When The Tragedy Isn’t Yours

Jane’s Carousel, beacon of light in the storm. Harper has vowed to try a horse that goes up and down next summer and by gum those horses better be ready.

A little ago Harper asked me “Are there mean people in real life?” I debated for an instant before admitting, “Yes. Yes there are.” There was a long pause and then she said, “But not in New York.” “That’s right,” I told her.

When you think about having kids you say things like “Oh, how can people bring an innocent little baby into this world,” but it’s usually just something you’re saying because you think you should at least entertain the thought, when really your mind is whirring with tiny chub-thighs and screen-printed onesies and that intoxicating baby smell. Then you have the kids and then you know what that statement means, you know your crazy love for them, you know the chilling dread of something bad ever happening to them. Because it probably will.

In the past two weeks, the world, the news, and my brain have been churning with terribleness. First there was the horrifying, haunting Krim family tragedy, which was none of my business, none of anyone’s business but that poor broken family, that mother who lived through every mother’s nightmare – the very story seemed custom-made to torture every parent who has ever had to leave their child with someone and felt uneasy — the senselessness, the horrible imagery.

Then a few days later came Hurricane Sandy (excuse me, Super-Storm Sandy), which hit the city worse than I think any of us really believed possible. Yes, we heard on the news about the evacuation zones and the potential for floods and all that, but we also heard a lot of that last year circa Irene and nothing much happened, and besides, hurricane damage just isn’t the kind of story we’re used to around here. And even here in good old KWT it feels abstract. It was windy and ominous feeling the days before the storm, but in our big tank of an apartment building we scarcely heard a thing. I slept soundly the night of the storm (I always do, the benefit of exhaustion). The kids hardly noticed anything. On Halloween, playschool had a party, we trick-or-treated. I worried that Ollie had too much sugar. And yet here, just miles away, in our own city, in our own borough, people are suffering. People have suffered unimaginable losses. Their homes, everything. A friend’s friend was killed by a falling tree. In another specially-designed-mother-torture story, a woman in Staten Island saw her two young sons swept out of her arms by flood waters. It’s a cliche to say you don’t have words but…I don’t have words.

So, probably because stories are too much for me to really comprehend, I find myself fixating on the aquarium, Coney Island, ruined books, the trees in the park – these losses are significant, but on a scale I understand. These things make me really, really sad – but not despairing.

Then today I found out a dear friend’s brother was murdered – senselessly, narrativelessly. She is drowning in sorrow and shock. I just never thought murder had anything to do with my family, she said, and I knew exactly what she meant. That’s why all three of these horror stories (one encompassing so many others, an anthology of destruction and mess and sorrow) have me feeling adrift – none of them makes any sense. This one aches particularly, because one of my best friends in the world — a bright, creative, compassionate, completely unique and hilarious and kind person — has had her life blown apart.

But I also feel like I don’t actually have any right to be shaken up, to feel sorrow. None of these stories is actually mine. In each instant I think, selfishly, awfully, I’m so glad that wasn’t my family, my kid, and then I feel disgusting, like that’s exactly what I would think people were thinking and hate them for if it really were happening to me. In each case, there is an initial thought to be fought, that urge to prove to yourself that it couldn’t actually happen to you, because of… because of nothing, there is no protecting your own family by somehow finding a way to blame others for the blameless act of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

How do you deal with tragedies that aren’t really yours? It’s a privileged question to ask, and possibly a silly one. But I still feel so sad. I guess I should just feel lucky that I have the luxury of a dull, thick-headed sympathy pain. I’m going to go help make food for an evacuation shelter tomorrow morning. I feel like this is a lame effort, a bandaid flung into a river of blood. And I know it’s mostly for me to feel a little better, but okay, I’ll take it. I want to be around New Yorkers who are trying to help, to feel like I’m a part of something, I guess, or trying to be anyway. That’s probably not the right reason, I realize this.I want to live in Harper’s world, where mean people seem imaginary. Where nothing bad B-A-D bad happens to us, or people we know, because it’s just not part of the story we know, so how could it?

Sorry to be such a bummer. Everything else seems lame to write about right now. And it’s daylight savings time, FML, which means the kids will be up at 4 am, and they are my cherished loves-of-my-lives but fuck if I love anything at 4 am. File under non-problem problems, I know.

PS: The week before the storm, Adam happened to take the kids to the Aquarium:

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7 responses to “When The Tragedy Isn’t Yours

  1. Thinking of you, Amy. x

  2. Candid and eloquently said…I don’t have kids, but I can only imagine…….
    p.s. Alyson introduced me to your blog- love it!

  3. I think that you should consider removing the links to the tragedies of the people that you know. The sensationalistic aspect of adding those links doesn’t sit right with your attempt at meditating on other people’s horror.

    • It took me a while to figure out how to respond to this — I guess I just want to say I’m so sorry if this seems sensationalistic. That was obviously not my intent, just the opposite. I think I’m just trained by my day-job-blog to link to stories I mention, in case people want to read more. If you’re referring to my friend Lauren’s brother, this is nothing she hasn’t shared herself on Facebook, and I don’t think she’d be offended — she’s been very open to sharing her story with people and wanting to talk about it and work through it with as much support as possible. Your comment kind of gets to the heart of the matter, though — aren’t outsiders allowed to talk about something awful and be sad about it, even if it’s not really their sadness? Even if other people are closer to it and much, much sadder? I don’t want to be insensitive at all, though, of course. Thanks for your input.

  4. I certainly figured that you weren’t trying to be sensationalistic. I have much the same day-job kind of work and I guess that’s why it really rubbed me the wrong way. “Which was none of my business, none of anyone’s business [but here’s a link]”: We do that at work because our work thinks its readers are idiots. I didn’t like getting that sentiment from you. We householdworders know how to Google. Again, I’m sure that you didn’t mean it that way, but that is how it came across to me.

    And of course “outsiders [are] allowed to talk about something awful and be sad about it.” And I think that is very important to explore how to do it. And of course everyone has “the right” to feel sorrow. But, I guess the tone of this, or maybe the way it was structured, undercut the premise.

    I am one of those people who are going through a very tough time right now, so, grain of salt to everything I’ve said.

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