Holding the Pain

Amye Archer explores her own relationship with the shooting at Sandy Hook as she works with survivors to tell their stories.

Amye Archer | Longreads | July 2019 | 14 minutes (3,422 words)

On the morning of December 14th, 2012, one of my twin daughters stayed home from school. Warm from fever, Samantha drifted in and out of sleep as I cleaned around her. The house was still out of sorts from the girls’ 6th birthday party only two days prior. Shortly after 10 a.m., I started receiving texts from my more news-conscious friends alerting me to a school shooting unfolding at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Sandy Hook. It would be the first and last time I would ever hear those two words and not feel an ache somewhere inside of me.

I turned on the news and saw dozens of children with terror on their faces, walking in connected ropes, hands on shoulders through the parking lot. As the minutes ticked by, reporters began saying numbers. Two, four, six, twelve. I remember thinking that’s a dozen. A dozen children are dead. I tried hard to busy myself. I washed the same dish three times, dismantled the bathroom faucet and scrubbed every part with an old toothbrush, anything to keep from thinking of that number. Then, a CNN text alert: Dozens dead. They had added an “s.”

I couldn’t hide any longer. I turned the television on low. There it was on the Chiron: 20 children between the ages of 6 and 7 were dead. I struggled to breathe. Twenty. Twenty children the same age as my twin daughters. I pressed my spine against the doorframe of my kitchen and sobbed. I prayed the frame would hold my pain.

I watched the coverage in drips as Samantha was waking up. I remember thinking she should not associate first grade with murder. She will never go back. I came up with explanations I would use if she woke and discovered the news. I came up empty. I worried that I would never be able to adequately explain what happened at Sandy Hook. I also worried about school. I prayed my other daughter, Penelope, who was tucked away in the safety of her Kindergarten classroom, didn’t know. Can I ever assume she is safely tucked away there ever again? I wondered if I should call the principal and ask him not to tell her. Not to tell any of them? I made a promise to myself right then and there that I would be a bucket for my daughters, and that I would carry this for as long as I could so they didn’t have to.

Shortly before 2:30 pm, I dressed a groggy Samantha and took her with me to pick up Penelope. The school was only blocks away, and we rode in silence. As we waited outside the elementary school exit for the students to emerge, I scanned the other parents’ faces for any sign of worry or anguish. They seemed fine, relaxed, smiling. Did they know? Many looked like they came right from work. I envied them in that moment, in that place, the not-knowing. I wished I could warn them. There was a bomb of heartache waiting for them at home. Tick, tick, tick.

By the time we got home, the country knew more. Six educators were also killed. We learned it was a lone gunman. We learned what collective heartbreak felt like. Shortly after 3 p.m., President Obama spoke to a stunned and grieving nation. I set the girls up with some Legos in the other room so I could watch. He fought to hold back tears at first. Then, he let them fall. In that moment, he wasn’t our President, he was also Sasha and Malia’s dad. I ran into the small guest bathroom, locked the door and called my mother. I cried harder than I ever have in my life.

***

The shooting happened on a Friday. That following Monday, the usual skeleton crew of parents in the drop off line had tripled in size. Goodbye hugs lasted longer than usual, and many parents wiped away tears as they reluctantly left their children behind. But, I really recognized the magnitude of what had happened when I saw the teachers. Normally cheery and bright-eyed to greet our children, those same faces were now swollen, sad, and far away. The usual chit chat about which kids were having a hard day or who had forgotten homework seemed insufficient in some way. So, we said nothing. It was as if one spoken word would shatter us all to pieces. I watched Samantha and Penelope’s chestnut hair bounce away from me, through the double glass doors, and disappear into the unknown. This was the hardest part. Glass doors. Anyone can shoot through those. Is the back door locked? Will the office staff take a bullet if they need to? I shook the whole way home.

‘Sandy Hook.’ It would be the first and last time I would ever hear those two words and not feel an ache somewhere inside of me.

