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Sandy Hook: One Year Later

I wrote this piece last year, a few days after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. As I re-read it today, in honor of its one year mark, my emotions still feel pretty raw. Not enough has changed in our culture, but I try to be hopeful. In the end, hope is all we have.

So, it is in that spirit of hope that I ask you to visit the following site: Sandy Hook Promise . There, you will find the inspiring mission of the parents, family, and friends of Sandy Hook Elementary who refuse to just be the latest victims of gun violence and are fighting for change–real change within our country. It’s a powerful approach, as they are working towards sensible solutions, not more polarization of citizens in regard to gun control. I urge you to check it out, sign the pledge promise, and if you can, donate a few dollars. I know money may be tight, I know everyone seems to want donations from you, but we need to band together to effect real change. If you do decide to donate, perhaps choose the $26 option–one dollar for each person who lost their lives that day. Thank you for reading this.

The World’s Greatest: An AMERICAN Tragedy

I am a mountain
I am a tall tree
Oh, I am a swift wind
Sweepin’ the country
I am a river
Down in the valley
Oh, I am a vision
And I can see clearly
If anybody asks you who I am
Just stand up tall, look ’em in the face and say

[Chorus]
I’m that star up in the sky
I’m that mountain peak up high
Hey, I made it
I’m the world’s greatest
And I’m that little bit of hope
When my back’s against the ropes
I can feel it, 
I’m the world’s greatest

–from  The World’s Greatest, By: R. Kelly

Tears sting my eyes, as these lyrics blare through my iPod. I am out for a run on this cold, damp Sunday morning. I begin to weep openly–the emotion becoming too much. I can’t stop thinking about those kids. The innocent victims of another horrific school shooting. This is not the kind of music that I run to, usually. The song happens to be on my iPod because I downloaded it last year for my boys, who were performing it in a talent show at school. We played it every night for about two weeks. As I run, the lyrics take me back to watching them onstage with several dozen other elementary school children, scared and nervous as they performed in the dark auditorium for beaming moms, dads, and other family members. Then, my mind immediately shifts to the school children at Sandy Hook Elementary–the ones who experienced such a different form of fear and nervousness. The ones who lost their lives. The ones who lived– who will never be the same. I cry because none of us will ever be the same.

I am bawling my eyes out as I run on the side of a very busy road, and I don’t care how I look. I am so sad. And this song is making my grief spew forth because the lyrics are so beautiful. The words remind me of a comforting poem that  is often shared at funerals, by a woman named Mary Frye: Do not stand at my grave and weep, I am not there; I do not sleep. I am a thousand winds that blow, I am the diamond glints on snow, I am the sun on ripened grain, I am the gentle autumn rain… The song now comforts me in that way. I take solace in the fact that these gentle souls, and the adults who lost their lives protecting them, are now a part of a greater good, a larger entity.  Their spirits will live on in all that is beautiful and innocent, like them: a twinkling star, a majestic vista.  They cannot have died in vain.

I have been pretty emotional all weekend. I agree with many things I’ve read on Facebook about not giving this gunman the notoriety our society seems to bestow on the madman du jour. I am so fed up with all of the violence. I am embarrassed to admit that I paid little attention to one of the latest shootings at a U.S. mall. Like many, I’ve grown numb, tired. But this horror, this living nightmare, may be the wake up call this country needs. All weekend I keep staring at my sons, who are both around the victims’ ages. I feel helpless that I cannot shield them from the ugliness of our world. On Friday, as I watched them get off the school bus, wearing Santa hats no less, I was stung by the fact that 20 parents would no longer be greeting their children off the bus. They will never come home again. The Santa hats underscored my boys’ innocence. I thought how, just yesterday, I was hopeful their belief in Santa would last one more year, and now I am concerned that their belief in humanity will last one more year. How could I even begin to explain this event? They know nothing of what occurred in Connecticut–how long can that last? I feel ashamed for even thinking this way when others have no child to explain anything to anymore.

I hit repeat on my iPod. I want to hear this song again. I want to cry my eyes out for all of the victims and their families; I want to wallow in this pity I feel for all of us, for our country. I hear the echo of the singer saying “The world’s greatest…the world’s greatest.” I think about that phrase. I think how Newtown, Connecticut has witnessed the world’s greatest–the greatest examples of heroism, selflessness, and loss of innocence. I think of this land of ours, and how we are supposed to be the world’s greatest–and we are at so many things–including killing. I’m sure you’ve seen the stats by now. The magazine Mother Jones reports 61 mass shootings in the US since 1982. Fifteen out of 25 mass shootings of the last 50 years occurred in the US–the next country in the line up has two. TWO! Why are we such a violent country? Why are we so much more violent in our domestic lives than other countries. The gun control debate is raging with sound and fury now. Mental illness is also being talked about with deserved attention. One of my burning questions: Why does it seem we are more mentally ill than other countries? Why do these gunmen aim at the heart of our Nation–our innocent school children? Is this the price of freedom? How many more schools need to be ambushed before we begin meaningful dialogue and real change?

