Sometimes, bad things happen. Things like not getting a promotion you wanted or a hearing a diagnosis you didn’t, car trouble or bad weather or divorce.
And then one day, something really, really bad happens. Something so bad, it makes you wonder why you ever thought anything else in your life was bad.
Last week, a young mother in our town and and her two little girls were found dead in their own home from gunshot wounds. It has since been ruled a murder-suicide.
Our little community was stunned, and like a moth drawn to a bright, burning flame, my mind returned again and again to the most awful questions.
Did the little girls know what was happening?
Did they cry?
Were they afraid?
Or were they blissfully unaware until the very last second?
Mostly, I just wondered why. Why would a mother do this?
Every time I thought about it, my stomach felt fluttery, as though there was the tiniest bird inside my ribcage.
Where was I?
Where was I when, less than two miles from my house, a young mother was so distraught, so scared and fearful and determined, that she picked up a gun and pointed it?
Was I getting my hair cut?
Was I at Hannaford’s, trying to find ripe avocados because all of a sudden Jack loves guacamole?
Was I putting a stamp on my nephew’s birthday card or ordering his present from Amazon?
My God, what are you trying to tell us?
What is the lesson here? Is it about compassion and forgiveness?
Or, like flowers in the breeze, are you trying to turn our heads towards political problems like gun control and domestic violence and mental illness?
When I checked my e-mail on the next morning, there was a message from both the superintendent of our district and the principal of the elementary school. Both said things about counselors and teams and tragedy.
That’s when it dawned on me: we were going to have to tell the kids. Up until that point, my husband Joe and I had been talking in hushed whispers when they were all occupied, and furtively checking our phones for news updates.
But throughout the day, the pieces fell into place. We realized our third-grader, Charlie, knew the older daughter because they were in class together for both first and second grade.
For two years they shared a lunch period and art class, field day and holiday celebrations. They sat in the same room month after month, as the seasons outside the window changed from a rich yellow fall to cool blue winter and back again to a wet green spring.
How were we going to tell our kids all of this? How to tell 9-year old Charlie that, for a girl named Katy, there would be no more seasons?
Then there’s Jack. Oh, Jack. Explaining murder-suicide to my 10-year old son felt impossible. Between autism and his anxiety, I could not imagine his reaction.
I mean, right now he’s obsessed with the idea of a time machine transporting him back to Colonial times, and he’ll lose the time machine and never get back to us and have to live without his family for the rest of his life.
And when he’s not talking about the time machine, he’s upset because the water in the toilet is too blue, or that it might rain, or that a poisonous spider in Brazil might swim over to America and bite him.
But don’t worry, we figured it out.
Because Joe and I are experienced autism parents with our fingers on the pulse of spectrum disorder, we approached the situation with great consideration and concern. We gave the matter tremendous thought, and in the end we made a mature, responsible decision.
We didn’t tell him.
It’s not as bad as it sounds. I mean, we didn’t exactly exclude him. He’d been sick with the stomach bug all day anyway, and he seemed pretty out of sorts already. We just waited until he was zoned out in front of a Disney movie up in our bedroom, and then Joe and I called the other four kids to the kitchen for a family meeting.
“What? Shouldn’t we ask Jack—“
“Ssshhh! No! I mean, Jack is tired. We want to talk to just you guys for now.”
We kept it simple. We told them they were safe, that there was some kind of accident in town and a mother and her two little girls had died.
“Katy died? But I just saw her!” Charlie looked to Joe and then back to me.
“I know, buddy,” Joe said quietly. “It’s a terrible thing.”
Afterwards, we felt satisfied that we handled it as best anyone could handle something like this. But we could only keep the lid on things for so long.
The next day, as soon as he got off the bus, Jack charged into the kitchen.
“I heard today. A mom. She shot herself. And she shot her girls.”
I winced. “Shhh, Jack let’s be quieter.”
Charlie looked at me with his eyes wide open. His eyes are the deepest, darkest brown and some days, they make my heart ache.
“It’s true? That’s what happened?”
“Yes.” I admitted quietly. “It’s true.”
“But why? Why would a mother do that?”
Once again we sat at the kitchen counter, this time just Jack and Charlie and I. Delicately, I danced around topics like mental illness and depression and guns as though I was circling a bonfire.
“Her head,” Jack said, “did not want her heart to live anymore.”
“But how could she?”
“Charlie, I don’t have any answers, I’m sorry—“
“But together. They are for together now.”
I felt like I was trying to manage two very different conversations at the same time.
“Yes, Jack, I guess that’s true.”
“Mom, do you think Katy’s in heaven?”
“Yes, Charlie, I do,” I said slowly. “I think they are all in heaven.”
“It is for now God. He will know.” And with that, Jack jumped off the stool and walked out of the room, leaving Charlie and I to stare at at each other sadly.
For the rest of the week I watched them all carefully. I baked chocolate chip cookies, and I made a point to stay off of my computer and stop checking Facebook on my phone once they were home from school. I leaned in close when they talked.
They never once asked any more about it, but Charlie showed some signs of stress.
On Wednesday afternoon we couldn’t find our puppy for a few minutes, and he started to jump up and down frantically.
“He’s dead. I know it. Wolfie’s dead!”
The next day when he got off the bus, he tugged on my arm. I bent down so he could whisper in my ear.
“I was scared. That when we came home from school you would be dead, that someone would have shot you.”
And on Thursday, maybe the most heartbreaking, tangible thing.
After dinner, Charlie came in where I was sitting in our little office, and he climbed into my lap. He hardly ever climbs into my lap anymore.
He told me how at school that day, he’d found a crumpled up piece of paper in the hallway, and when he’d opened it, it had her name on it.
“Katy. It said Katy.”
“Oh, honey,” I said as my own eyes filled.
I did the only thing I could think to do. Sitting together, Charlie and I reached out and put our fingers towards the hot flame. We brought a young sweet girl back to life, if only for the briefest moment.
“Charlie-bear, what was Katy like? What do you remember about her?”
“She was so fast. She could run and run. And one time, I saw her in the gym with her little sister, and she was swinging her around and around like she was as light as a feather.”
For just a moment, we felt her heat. We watched her run on the playground and clasp her sister’s hand. We read her handwriting on a piece of bright white paper.
My God, I see now. Some things are not meant for us to understand. But we still must talk about the un-talkable; guns and sadness and little girls who run so fast, but are gone too soon.
From the darkness, we must grow our own wings.
“Charlie, I am sorry you are so sad.”
“I know. I just try to think of what Jack said the other day. That helps me.” He slid off my lap and walked out of the room.
What Jack said? I racked my brain, trying to remember what Jack had told his little brother.
I traced the thread of conversation when we were sitting at the counter after school. As I remembered, I smiled, although my heart broke just a little more.
It broke a little because I realized how easy it was to forsake him. I didn’t think he was—what? mature enough? smart enough?—to understand. Because of his autism, I underestimated him.
“They are for together.”
But his black and white mind isn’t cluttered with distractions like mental illness and gun control. He is pure, and his truth is a brilliant evergreen.
“Her head didn’t want her heart to live.”
Jack took the collective questions of why and how and when and where out of our hands. He cradled it like a soft baby chick, and placed it gently back where it belongs.
“It is for now God. He will know.”