I wake to small voices behind a nursery door each morning. Two-year-old Evangeline calls out first, sweeps the long bangs from her face, and pulls her blue and white polka dot blanket over both shoulders, its train following behind her; she is regal. She swoops up an oversized stuffed wolf into one arm, tries to wake a stubborn sleeping brother and begins the knocking as she takes turns trying out all our names.
In San Bernardino this morning at a state facility for the developmentally disabled, a holiday party begins. Armed and armored shooters burst into the room, saying nothing. They fire indiscriminately into the crowd. The news gives numbers like fourteen dead, seventeen wounded, deadliest massacre since Sandy Hook, between one and three responsible. Two suspects dead. One man. One woman.
But I’m seeing children like my children in these photos, their hands held by bigger people. But in these photos the adults themselves have their hands up, too, spoiling the illusion that there’s any safety to be had.
Ten years into being an only child, our oldest walked in on us as we changed the diaper on her new baby brother. Not used to noise in the middle of the night, she entered the nursery fist to her chest, my sharpest paper-cutting scissors pointing out in preparation for self-defense. She’d come to save him, suspecting an intruder had come and the worst was about to happen.
My husband asked her, “What exactly were you going to do with those if it had been an intruder?”
Her answer was “Whatever I needed to.”
Since the birth of our even-newer newest edition, she has since switched to knitting needles as her weapon of choice for imaginary home invasions, but her heart’s still the same: you, then me.
An officer leading survivors out of the Inland Regional Center where the shooting occurred, reassured them, “I’ll take a bullet before you do, that’s for damn sure. Just be cool, OK?”
I thought of my oldest, our family shepherd and resident badass. We’d be safe with her—or at least feel safe, which is sometimes even more important.
San Bernardinos are happening every day now, aren’t they? They’re as scattered as the bullets that fall, but they’re here and here to stay it seems. My students, thinking nothing of opening or closing doors, do not know I stop to look each time, to keep tabs on who’s in and who’s out. I’ve run the scenario too many times, the clamoring and chaotic stampede to the door, the drop to the floor to seek safety in a room that’s made of half windows and filled with rolling chairs no good for a barricade. After every click of the latch and spent breath, I think of my husband’s question, “What exactly were you going to do with those if it had been an intruder?” and hear where my daughter gets it from when I respond, “Whatever I needed to.”
This is what we’re called to: you, then me.
My ordinary, selfish self doesn’t budge too easily, but in those crisis moments when the brake hits the floor, my mothering arm extends, airbag-fast to hold life steady—everyone else’s but my own. This has nothing to do with being brave. And we hear this all the time. Good Samaritans risk themselves to save other people, and journalists call them brave and ask them why they didn’t hesitate to risk their own lives to spare another’s, and the response is nearly universal. I didn’t think; I just did it. I just did whatever I needed to do.
They never accept the word ‘brave’ because it’s not a bravery situation. It’s instinct that’s derived from necessity.
This idea of instinct derived from necessity becomes ever more beautiful and apparent to me during the holiday season when my mind is drawn to Mary and her waiting and Jesus and his coming.
Let me say that neither were ‘brave.’ Brave undermines the profundity of the sacrifice both made—a life devoted to the calling of ‘you, then me.’
At advent our focus tends to be on Mary’s ill-timed pregnancy and barn/cave birth, but as mothers know, those memories are but a flash compared to the life lived. Again, ‘you, then me.’
When I think of Mary, instead, I think of her son’s death she witnessed up close and how helpless she must have felt, surely wanting to hold his hand but being able only to hold her own up to God in the meantime because this is what we do when we do not have the words, this is what we do—to try to be held—when there is nothing left to hold on to.
I pray sometimes with my hands up, shaking them as though, like Evangeline, I’m trying to wake my own stubborn sleeping brother.
I begin the knocking as I take turns trying out all his names.