Speaking of schools, another reason I feel so emotional is because I am a teacher. I read the stories of bravery from these others in my profession, and I am humbled beyond measure. I picture myself trying to hide my students and fend off an attacker–or die trying. Could I be so brave? I pray to God, yes. Sadly, since Columbine, we’ve all become jaded. And teachers have an ever-growing fear. I know it scares me. My teaching career has spanned the spate of school shootings. As a result,  I saved my son’s hand-print from an art project in preschool in my wallet–so that if our school was ever attacked, I would have his hand to hold in the end. I have also saved special messages from the boys on my phone, so if I ever think I won’t be coming home, perhaps their sweet voices would comfort me as I prepared for whatever was in store. Why the hell would I think like that? Why? Because too many schools have been subject to such terror. I teach in a wonderful school, in a beautiful town, with the most amazing kids. Many of these tragedies have occurred in similar settings. And as the death toll in schools across the country continues to rise I pray, “Let this one will be the last.”

Just this week, I had the chance to visit my son’s second grade classroom to talk to the children about Christmas. It’s a public school, and this was part of their Social Studies unit–including all of the holidays we celebrate this time of year. My first observation when I arrived at school–one I’ve had numerous times–was the sad commentary of having to be buzzed in via intercom. A sign reads: “Please stand right here when speaking into the console so camera can see you.” Every time I’m buzzed in, I feel like I am visiting a prison. Yet, once inside  I see the joy, I hear the laughter of the children, and I notice all of the incredible work being displayed. It is a happy place. It is a place of energy and enthusiasm. I’m glad my kids can go to such a school. That afternoon, I enjoyed sharing my knowledge of the Nativity with the kids, and I told them what I say to my own students: “I love teaching in a public school because we are all so different, and we can teach each other about our differences. We are different, and yet we are the same.” They understood.

And I guess that’s why I am writing this blog entry: I want to understand. Yet, as I get older, as I seek more wisdom, I realize that there are so many things beyond my understanding. And I know that is how life works. I think of how much I’ve changed in the past decade, as a husband, as a father, as a man. I am the least religious I have ever been (16 years of Catholic school), yet I am the most spiritual, the most peaceful I’ve ever been. I don’t know if I believe in a God the way I was raised to believe in him. I hope there is a heaven. I hope that there is a place where people go where all of this makes more sense. Here is the picture that stirred my thoughts on this concept of religion yesterday. I came upon it online. The caption was in honor of the victims at Sandy Hook Elementary:

“We can’t help but think this is what heaven looked like today.”

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Credit: painting by John Lautermilch

If there is a heaven, then these sweet children and their protectors are certainly there. Now if only they could help those of us on Earth who are left trying to make a better way from all this. Tonight, I pray to them for strength. Strength for all of us.

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Goodnight, Sweet Boy!

“I want to be the man my dog thinks I am.” –Author Unknown

puppyWe lost our sweet yellow Lab this week. Rufus Atticus  passed away on Tuesday, February 12th. He did go gently into that good night, licking a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup while the doctor gave him the injection. It happened, like so many things in our lives, unexpectedly, without warning. This time a week ago he was frolicking in the snow at his favorite spot: thenature preserve at the end of our street. And then his leg broke–just broke.  He gave a piercing cry that I have never heard from him. As he rested for the remainder of the weekend, we were cautiously optimistic. But the visit to the vet confirmed the worst. A malignant bone tumor. Of course there was the option of amputating the leg and giving him chemo, but that would only buy him a few months, which did not seem fair to him and was something I didn’t want the boys, or us, to endure. So, really, there was only one option–to put him to sleep.

After his diagnosis, I held it together while in the vet’s office, but once outside, the tears erupted. As I watched him hobble to the car, I couldn’t believe our time together was dwindling. Pam came home from work once I told her, and we cried together, with Rufus lying in his bed looking at us with the same lovable face–a face that blended wisdom, love, admiration, excitement, joy and sadness. This was his forever face. He was our first born, our starter baby. We bought him a year into our marriage, the pre-children acquisition to determine how we would parent together. And we certainly did learn a lot about each other by raising Rufus, about shared responsibility and  teaching him how to behave, about the fact that it’s up to both of us to pick up poop and walk him, and that whoever lets him out the other must let him back in…

