Sunday, December 27, 2015

The highs were so high, and the lows were so very low

Ryan loves Christmas. (Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C, Exhibit D)

Ryan loves completion. (Exhibit E, Exhibit F)

So it shouldn't be too surprising that despite our repeated statement that Santa brings just one small gift per child, Ryan freaked out that he did not receive all six items he had included in his letter to Santa Claus.

To an outside observer it probably looked like Ryan was being a spoiled brat (I actually started off by giving him a long, harsh lecture about gratitude and appreciation and how damn lucky he is), but we quickly realized the problem was that he had written a list of six things but could only cross one off. It was somewhat of a relief when he discovered that others in the family had given him two other items from the list, but it took us a long time to talk him down from this meltdown. We eventually agreed that he could save up his own money and complete the list himself sometime.

So, that was the first half-hour of Christmas morning.

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Then Ryan realized he had been so excited to go to bed last night (cuz Santa only comes when you're asleep) that he had neglected to leave out cookies and milk for Santa and the reindeer. He was beside himself with grief on this. We quickly found a shipping box, filled it with gingerbread and a juice box, and addressed it to the North Pole. Since there's no mail pick-up on Christmas day, I put the box in my car and assured Ryan I would bring it to the post office in the morning.

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After these crises, Christmas was lovely. There were even moments that highlighted Ryan's tremendous progress. This year he chose to spend his Chanukah money to buy us presents, and they were reasonably thoughtful (he gave me a delightfully soft throw blanket, because he knows how much I enjoy napping on the couch). At lunch he actually ate what everyone else was eating - new food! - and requested to taste new foods it hadn't occurred to me to attempt to serve him. After deciding he didn't like these foods, he allowed them to stay on his plate; normally he would insist on scraping the offending items into the trash so he wouldn't have to look at them.

And the best thing about Christmas? After a week of saying he didn't know if he wanted to, Ryan went home with his grandparents for a two-night sleepover. It was a Christmas miracle!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Dear Survivors: How can we help you?

Left: Ryan on 12/13/2012. Right: Dylan Hockley.
Dylan could have been my baby.

Dylan Hockley was an autistic 6-year-old, navigating first grade in Newtown CT with the help of his one-on-one special ed teacher. When the gunman started firing at the 6- and 7-year-olds in the class, Dylan's para wrapped her own body around him to shield him from the bullets. They died holding each other.

Half an hour away, my baby sat in his second grade classroom working one-on-one with Mrs. Wilson. After an uneventful day at school, he said goodbye to Mrs. Wilson and came home on the short bus.

He didn't understand why I hugged him so tightly. He told me to let go of him; I didn't.

This morning my baby got on the short bus to go to school, where he is now sitting in his fifth grade classroom working one-on-one with Mrs. Wilson. And most likely at the end of the day he will say goodbye to Mrs. Wilson and come home on the short bus.

But we all know there's always a possibility he won't. Or that he will come home and I will not be here to meet him because I was going about my life and some disturbed individual decided to do something deranged.

His school runs Code Drills, the modern equivalent of Duck and Cover Drills, so the children and their teachers can practice hiding from an "active shooter situation." Americans can purchase bulletproof backpacks, to shield their children from the seemingly-inevitable day they will have to face a crazed gunman. As The Onion said so eloquently, fuck everything.  I don't want to live in a country where we expect kids to be shot in their schools.

The collective horror of all of these incidents is terrible enough, but to me what's worse is the thousands of individual lives that are changed forever the instant the first shot is fired - the instant in which they become survivors.

In addition to the usual debates about gun control and the mental health of the murderers, I'd like to take a moment to think about what we can do to support the survivors of these traumatizing events our country seems incapable of preventing.

I have a friend who survived the Simon's Rock massacre on 12/14/1992. Twenty three years later, that day still colors everything in her life. Everything. She wrote a book about her experience as a survivor - memory loss, panic attacks, all the what-ifs - that I think should be required reading for anyone before they're allowed to open their mouths about mass murders.

Every child at a school where one of these insane shootings takes place, every teacher, every first responder, each of them will need a lifetime to process the grizzly details and incorporate them into their own personal narrative. Each of them will carry the event around with them forever, sometimes neatly tucked away, sometimes raw and oozing all over their face. Each will deal with the trauma in their own way - they may see the dead in their sleep, cower from fireworks, become politically active, retreat into themselves. Maybe some of them will grow up and see no alternative but to traumatize someone else so that they will not feel so alone in their grief.

A few months ago I was hiking in the woods behind a local nature center that sits adjacent to both an elementary school and a shooting range. When I got to a spot in the woods where I could hear both gunfire and the happy sounds of outdoor recess, I had a full panic attack. As the sounds blended in my head, the happy shrieks taking on a tone of terror, my heart crawled into my stomach, vomit burned the back of my throat, and I had to get out of there, running over fallen branches and dodging thorny vines. My startle reflex was heightened for days after.

That was my reaction, and I have never been present at a murder. I can only imagine how much more overwhelming a reaction would be triggered for someone who has actually had to hide behind their bulletproof backpack.

So, survivors: what do you need from the rest of us?