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Laura Kessel is managing editor of The News-Herald in Willoughby. She writes a weekly column and shares her thoughts here.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

My thoughts are firmly on the family in Sandy Hook

I was a half-day kid during kindergarten.

I’d go to Mrs. Holtcamp’s class in the morning, then head home for lunch, playtime and probably a nap in the afternoon.

It was quite a life back then. My brother was a grade ahead of me, so he had to stay all day in Mrs. Saver’s first-grade class.

Of course, I held it over his head when he’d come home, but he didn’t really seem to care that I got to play with ALL the toys while he was gone. Too much learning going on, I suppose.

There were a few days, though, when the routine changed, and I found myself heading home for lunch with one of my buddies, Mark.

His mom, Margaret, was one of my mom’s best friends from the time when they were little kids in the Collinwood area of Cleveland. There were plenty of stories of how the girls would walk to school, cause trouble in class and generally just enjoy life before the big, new freeway stole my mother’s home and forced her family to move.

As I look back now, I’d show up at Margaret’s house when something really bad happened.

The three times I went there during kindergarten were when my grandparents died.

Yes, three died in one year. When I was 6 years old.

They say that kids notice everything and remember everything. It’s a warning many don’t often heed.

The sadness I saw from my parents and extended family rubbed off on me. The empty houses and missing cuddles were noticed, too.

Then, one Sunday night at my remaining grandmother’s house, I walked in the living room, sat down and started to watch TV. It was tuned to the nightly news, because my family always caught the headlines at night, no matter where we were.

On this particular night, the news included a funeral, and a massive crowd in the streets. For reasons I never knew, the crowd was moving the coffin above their heads. Today, you might say it was like crowd-surfing.

That funeral and the deaths of my grandparents apparently became too much for my young brain to handle, and I couldn’t sleep when I went home that night.

I lay in my bed, staring at the ceiling. After what seemed like hours, I got up and walked into the living room. When my mother asked me why I was out of bed, the words flew out of my mouth as fast as the tears left my eyes:

“Are you and dad going to die?”

Oddly, I don’t remember the answer to the question. I’m sure it had something to do with “no.”

I do recall the type of crying that involved gasping for breath and then hiccups. I got to drink some soda, too, before I was hustled back to bed.

That memory came rushing back last week after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

The event hit close to home, because that’s my niece’s school.

My brother and his family have lived in Sandy Hook, which neighbors Newtown, Conn., for 11 years.

Emily was in the library when the shooting occurred, and safely left the school with a police officer after he showed his badge under the storage closet door.

My sister-in-law picked her up at the fire station and they returned home.

The true horror of the event became known about an hour later, when officials confirmed 20 children had been gunned down in their classrooms, along with six of their teachers.

The killer’s mom was found dead around the corner from my brother’s home. Every time they leave the house to go anywhere, they’ll pass that house of horrors.

My youngest two nieces know the families of many of the children who died. In fact, my sister-in-law said, on the about five mile route to the highway, they pass three homes where someone died in the shootings.

In the days before the shooting, I spent some time laughing at the items on the girls’ wish lists for Christmas.

The 13-year-old, who goes to the middle school, suggested Nordstrom gift cards.

The same items I found silly seem pretty special now when I realize I still get to buy them. I still get to wrap them. I still get to hand them to them. I still get to watch them open them.

That’s a blessing that goes beyond the much-talked-about “Christmas miracle.”

Too much death. Too much loss. Too much tragedy. Too much fear.

When you’re that young, the words “you’re lucky to be alive” don’t mean much. Neither does “it’ll be OK.”

Because, when you’re little, your friends are everything, school is the social gathering place and teachers are your heroes.

If only I could promise the loss is over for these youngsters.

Sadly, we all know I can’t.

There’ll be new pain down the line, and it, too, will remind them of this tragedy.

The night after the killings, during an interview with a couple on CNN, the wife put it very simply.

“We love Sandy Hook. It’s a great place to live.”

She’s right. We visit about once a year, and I take some time to walk around my brother’s housing development with its million-dollar houses on huge lots. They’re all different, with unique window patterns and landscaping that seem perfect for an edition of House Beautiful magazine.

As I walk through, virtually a stranger to the residents, I study each home for what makes it unique.

The ones with big porches are my favorites. It’s unusual to cross paths with a resident as I make my way around, but on those rare occasions, there’s always a wave, or a greeting of "Good morning."

When you venture into town, it’s exactly as it appears on television — quaint, with old storefronts and homes housing businesses and, for no reason at all, a giant flagpole in the center of a busy intersection.

It’s heartbreaking to see Monsignor Robert Weiss, pastor of St. Rose of Lima in Newtown, struggling to lead these families through this horror. Weiss celebrated all three of my nieces’ First Communion masses, apologizing to the families gathered because his focus was on the children. They hang on every word, and it’s a comfort to know he’s there for them now. It’s easy to see his heart is breaking, too, as he greets endless caskets at the church door, too soon after welcoming them to the church in baptism.

No answers on motive or opportunity will be enough to wipe away such pain.

Let us hope we never forget the shock we’re feeling. It will be a reminder that we must make the world a safer place and remember to love our neighbors, even when they don’t show us they’re in need of support.
Twitter: @Lauranh


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