When I first heard that 20 children were killed in the Newtown, Conn., shootings, I thought about their parents. There is no perspective for this, no discussion of what changes. It's just misery, the worst of the worst. I am devastated for those parents and their surviving children.
Those were my first thoughts, and they are still my most important thoughts. I would be lying if I said they were my only thoughts.
This is a sports website and I am a sportswriter, and the Newtown tragedy is not a sports story. But I hope you don't mind if I share a few of those thoughts here.
In one of John Irving's novels, he writes about parents whose son dies. The writing is so heartbreakingly real that some readers wrote him to say they had lost children, too, just as he had, and they felt a connection to him. This put Irving in a hard place.
"I confessed to them that I hadn't lost any children," Irving wrote. "I'm just a father with a good imagination. In my imagination, I lose my children every day."
As the news reports got worse and worse last Friday, all my wife and I wanted to do was hug our kids. Our three-year-old boy comes home from preschool just after noon. A few hours later, we went to our daughter's elementary school early for pick-up.
Pick-up is one of my favorite moments as a dad. My daughter is young enough that she still jumps in my arms when she sees me. On most afternoons, almost everybody is smiling or laughing. Elementary schools are happy places. I have occasionally seen tears at pick-up. But Friday was the first time I saw tears on the faces of parents.
Earlier this month, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot and killed Kasandra Perkins, his fiance and the mother of his baby girl. He then drove to the Chiefs' practice facility, thanked the team's general manager and head coach for giving him a chance to play in the NFL, then shot himself to death.
The Chiefs were scheduled to play a home game the next day. There was a lot of speculation about whether they should postpone the game. They played it on time, despite some criticism.
Playing the game so soon after the tragedy was, I think, fair territory for a sports columnist to cover, as long as it was done delicately and with respect to Perkins. I'm a sports columnist. But I did not write about it, for a simple reason: I didn't know how I felt about playing the game.
A week later, I understood why. A Dallas Cowboy named Jerry Brown was killed in an early-morning car accident. Brown was a passenger in a car driven by his teammate and close friend, Josh Brent. Brent is facing intoxication manslaughter charges. The Dallas Morning News reported that Brent's blood-alcohol level was 0.18, more than double the legal limit.
Like the Chiefs, the Cowboys were scheduled to play a game the next day. I did not hear many people say that the Cowboys game should be postponed. I am not saying if this was right or wrong -- I still don't know.
But I keep wondering: What was the difference? Was one less of a tragedy because it was an accident? Is it because we understand recklessness but not madness? Is it because Brown got in the car with a drunk driver? What if Jovan Belcher had driven to the police station and turned himself in, instead of to the practice facility to kill himself? Would we have said it was OK to play the game on time, then?
I don't have answers. But how close does a tragedy have to hit, physically and emotionally, to force us to change our plans?
When one of these mass shootings happens, I think about the shooter's family. In this case, Adam Lanza allegedly killed his mother, but his brother and father are still alive. They join the relatives of the Columbine killers, and of the Aurora, Colorado killer, and the Virginia Tech killer. How can they deal with this? How can they live the rest of their lives as uncharged accomplices to mass murder in the public's mind, and perhaps in their own?
A few Saturdays ago, I went to a local coffeehouse to write a magazine feature about a pair of University of Michigan basketball players, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III. Their fathers were NBA stars. The story was about the choices that parents make, about how close we should hold our children and how hard we should push them. Hardaway's father drove him too much, and had to back off; Robinson's dad was always a bit father than the son would have liked, and this motivated him to catch up.
The coffeehouse was busy that day. A man asked if he could sit at my table. I said yes. He put a suitcase and a license plate on the table. Not a briefcase. A suitcase. And a license plate.
He brought a mug to the counter and filled it with water. He sat down, looked around and started talking, and for a few minutes I thought he was talking to everybody, but I realized he was talking to nobody. He said something about his sister and the government and benefits. He opened his suitcase, which was filled with the things you would pack when your suitcase is your home: clothes, granola bars, dishware.
I posted on Facebook:
"Serious question. I'm sharing a table at a coffee shop with a stranger who is very clearly mentally ill. What can I do?"
The responses varied. Some people made jokes. Others asked if I felt threatened. (I did not.) There were a few mentions about mental-health resources and organizations. But nobody really had an answer for what to do when a stranger who needs psychiatric help sits down at your table in a coffeehouse on a Saturday afternoon. After a half hour or so, the man left. I have no idea where he went.
There has been a lot of talk in the last few days about our country's gun laws and our approach to mental illness. It's a complicated discussion -- not just about what is right or Constitutional, but what is possible. President Obama hinted at new weapons legislation Sunday night; other elected officials have indicated they will pursue it as well, and some prominent people sound like they are changing positions. But again, it is complicated. There are already so many guns in this country, and mental illness is a wide and intricate web.
I have strong opinions about a lot of this. I'm not going to share them today; this piece, whatever it is, is not a policy paper. One thing bothers me, though. People who suggest a fundamental change are often accused of "politicizing a tragedy." Wanting a safer nation is not "politicizing a tragedy." It is called caring.
I hope my kids continue to be physically and mentally healthy; I hope they work at fulfilling jobs and take nice vacations; I hope they appreciate life's little joys and go to sleep in warm, safe and loving homes. And I hope they always, always, always care.