It was a glorious April day. The sun was shining. The trees were budding. It was a day full of possibilities, as the sign on the marquee said.
I was walking along the busy sidewalk with my daughter, Shannon, when a man yelling across the street caught our attention. He was standing in front of a mural-sized sign. It was a photograph of someone in an army helmet. And the words said ‘Send your children to war.’ When I realized that the person wearing the helmet was a small child, tears began to well up in my eyes.
I thought it was a very powerful sign, so I asked my daughter to walk to the corner with me, so we could safely cross the busy street, get closer to the scene, and take a photo. As we walked, we talked about the most recent school shooting in Tennessee.
We talked about how something must be done to stop these shootings. ‘No one is doing anything,’ she said. ‘It just keeps happening. No one does anything. All my life, no one has done anything.’
We talked about how it seems that the only people who are really doing anything are people who have actually been involved in a shooting. People who have lost children or friends or students.
As we got closer I could hear the man more clearly ‘If you sent your children to war, they would be safer!’
When we arrived, I looked into the young soldier’s giant sad eyes, and my tears began flowing. As I raised my phone up to take a picture, the man came over and stood right in front of me. We looked at each other. He saw that I was crying. He began speaking. He talked about our children. He said that something must be done. He told us that he is trying to raise awareness. To get people involved. Trying to make things better so that no one will have to go through what he has gone through.
‘My name is Manuel Oliver,’ he said ‘and I lost my son, Joaquin, at Parkland’.
Parkland, Parkland. I scanned my brain. Which one was that? We’ve had so many. I located Parkland in the ‘US School Shooting File’ in my brain… Florida. High schoolers.
‘That’s my son.’ he said, as he pointed to a cardboard cut out. His son, Joaquin, who was 17 years old, with his whole life ahead of him. His son, Joaquin, who was standing in the hallway outside of his creative writing class, when he was shot four times with an AR-15. His son, Joaquin.
He was 17. And he died. In his school. Standing in a hallway. I was standing there with my daughter, who is still a student. Listening to this man talking about his son. His son who was murdered. In school.
All of this man’s pain was moving in the space between us. I could feel it coming off of him. I could feel it traveling through me, and releasing out of my eyes. I was so so sad for him.
I am so sad for him. I am so sad for our children who have to go to school every day, knowing that this happens. Knowing that this could happen any time. A whole generation of children who are living in a constant state of readiness. Preparedness. Fight or flight. Knowing that at any moment the orders might be given to secure in place. Hide in the closet. Run for their lives.
That may sound extreme- but talk to the young people in your lives. Ask them how they feel when they go to school every day. Ask them how they feel to know that at any moment, someone could walk into their building with a weapon of war and shoot them. Ask them how often it is on their minds.
I was crying. And he said ‘I’m sorry you’re feeling this way.’ I said ‘Please, don’t be sorry. How else should I feel?’ And he said ‘You’re right. Then I’m not sorry.’ And I said ‘I am so sorry for your loss and what you’ve gone through.’
And I wanted the hug this man. And offer him some sort of hope. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t offer him any hope. I asked him if I could take a photo of him and his son. I asked him if could share his story. He said ‘Yes. Of course. Share my story.’
As Shannon and I walked to our car we talked about how we all choose to live our lives. How people were just walking past those signs as if they were any other advertisements. Not even noticing them. Or noticing them but moving quickly on to get their lunch, or go shopping. Because this is just the way it is. This is our life. These things keep happening. And we are numb to it all. And we have to be numb because, the alternative to numbness would be to feel the feelings.
And if we really allowed ourselves to feel all of the feelings, we would be so full of sadness, frustration, confusion, hopelessness, and rage. How could we even go on?
On this April day, full of possibilities, I crossed the street, and met a man, who told me his story. A story that made me feel all of the possible feelings. A story I am sharing with you.
It’s the very least I can do.