When I think back on the past ten and a half years with this dog, I realize that I spent the most time with him in our family. I must have taken him on thousands of walks. Thousands! I walkedrufgrad him practically every day of his life. When he was young, these were long runs through hill and dale. As he aged, they became meandering trots through the woods. This became my daily routine, my ritual, my identity. In the neighborhood, it was common for neighbors to see me making my usual rounds. At the preserve, I was familiar with all the other dogs–I was known as Rufus’ dad (It’s a funny thing about pets–we all seem to know their names, but not their owner’s.) Rufus and I could be found in the open space at least five days (or nights) a week. But now I am dogless. Now, I don’t feel I can walk back there alone. Now, I feel like I will be viewed as a creeper lurking in the woods. How sad is that?

ruf22My sadness over this loss was at first surprising, but then completely understandable. I was losing my boy, my companion, my best friend. Sure, I had dogs growing up, but we never cared for them the way a dog needs to be cared for. We simply argued whose turn it was to let him out the back door and whose turn it was to let him in. But Rufus was my only dog as a grown man. And I did grow so much in his lifetime. Not only as his owner, but as a husband, then a father, and a man…Rufus was present through all of this. And his name! Rufus Atticus. This name was my first homage to my hero, Atticus Finch. Before Dadicus Grinch was ever a thought in my mind, there was this loyal creature who embodied so many of the good things about this world, much like my literary hero.

I spent most of Rufus’ last day on Earth on the floor. I wanted to be with him, to sit and reflect on all he was to us. At times, I wailed. I was filled with the typical regrets: I fell asleep on Friday putting Owen to bed and never gave you a walk; we’ll never go swimming in the bay again; you’ll never chase another squirrel out of our yard. Like all those in grief, I even embraced the things that drove me crazy about him–I wanted to hear his annoying bark when someone came to the door; I wanted to be covered in his fur that I was constantly bitching about vacuuming up every other day.


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When we told the boys, they were obviously upset. We had practiced what we would say, but it made no difference. The words we rehearsed escaped us, and our raw emotions spewed forth. “Rufus is in pain and needs to go to heaven.” I think they were more taken aback by our crying then the news of his dying. “You guys look like your eyes are bleeding when you cry,” said Hayden. “Yeah, and it looks like your head is going to explode!” said Owen. “Well, what do you think you look like when you cry?” I asked. In hindsight, I’m glad they saw me cry. I’m glad they saw me sitting there with the dog on his bed crying for him, for me, for all of us. This is a part of life, and they will remember it forever. I want them to know there is no shame in crying, there is nothing wrong with being sad when someone you love is hurting. Because when a loved one hurts, you hurt, too.

313166_10150368796097036_1404978185_nRufus spent his final day as he did most other days–eagerly awaiting the next piece of food to come his way. However, on this day he did not need to wait long. Every time Pam turned the corner, she had a treat for him. From cheese to cantaloupe, from popcorn to pork tenderloin. This dog ate everything his heart desired. When we took him to the vet, the decadence continued with biscuits and chocolate–a dog’s forbidden fruit. He ate more pieces of chocolate than some kids on Halloween. Such pleasures helped to mask the grief we were all feeling, helped to hush the constant cries of pain he made when trying to walk on three legs.

After the vet gave him a sedative, he began to settle down on a soft blanket. We lied there with him on the floor and tried to quiet our sobs. The nurses kept the chocolate coming, which he lapped up with his soft tongue. A sweet older woman said, “This is how I want to go out. Surrounded by people who love me, being fed chocolate.” As the doctor waited to administer the medicine that would end his life, I began to talk about what a wonderful dog he has been. “From the moment we got you, Rufus, you were our sweet boy.” I then remembered the story I often told about picking him up from a breeder in Maryland. During times of sadness, I attempt to use humor to soften the pain. Not surprisingly, this can backfire. It can make things awkward. I seem to have a knack for making things worse by adding my weirdness to the mix. Such was the case when I launched into this tale.

“The family where we bought Rufus was very religious,” I began. “You’re not going to tell this story now, are you Michael?” said Pam. “Sure, why not.” The female doctor and two female assistants looked unfazed. “Yeah, this family had religious plaques and crucifixes around their farm. And the couple had three sweet children. The man said, ‘Well, there are two puppies left. You can have your pick. And if you want to see the bitch, she’s up in the pen.’ Well, it took everything Pam and I had not to burst out laughing like two high school kids. As I drove us home to Pennsylvania, with Rufus on Pam’s lap, I said to her, ‘Honey, wouldn’t it have been funny if when he asked us to see the bitch in the pen I said ‘See the bitch? I just drove with her in the car for three hours!'” We laughed at this, but then both agreed that the breeder and his wife would NOT have thought it was funny. Neither did the vet or her assistants, who all gave me a look that said “We’ll chalk it up to your grief, but that story makes you look like a real asshole.” I certainly felt like one. But as I petted my pup for the last time, I didn’t care what anyone else in the room thought about me, because my dog thought I was one hell of a guy. He said so everyday as he laid at my feet, as he greeted me at the door, as he plopped his pull toy in my lap while I read the paper, as he stood for our nightly walk as soon as I descended the stairs from putting the boys to bed.

