’ll bet that they held their children close, just as I hugged my belly when the news of Columbine filled that subcommittee room. 

And yet, today, as I fly to Belize, I stare at my daughter even as I type these sentences.  I look into the heavens and thank the stars above that she is sitting beside me, chomping on her gum and doing her math homework. I even consider letting her buy a show on Direct TV.

And I wonder about the end of the world.