Photo Credit: Win McNamee/Staff/Getty Images
On a cold November evening, my daughter and son sat on our living room floor making Rainbow Loom creations, talking about funny things they can do. Will, 8, wore an oversized Eagles Soar t-shirt with a Nike swish, a gift from the company to survivors of December 14, 2012.
It’s hard to believe that nearly one year ago, Will survived one of the most horrific school tragedies ever. His classroom was located directly across the hall from Victoria Soto’s classroom. The simplest choice of left versus right saved the lives of the children in his class. I often refer to it as being by the grace of God, which I truly believe -- but it has taken great effort to stop the self-chastising that came with that sentiment time and again.
Over the last year, I have spent a lot of time in this purgatory of gratefulness and beating myself up. It’s my personal yin and yang -- the balancing act that’s played out in my head.
But Will? Will is my inspiration. For someone who came so close to such horrific evil, and who lost so much that day, he’s come through it all with grace, strength and dignity. He openly spoke about the day from the get-go, telling me unimaginable details. And when he was ready, he asked to be allowed to stop talking about it and move ahead. I couldn’t have been prouder of him than I was in that moment.
Still, I watch him like a hawk and have enlisted the help of teachers, friends and family to keep an eye on him -- because as amazing as he’s been through all of this, I have to remain vigilant to ensure that he really is okay.
Over the last year, we’ve experienced so much. Emotionally ransacked, we’ve learned to find a new normal. We’ve come to healing milestones at different paces -- for example, my son was ready to stop talking about what happened long before I was. And we’ve learned that trauma comes differently to different people -- and that it sometimes impacts people we never imagined it would.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was that my daughter Paige, who is now 6, wasn’t immune to the trauma. Though she experienced it in an entirely different way than my son, she struggled with nightmares night after night -- a result of witnessing my sheer panic, horror and fright as I rushed to find Will and we searched for him among the shocked survivors. Over time, it’s subsided for her, but I never thought she would be as impacted as she was.
Alongside the emotions, so much good has come into our lives. As I look back over the last year, I am awestruck by the beautiful acts of kindness, consideration and care shown to our community during our darkest days. Almost immediately, a neighboring town offered up an unused school building to house our elementary school. Donations of toys, coats, backpacks, experiences and time poured in. And on a personal level, friends, colleagues and strangers filled my inbox with so many kind and generous thoughts.
But there is also the gritty underbelly of tragedies like this -- the conspiracy theorists, Westboro Baptist Church and others who come out of the woodwork, spewing hateful things. Bless the hearts of anyone who can truly believe that the whole ordeal was fabricated -- I envy their ignorance. As for those who ask where my God was that day, I know He was there -- and that the deranged individual with a gun was merely exercising free will in the worst possible way.
Nearly one year later, our community is still healing. One of the lessons I’ve learned is that recovery from something as horrific as this is a journey, not a destination. So, every day we move ahead a little, but we never forget how much was stolen from us that day -- the 26 innocent people, the sense of security, the innocence of childhood. I cannot promise my children that a tragedy like this won’t happen again, but I can promise to do my best to always protect them.
On the anniversary of that horrible day, skip the silence and instead act in love. Do an unexpected act of kindness, tell someone how much you love them, plan something fun and out-of-the-ordinary with your kids. Harness the gift of a new day and live your best life. Because in the end, you never know what day will be your last or the last of anyone dear to you.
Sarah W. Caron is a writer and mom of two.