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Amye Archer
Amye Archer is the author of Fat Girl, Skinny: A Memoir. Her forthcoming anthology is If I Don't Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings (Skyhorse Sept 2019). Follow her at @amyearcher

Holding the Pain

Illustration by Lily Padula

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.
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