At a certain point in my early 30s – shortly after I had gotten divorced and came out from the self-absorbed haze of “why me” – I had a turning point when instead of saying “Why me?” I started saying, “what is the lesson here?”
I witnessed a taxi accident a few years ago, walking down the streets of Third Avenue in New York. With the bustle and hustle of rush hour, it was not uncommon to hear a car screeching or the familiar bang of metal colliding. Most of the time the slow traffic prevented horrific automobile accidents. But on this warm spring day, I turned my head after I heard a crash and watched as a 20-something girl jumped out of a cab, apparently in a complete state of shock, all while holding her bloody nose from falling off her face. “What just happened? Can someone please just tell me what just happened to me?”
I felt so badly for this confused and bruised young woman. She seemed to be on a first date, because a young man, not overly attentive to this clearly distraught woman, began to run around to the car in front of the taxi and try to figure out what caused the accident. I just watched this unpleasant scene, thinking, “What was the point of me witnessing this accident?”
I wondered about why was I meant to see this? What was my lesson?
From that day on, I wore a seatbelt in the back seat of every car, including taxis. Perhaps this was a simple lesson; perhaps it was one that will save my face one day.
But it seems to help me to say, “What is the lesson here? What can I take away from this to make my life better? What was the point?”
What are the lessons for a nation that witnessed a small town’s tragedy and sits breathless, powerless, helpless at home? After the fog of grief wears off; after that rotting feeling in your stomach and the perpetual lump in your throat goes away; after you’ve cried so many tears that you can’t believe it’s still getting to you – because these weren’t even YOUR children. What is the lesson here?
We can start up the talks about gun control and mental illness and even parental responsibility and accountability. We can make it political or religious or all things in one. We can go off on rants and we can be angry and we can be frustrated.
But that won’t change my life. Not my personal little life. Nope. I cannot change gun laws; I cannot help all the parents in the world with sick children. I can only help myself recognize there was a reason this event pierced my heart.
When, in a memorial service, President Obama said, “Newtown has reminded us of the most important things in life,” the lesson seemed blatantly clear.
I didn’t care about the laundry overflowing out of the hamper or about the dishes that needed to be loaded into the dishwasher. I didn’t care about the gray hairs that have covered my temples or the holiday cards that we decided to abandon because our standards were just too high. I didn’t care that my cell phone bill was late again or that I still didn’t file my taxes. I didn’t care about petty fights with the family and I certainly didn’t care about what anyone else ever thought about my choices again. That was all just distraction from the real stuff.
I only cared about holding my children. I cared about kissing them and kissing them some more until they were pushing me away and wiping their faces off. I cared about hugging them so tight like I could wrap my arms around them twice and if I squeezed any harder, I’d pop their ribs. I cared about tucking them in at night so cozy that I could climb right in bed with both of them and never leave. I cared about touching every little part of their bodies, savoring every delicious morsel of their silky skin. I cared about breathing in their delicious smells, filling up my lungs for all eternity so I would never forget their perfume of pure love.
I only cared about holding them and protecting them the way I had in the first nine months of their lives. Because once they’re born, they’re so much harder to protect.
When my son was born, it was like the mysterious question mark of WHY on this earth became clear. Our children are the answer to the why and the because. When their hearts start beating outside your body, your own heart will beat to an entirely new rhythm; a rhythm with purpose.
I don’t want to win the lottery; I don’t want that million-dollar apartment; I don’t even want that dream job that only exists in a hypothetical world. I only want the dream life I have right now. The one where my children are healthy and safe and comforted by the grasp of my arms around them. The one where I can dance around the living room in pajamas, holding their little palms in mine and then tuck them in at night. I want the life where I can watch my children open their holiday presents and I can hear them tell me I love you, sounding no less sweet the hundredth time that it did the first.
I want to hit pause on my life RIGHT NOW. Because today I am one of the very lucky ones and I don’t want to take one second for granted.
This tragedy will forever remind me that as long as I can tuck my children in at night, all is good. The rest is just background noise.