This past Sunday night, the boys and I finished dinner and hurried through the dishes because we wanted to watch a couple episodes of Stranger Things before bed. Monday races towards us after dinner every Sunday evening and so prolonging the weekend as much as we can is always too tempting to pass up. Particularly on this weekend, as we’d been looking forward to Season 2 of the show for months.
Also, I have to tell you – the boys were not home when I learned about the church shooting in Texas earlier that morning. I found it, like all these other mass shootings – and probably a lot like you have, too – unspeakably difficult to absorb. I had a gig the night before the shooting and the boys had spent that night with friends. When I read the news online shortly after waking up Sunday, I had a now too-familiar “nesting” impulse – this seeming need to hurtle towards the kids, gather them, race home, and cave up from what more and more seems a rapidly-crumbling world. That tendency seems to spring to life in me more and more in the 21st century. With each new mass shooting, for instance, something in me braces for impact, and a very real, palpable, “felt” terror dings my armor.
Mine’s a fragile armor at best, I’ll admit. It’s constructed in large part of being a white male, growing up working-/middle-class, in the possession of an advanced education and a semi-stable income and health care, and the grand illusion that if I play by some rules and codes, and observe and attend to all the social contracts appropriately and all the while aspire towards my “best self,” then everything will work out “just fine.” (In other words, yes, it’s an armor made of fine sand, too, but it’s still solidly done its job for 40+ years now.)
And when the repercussions of terror – in the form of anxiety – don’t just ding the armor, then they massively dent it. As proved true on Sunday.
But there we were Sunday evening, gathered and home in a new space we’d moved into a couple weeks earlier. We picked up the pace on the after-dinner routines in the hopes we could disappear from the present and watch this spectacularly fun Netflix show set shot-for-shot in the era of my own imagination-rich childhood. If we maintained this pace, we would watch an extra one or two episodes – as if to pretend it was still Friday and that Monday wasn’t rapidly on the way.
I checked the fridge to brainstorm options for their lunches for Monday morning and saw the milk carton snug in the door’s shelf. I remembered then that I forgot to buy milk earlier that afternoon. I’d meant to do that when we were driving home from our friends’ house. And I was counting on cereal in the morning, especially because I knew we would stay up a little later to watch the show and that I would want as low-impact a breakfast as possible Monday.
But I also didn’t want to drive all the way over to Safeway. I woke to snow Sunday morning and when I picked up the boys earlier, the roads were still super slippery. So I also had no interest in sliding around the slick roads on a Sunday night without snow tires on the car yet.
I decided on a compromise. I’d hop in the car, drive up the street to the gas station and buy a small single serving bottle of milk to split between two bowls of cereal in the morning. I’d done this once before. If you measure it right, you have just enough in one small milk from the gas station soda section for two boys’ cereal bowls. They were going to their mom’s the next day. This could hold us over till our next stretch together.
I closed the fridge and told the boys I was going to run up the street to grab milk at the gas station. I said I’d pop up there and back. I told them to finish washing and drying the dishes and putting them away and I’d be back in a flash and then we’d watch Stranger Things.
They agreed, and probably even relished the thought of a few minutes home alone and they began moving around the kitchen with a little extra bounce as they found the new cupboard spaces for our dishes.
I was putting my boots on when my nine year-old called out, as if suddenly remembering, “Love you!”
It came out quick, but it arrived full – his call possessed heft, a weight in the way it leapt forward and then, too, in the way it landed and settled inside me. If I didn’t know better, I might have thought he’d mistaken my announcement of an errand to the gas station up the street as an announcement that I was grabbing the next flight to Patagonia for a few months.
I chuckled. “I’m coming right back,” I told him, smiling, sliding into my other boot.
“I know,” he said, slipping plates into a cupboard.
And I couldn’t tell you exactly why I had to remind him of that either, except that later, thinking about it, I knew that the full import of his pronouncement of love exposed a nerve, a different kind of vulnerability in the armor than the vulnerability exposed by terror. Or was it? Different? Either way, in that moment, “I’m coming right back” was almost a way to deflect some of the force of that open, unabashed affection he offered me. And it was honestly almost too much to bear right then, free as it had arrived, and so unexpected and pure.
It unsettled me. It exposed other cracks. For how much I felt it. The love. And needed it, or desired it. But also for the way I didn’t know how to fully accept or embrace it, save for my eyes welling with tears at my front door. He had done this on Halloween, too. I was leaving the boys at their mom’s, and I was proceeding out the door when he announced from the other side of the room, “Let me give you a hug,” and bolted across her living room and threw himself at me. Then, too, I exited that moment both light and heavy-hearted and swimming between the two concurrent emotions.
Soon enough, another thing crashed into the moment, too, as I put my jacket on and grabbed my wallet. I was quietly absorbing the waves of my son’s affection and then remembered what had occurred in Texas earlier that morning.
Maybe it’s that this time the shooting occurred in a church. Perhaps it’s that it happened in a church and this incident happened so quickly after a shooting at a concert a few weeks ago. Maybe it’s just that it happened – again – period. That these shootings keep happening. Maybe it was that the growing, widening realization that this can happen anytime and anywhere now – that something feels very different here now – that we’ve turned a distressing and undeniable corner (as a country, a species) in our era, and that there’s no arguing (or convincing me) otherwise.
I didn’t have – and still don’t have – words to clearly define or explain what came over me then. Maybe that’s how terror works. Or starts to win. To gain ground. But I thought of an otherwise ordinary Sunday, dressing to go to church. Arriving. Polite greetings. Shaking hands with friends, acquaintances. Taking your seat with family or a friend.
A few weeks ago, protesters picketed outside the church I periodically attend with my boys. They’ve also entered and occupied the front row of the church in silent protest before, too. I’m not suggesting the individuals protesting this church would ever unload on us with machine guns. But they’ve conducted themselves in such a way that I’ve sat in church feeling anxious and concerned about what’s transpiring, imagining what could transpire, about what’s possible in the midst of a specific kind of tension brought on by their actions.
By that measure, I can’t for the life of me conceive, then, of what living through what those churchgoers encountered this past Sunday would be like. Who can?
And I know, on one hand, I’m being a real simpleton here: It’s not as if before all these mass shootings defining our era we’ve never been at risk of sliding into harm’s way. Of course I’m not suggesting that at all. In fact, statistically, I was and am wildly more at risk of dying in a fatal car accident while driving the few blocks up the road on a milk run on a Sunday night than I am of being killed by a mass shooter. I know this.
But that didn’t make the fact of Sunday’s shooting – only the most recent in a lengthening series of horrific incidents – go down any easier. Not at all.
I paused at the front door and breathed in the full import of Matt’s freely-, gently-offered love. I don’t know how else to refer to that moment. But I had to consciously open to it that evening. I’m not suggesting I intentionally wall or guard myself from my kids or their affections. I’m saying only that I was aware on Sunday evening that I had to pause, breathe, and open to it. That I was feeling vulnerable and fragile and on guard before Matt impulsively expressed himself, and that I first chuckled it off because the risks love opens us to and asks of us are perhaps the greatest vulnerabilities imaginable. After all, vulnerability means we’re capable of great loss and deep wounding – though also of significant transformation, too – in unimaginable ways. And maybe that truth proves also too overwhelming to absorb and to live with every day so that we can’t help but armor ourselves in a little bit. Or a lot. For safety and sanity’s sake. Well, rather, for the illusion of possible safety and control.
“I love you, too,” I told him – and his brother – and I went to the store, and I bought a single bottle of milk for Monday morning, and I returned home in one piece – I survived – and we watched Stranger Things together, and for another night we were safe, we were home.