As the years ticked by, Sandy Hook never left me. In the weeks that followed the shooting, I joined Moms Demand Action and Everytown, and made ending gun violence a priority in my life. I tried to move forward, painfully aware of the 26 families who didn’t have that option. Still, I couldn’t get past it. I obsessed over the terror those children must have felt. I wrote three-dozen poems if I wrote one, about those classrooms, those teachers, and those poor parents. I became particularly fixated on the moments in the classroom between the knowing and the happening. I dreamed I was there, able to save them all. I dreamed Samantha and Penelope were in those classrooms. I woke up screaming many nights.

The advocacy helped. Through a local Moms Demand Action group, I was able to be useful, making phone calls, sending letters, and calling my representative in congress to demand change. Moms Demand Action felt like a natural fit for me. When my girls were much smaller, I used to tell them that if we were ever separated, or if they were ever lost, to find a Mommy to help them. Mommies help children, I used to say. Still, I knew in the center of me that I had to do more. Samantha and Penelope deserved more. Those twenty children deserved more.

***

In early 2018, shortly after the fifth anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting, I began working with a co-editor on If I Don’t Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings a new book about surviving school shootings, due out September 3rd. The idea came to us through a simple question: What happened to the kids who survived Columbine? I had been in college in April, 1999, when that horrific shooting occurred, and was only a year or two older than some of those killed. I was riding a bus at Penn State when someone told us what was happening. A school shooting? I had never heard of such a thing. It didn’t make sense. We didn’t have smartphones or any other modes of instant connectivity, so we relied on our professors to keep us informed. Many of them didn’t. Why didn’t they?

Like I would think about those 20 kids from Sandy Hook almost two decades later, after Columbine I often thought about those teenagers. I was acutely aware that I was their age, and that our lives were progressing at the same rate. Or were they? I wondered how the survivors recovered and how they grew. How could they possibly move on from Columbine? How did those who’d witness their friends dying recover and go on with their lives? We set out to answer this in our book. We decided to ask those who survived school shootings to write about their experience. A believer in the power of storytelling, I knew that if our politicians could hear those stories and understand the magnitude of that type of trauma and how it lives and breeds in the dark, that they would have to do something. They would have to. So, we started. And, a week later, Parkland happened. Our mission became urgent.

***

My co-editor, Loren Kleinman, and I split up the schools by age. I worked with primary and secondary schools and Loren worked with colleges. This meant I had Sandy Hook. Pretty quickly, I was able to connect with two staff members and one teacher who had been inside the school during the shooting. Inside the school. This means something in the community of Newtown. You were either in the school or you weren’t. You either lost your child or you didn’t, a community member once told me.

Reading the stories I collected was more difficult than I ever imagined. Verbs like shooting, screaming, crying, panicking, and escaping paired with nouns like children, school, and 6-year-olds. It seemed incomprehensible to me. I sought out a therapist and in our first session I sobbed the entire time. In our second session I sobbed the entire time. And in our third. I had an endless supply of pain.


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A staff member, Mary Ann, wrote about working in the library during the shooting and keeping her eighteen students calm while the shooting was occurring just down the hall from them. In my mind, I saw my twins, Samantha and Penelope, in that library, criss-cross applesauce legs, giggling wildly with their friends. I thought about their Kindergarten teacher, a quiet, gentle woman with a young son of her own. Would she have been so calm under those circumstances? Would she stand between a gunman and my daughters? In what world should she have to make that choice?

Abbey, a second-grade teacher, wrote about the journey out, the escape route cleared for her and her 20-some students by the police, a route to safety. I don’t remember the path, she wrote, instead she remembers the act of running with children in her outstretched arms. In that line of text, my daughters lived for about two weeks. I saw them in each word, wrapped tightly in Abbey’s arms as she carried them to safety. Or maybe it was their teacher and their school. Either way, the physical act of carrying terrified children to safety lived in my chest.

Another contributor, Cindy, who was also inside the school, wrote about the number, 26. The physical representation of those killed. She wrote that she counted out 26 of everything anywhere she went, even the funerals. I, too, thought about the funerals, 26 of them. There were days with multiple funerals. Many small caskets.

