She was supposed to be asleep. Instead, she was calling my name.
Of course, this was nothing new.
“Will you lie down with me?” she whispered in the endearingly coy way that made this almost-nightly request hard to refuse.
“Just for a few minutes,” I replied as I curled up shrimp-like beside her in the little toddler bed.
She burrowed into me, radiating warmth. Throwing a lanky arm around my neck, she uttered a single statement – five words – that made my mother heart swell with love.
Mommy, you keep me safe.
I smiled and kissed her forehead. “Of course I do,” I whispered easily, assured as ever in my maternal conviction.
It was December 12, 2012.
Roughly thirty-six hours later, a lone gunman took the lives of 20 first-graders and six staff members at a Connecticut elementary school. And suddenly everything I thought I knew about keeping my child safe ceased to exist.
Only five months earlier, yet another deranged gunman had fatally shot twelve people and injured 58 others at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. And four months later – almost to the day – an act of terrorism was carried out amid the euphoria of the Boston Marathon; a festive occasion that I’d had the privilege of experiencing just five years earlier, as I stood at the top of Heartbreak Hill cheering my husband into the final five miles of the race of his life.
Five years ago, I wouldn’t have considered the acts of either running or watching a marathon to be life-threatening. But then, five years ago I also wouldn’t have thought twice about my own safety upon entering a movie theater, or that of my child (had I had one at the time) in dropping her off at school.
There was a time, even in this post-9/11 world, when public celebrations were still only associated with joy, not fear; when leisure activities were still only a source of fun, not anxiety; and when our schools were still only thought of as places of safety, not tragedy. As recently as five years ago, in fact, we were able to go about our everyday lives without a proverbial glance backward and the fleeting, nagging, frightening thought of What if…
Now Jim and I sat in silence watching the third national tragedy in nine months play out on the nightly news. And not even a stunned silence, at that; the shock value of such incidents had finally waned. They were now merely a reality of the world in which we live. And in lieu of shock, or even outrage, there was only a mutual sense of profound sadness.
We grieved for the loss of life and limb, of course; for those killed and maimed at an event that had come to represent the epitome of human triumph and perseverance. And for thousands more who had trained and dedicated themselves to this day, only to have their hard work invalidated by an act of hate and cowardice.
But we were also grieving on a broader scale: For the lives lost – so many children among them – in these senseless acts of violence in general. For the notion that such violence now defines our society, even as we as a nation squabble over policy and partisanship. And for the certainty that our daughter and her entire generation will never know the world in which we, ourselves, were raised.
In that world, violence was the exception, not the rule. As a child, I could wander beyond my own backyard and the watchful eyes of my parents to spend my days biking our neighborhood or jumping the creek or splashing at the pool until the late afternoon sun told me it was time to head home for dinner, secure as I was in my belief that the world as I knew it was safe and would not – could not – crumble around me in a matter of hours.
My daughter’s childhood will be different.
In her world, there will be no such sense of false security, nor the luxury of complacency. In her world, the thrill of flying on an airplane will be forever tempered by the specter of terrorism. Movie theaters, political rallies, public gatherings, and even picturesque college campuses will be inextricably linked with madmen. And alongside school fire drills, she will learn how to protect herself in an active shooter situation.
In her world, bombings and shootings will likely be a matter of when, not if. And she will learn of them almost instantaneously through the use of devices and social media – resources that are as responsible for the spread of bullying and denigration as they are relevant current events. And thus she must learn to respect their power, even as she comes to depend on it.
In her world, my daughter will ultimately know different versions of freedom and independence and fear than I did growing up.
Every generation clings to the nostalgia of its collective youth, bemoaning the subtle erosion of innocence and idealism over the years. But this feels different.
Perhaps Victor Fleming said it best at the beginning of his classic adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind:
“There was a land of cavaliers and cotton fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of knights and their ladies fair, of master and of slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered… a civilization gone with the wind.”
Granted, the context has changed (and let’s face it – some eras were meant to die). And yet there are parallels to be drawn between the Old South and the late 20th century, both idealistic civilizations reduced to little more than a memory.
“Mommy, you keep me safe,” she whispers, her breath on my neck as she snuggles against me in the darkness.
But now my response does not come so easily.
“I do my very best,” I murmur, hugging her to me. I feel the words catch in my throat and hope she can’t sense the fear and doubt behind them, for I no longer know how to make sense of this world in which I am raising her.
This is not the world as I knew it.
A world no less gone with the wind.