I just got back from visiting my parents in New England. My father has severe dementia and barely recognizes me, and my mother is becoming more frail and declining cognitively. When I get a phone call from the assisted living facility where they live it usually means that something is wrong. Lately it’s been my mother. She had been in the hospital after a fall and was going to a rehabilitation center. I had to convince her to go, so I wanted to go and provide my support. I try to make the drive without stopping often; one stop usually does it for me. I fill up the gas tank, hit the bathroom, and grab a drink or a snack. On this trip I was nearly out of gas when I saw a sign for Newtown/Sandy Hook. I can’t explain exactly why that had such an impact on me, but it did. I pulled off the highway. After filling up with gas, I headed down the road to see the school.
It was Sunday, so the school was closed and the grounds were deserted. I took a moment to remember the people who lost their lives that day, mostly small children. Their parents will never see their children grow up and become adults. In many ways, my mother is lucky. She has lived past the age of eighty in relatively good health. The victims of Sandy Hook, like victims of terrorism everywhere, didn’t have a choice about how to live out their lives. As I stood there I thought about the pain of that day and the preciousness of human life.
My parents lived a full life and enjoyed good health until the past four or five years. Then we noticed that my father was forgetting things. He could not remember how to get to my house in Virginia. I wrote out the directions for him, in numbered steps, at his request. During one trip the exit number had changed and he drove past it. Although we didn’t know it, that was the beginning of his cognitive decline. Later we learned another name for it: dementia. For a while he coped. My mother had to start doing things he was no longer able to do. She wasn’t very good at it. My father had always made the big decisions and managed financial details, including their taxes. She misplaced papers, and was terrible at organizing documents. At the same time she started having trouble walking and became unsteady. A few years ago I stepped in and persuaded them to move to an assisted living facility.
My fathers decline meant that he began to forget how to do everyday things. He loses his temper easily and gets frustrated, mostly because he doesn’t know what to do anymore or how to do it. My mother needed help too, but would not admit it. Little by little we began to manage more and more of their affairs. I talked with doctors and caregivers and financial advisors trying to make their lives run smoothly and safely. Along the way I struggled with guilt over how much I was taking away from them. Was I doing the right thing?
When I arrived at Sandy Hook Elementary School I was surprised at the newness of the school. It was not like the school I attended, all bricks and blocks. Sandy Hook has a modern 21st century look to it, artsy and flowing. It looked like a place where kids chased each other in the playground and laughed in the hallways. For some reason I expected a memorial or flowers or wreaths. What was I thinking? It was a school, a place where children learn. This Sunday it was quiet. I got out of the car and stood there for a moment, reflecting on this place that had experienced a day of unimaginable horror and senseless murder.
Children are not supposed to die before their parents. It’s a situation that every parent dreads and prays will never happen. My grandmother lost her son, my father’s older brother, many years ago. He was a first grader. One day as he was walking to school he was run over while crossing the street. The man driving the car was at fault, but it didn’t change the outcome. My grandmother had lost her first born son at so young an age that my father didn’t even remember him. My grandmother never got over it. Never. Neither will the Sandy Hook parents.
My parents remain in relatively good health. They will continue on, cared for by nurses and home care aids, and watched by myself and my siblings. They are lucky, though they may not know it. It’s true that we have taken away much of their independence. In a lot of ways, they live like children. They don’t have to cook or do laundry. They go to the doctor, but don’t drive or make the appointments. Their finances are managed by others, as are their daily activities.
The Sandy Hook parents would give anything to have their children back to care for. But no one gave them that choice.
I went to Sandy Hook because I wanted to feel some of the pain of that day. We all have trials in our daily lives. Some are large and some are small. The most difficult are those that affect life and death. Sometimes we can control the outcome. We look for good doctors and safe neighborhoods. But sometimes things just happen. No one asks us how we feel about it, and sometimes life doesn’t make sense. As I continued on the road north I remembered the horror that was Sandy Hook, lest we forget.