When the weight of this work felt too heavy to bear, I took breaks. One weekend, we brought my girls out for a hike. We picked mushrooms in the musty, autumn-kissed forest near our home. We gave the girls knives for cutting the thick stems. They felt mature. Trusted. I found myself counting in clusters of 26. Twenty-six trees, 26 mushrooms, 26 steps to the waterfall. At one point I stood back and watched them with my husband — the three of them concentrating on the gathering at hand while the sun streamed through the evergreen ceiling. I closed my eyes, pressed my lids tight, and tried not to imagine their funerals.

Through another survivor, I was able to connect with Alyssa, who suffered the unimaginable loss of her daughter, Emilie, in the shooting. Alyssa had several projects happening, and couldn’t commit to writing an essay for us , but agreed to be interviewed by phone. I worked on questions for a week. I wanted to be so respectful, so delicate in my work with her, that I even practiced with a friend. When the day came, I locked myself in my home office on a Saturday morning and almost didn’t call. What if I said the wrong thing? My worst fear was somehow making her pain worse. As if it could get worse.

When I finally did call and we started talking, there was an explosion of emotion in Alyssa’s voice as she talked about Emilie, but it was not the hurt I had anticipated. It was something else, something lighter. As Alyssa described her daughter, I found points of recognition in my own girls. Yes, Samantha is also wise beyond her years. Yes, Penelope also loves talking with older people. When she talked about Emilie’s love of art, I thought of my own refrigerator covered in stick-figure people with three fingers on each hand and wearing triangle dresses. I imagined Emilie’s pages, different colored construction paper, stacked away in folders never to be replaced by newer, more sophisticated drawings. Then, the guilt. I couldn’t protect her, Alyssa said. I couldn’t keep her safe. I understood this completely. A mother’s guilt is deep and plentiful like a raging river, forever trying to breach her banks. Mommies help children.

***

By late October, it was getting easier. The stories were done, the unknown, known. As I thought more about these stories living and breathing out in the world for everyone to read, a sense of hope started to take shape. Then, an email.

Yes, I’m ready to talk about it, wrote Susie, a mother from Newtown, my daughter was in the room…but she survived. I didn’t question what room. We all knew the room. This had been the sticking point for me, the part I couldn’t let go. I realize now that I was stuck in that room for a long time, as I’m sure many mothers were. When I think about the room, I think about every nightmare Samantha and Penelope have ever had. Every boogeyman. Every night with their warm breath pressed against my tear-soaked neck. I think about every ounce of terror they have ever felt, and triple it. That’s what lives in the room. And Susie’s seven-year-old daughter saw it all.

Susie and I made arrangements for a phone call. I was on a lunch break at work, so I closed my office door, braced myself, and dialed the provided number. She talked about her daughter being alive — lost, but saved again by the love of a good teacher, Abbey. The same second-grade teacher who wrote about the exit path. Susie cried. I cried. I shouldn’t be crying, she said, my daughter lived. I shouldn’t have cried either. I’m two, three times removed. This is something I still wrestle with. Something that has taken up countless billable hours at my therapist’s office. How much pain am I allowed? Who decides? I didn’t know these children, didn’t experience this tragedy, but I ache for them. How sad am I allowed to feel? After some long pauses, Susie agreed to write her story. I hung up and held my sobs in like they were rigged to explode at any moment. I walked into my coworker’s office, shut the door, and lit the fuse.

***

My therapist has a phrase she likes to use: “hold your pain.” When you’re going through something traumatic, you often seek out someone to help you hold your pain even for a few minutes. That’s what she’s doing for me, she says, by hearing my pain, giving me space to cry, she’s holding the burden for a while and giving me a break from its heft. This only made sense to me when I thought back to the day the shooting happened, when I had called my mother from the bathroom while crying hysterically. I wanted her to do something, but I couldn’t find the words to describe what that something was. Now I know: I wanted her to hold my pain for me. I think about those 26 families. I think about Abbey, Mary Ann, Cindy, what they saw, what they faced. I think about the children in that room, those like Emilie who didn’t make it, and those like Susie’s daughter, who did. I would gladly hold the pain for all of them if I could. Then, I imagine the weight of it snapping my bones like matchsticks.