Thank you, Rufus. For believing me to be the man I continue to try to be. Goodnight, sweet boy.

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Funeral

First off, I know: Funerals aren’t funny! But something funny did happen to me on the way to a funeral this week. An epiphany, if you will.  A dear family friend and neighbor, Cathy, passed away after many years of battling multiple sclerosis and leukemia. Cathy was kind, humble, sincere, strong, and faithful. She did not ask much of this world, yet she endured much pain. However, she also was surrounded by a lot of love from her beautiful family and friends. They say you reap what you sow–Cathy sowed many seeds of love and friendship, and in the end she was not afraid to die. She had fought long and hard, and she was ready to go to heaven. For Cathy, there is no doubt that there is a heaven, and I have no doubt that if there is one, she is there, and her warm smile is beaming through the clouds, shining down on us.

On the way to the funeral, I was thinking about another friend who had posted on Facebook that she had just gone skydiving. I desperately want to go skydiving, but I am so scared of the rush–I’m afraid the thrill could kill me. My heart races just thinking about it. Interestingly, this friend found the experience to be so incredible, so exhilarating,—almost life-changing. She said if I have any desire to do it, that I should. She can’t wait to go again! But what struck me about her various responses to friends’ comments and congratulations was an observation that she had made about her nervousness: “[The]Scariest part was the free fall before the parachute opens, but I watched a dozen people jump ahead of me and it made me feel very at ease.” I kept thinking about these words as I was driving to the church for Cathy’s funeral in the town where I grew up. Death is like skydiving. We are so afraid of the fall, yet as we watch dozens (and dozens) of people go before us, hopefully we begin to feel at ease.

I was a very fearful child; I thrived on being nervous all the time. Yet, as I get older I see what a thief fear can be. It robs us of joy. Thus, I make a conscious effort not to be fearful. I know that bad things will happen, and I know that I have little or no control over such situations. I choose to be at peace with this, rather than fret over it. Perhaps it is because I have watched many people be laid to rest for over four decades that I have become more at ease. Young and old, sick and healthy, terminal and sudden, death comes often. And with each death, I have learned to look at the life that was lived–the accomplishments, the lives created, the bonds formed, and even the regrets of the deceased–all serve as reminders of how we should live our lives.  I know it’s unrealistic to live as if we could die tomorrow, but I at least chose not to live in fear. Make no mistake, I am not looking forward to dying.  Moreover,  I try not to think about losing loved ones, but I know that these things will come…some day.

Trying to teach the concepts of death and heaven to two young boys is a difficult, sometimes comical task. Thankfully, we have been able to start with small deaths: my in-laws’ dog, an elderly neighbor, my long-deceased father. Yet, we try to emphasize that heaven is a wonderful destination–that these people are happy there. Not surprisingly, the boys get excited when we tell them someone has gone to heaven. What they fail to realize, understandably, is that heaven isn’t a place you visit occasionally–you become a permanent resident.

At a recent dinner, the boys began to discuss the order in which we would all die. The oldest, Owen, claimed it would be Daddy, then Mommy, then Rufus (dog), Catarina and Paws (cats), then him, then his younger brother, Hayden. Hayden was bothered by this lineup. “No, Owen, mommy will die first cause she’s older than dad.””But daddy’s bigger than mommy,” Owen countered. My wife and I looked across the table at each other with pained expressions–wincing at the thought of our young boys’ fates.  “Alright, boys, lets not fight over it,” I said. “Besides,” said my wife, “it’s not something we really want to think about. It makes us sad because we won’t all be together.” “Until we’re all in heaven,” said Owen. “Right,” I said. “Sure,” insisted my wife–both of us trying to sound confident. Then we did what any good parents do when confronted with such heavy topics from their kids: We told them to go watch TV while we finished eating our dinners. As we sat there, we laughed at how strangely matter-of-fact kids can be, and then we talked about how sad it is that someday we won’t all be together.

I really do hope that I get up the nerve to skydive someday. Maybe even wait until my boys are old enough to go with me. But I’m not so sure my wife will allow us to all take such a free fall together. Oh well, I have over a decade to convince her:) In the meantime, I’ll continue to stare down my fears and try to live my life to the fullest. Just need to take it one leap at a time.