My therapist has a phrase she likes to use: ‘hold your pain.’ When you’re going through something traumatic, you often seek out someone to help you ‘hold your pain’ even for a few minutes.

When we started collecting stories for this book, I knew I had to be the one to work with the Sandy Hook survivors. This was the natural progression of something for me, I just didn’t know what. As the contributors and I worked through the events of that day together, every story became my story, every child became my child. And I didn’t know how to separate it. Maybe I still don’t. For that, I feel guilty. If I’ve learned anything from my work with the Sandy Hook community, it’s that there’s enough guilt to go around.

Holding my own pain has been difficult at times. There were days when I wanted to unload it, throw it at someone, anyone. Here, hold this. It has been particularly difficult keeping this trauma away from my girls who are now 12. That bucket of pain I vowed to carry for them six years ago has grown full and heavy. Over the past year or two, we have talked about school shootings in a general sense, but I’ve always stopped short of talking about Sandy Hook. Their hearts are young and vulnerable, I can’t risk blowing them to smithereens. They’ll never believe in good again. Do I?

***

In December, 2018, my daughters had their last elementary school Christmas concert. The small auditorium which doubles as a lunchroom during the day, was packed with parents, grandparents, teachers, and little brothers and sisters all squirming in their seats with an eye on the refreshments table. Samantha smiled and banged on a large, African drum between her knees. Penelope, always sitting next to her best friend, was thrilled to debut a new percussion instrument. The first-graders sang Silent Night. I looked around and thought about Sandy Hook. The tears came instantly. How many Christmas concerts did those parents sit through? The shooting happened only two weeks before Christmas. How many of those moms and dads had watched their kids on a stage singing carols off-key? How many knew it would be the last time?

On our way home, snow started falling lightly. The roads iced up quickly and I crawled over the winding country roads while the girls repeated all of their Christmas songs in the back seat. When we got home, the girls begged me to watch a movie with them. I had been particularly busy lately, spending many nights locked in my office writing and editing to get the book ready to send to our publisher. But that night, I agreed. The three of us curled up on the couch. Samantha and I shared a blanket, and Penelope pressed against us wrapped in her own. I inhaled them as I pulled them close. Their hair smelled like every good dream I’d ever had. In that moment, I didn’t think about the panic or fear they might feel someday. I didn’t envision their funerals or think about them in a teacher’s trembling arms. I just enjoyed them. They’re alive, I reminded myself, they’re alive. Through this simple act of loving me, they were holding some of my pain.

***

The stories I have collected from Sandy Hook are full of scary verbs and heartbreaking nouns, terror and anguish, trauma and pain. But, they’re also filled with hope, change, advocacy, healing, and forgiveness. The teacher, Abbey, who escaped with those kids in her arms, now uses her voice to advocate for gun violence prevention. The staff members, Mary Ann and Cindy, who protected the children in their care, are also active in the gun violence prevention movement and work daily to make sure my children will never have to hide in a classroom closet fearing for their lives. Alyssa has built a foundation to honor Emilie, and sees Emilie in every smile and giggle of her little sisters. And Susie’s daughter who witnessed it all? She wants to be a teacher when she grows up.

I was looking for something when I started this project. Now, it has never been more clear to me what that something was. I found it in these stories, in these parents, in these children, and in these teachers. I needed to know that they were okay. And they are. They will never forget those 26 and work every day to honor them, but the community of Newtown has come to be defined not by tragedy, but by the strength it took to overcome one. Today, I am grateful that I worked on this project, even though it was one of the hardest things I have ever done. These stories need to be heard, and I hope that by hearing them, we can all help to hold the pain for these families. Even for a little while.

* * *

Amye Archer holds an MFA from Wilkes University and is the author of Fat Girl, Skinny and a co-editor of the forthcoming If I Don’t Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings.

Editor: Sari Botton