May 20, 2018
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Images I can’t get out of my mind

Sarah Smiley
By Sarah Smiley

A mother packing lunches, checking school bags and hurriedly kissing the top of her children’s heads before sending them out the door.

Scooby Doo and Mario backpacks hanging on hooks outside a classroom. Stuffed animals tucked inside for nap time. Busy children taking attendance to the office and showing homework folders to teachers.

Elementary school children, just like my youngest, sitting at their desks when a surprise visitor comes to the door. What did they think? “Has he come to read to us?”

Children barricaded in a school bathroom or closet, some of them telling their teacher, “I don’t want to die … I just want to have Christmas.”

Children who haven’t even lost their first tooth yet frozen with fear as the shooter begins his rampage. Children who were probably screaming for their mom or dad. Children who have no frame of reference for what is happening.

First responders walking into a classroom of dead children.

Parents wringing their hands and crying into each other’s shoulders. All they want is to see their child walk through the firehouse door. Then someone comes in to tell them that there will be no more children.

Gifts under a Christmas tree that for days children shook and poked. What could it be? “You have to wait until Christmas. Just another week!”

Laundry baskets filled with sweatshirts that have part of yesterday’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich smeared on the front. Snow boots on the front porch. Last night’s pajamas strewn on an unmade bed.

A library book on the kitchen counter. A basketball uniform hanging in the closet. A favorite stuffed animal — its ears rubbed furless and limp — waiting on a bookshelf.

Stop. I have to stop.

That’s what my husband told me when I was still crying at 3 a.m. Saturday morning.

“You can’t do this,” he said. “Because your own children need you.”

But I can’t stop crying. I can’t erase these images.

At 11 p.m., I asked Dustin to bring Lindell, 5, already fast asleep in his bed, to me. Dustin lay him on my chest, and I took in the sweet smell of his sleepy breath and his dark eyelashes pressed against the tops of his cheeks.

“Let’s put him back in his own bed now,” Dustin said an hour later.

But I can’t let him go.

I can’t stop thinking about how my own kindergartner would have had no idea what was happening. He’s never seen violence. He’s never even seen the scary parts of Harry Potter or Star Wars. He wasn’t born yet on 9/11. He’s still afraid of the dark. He won’t go upstairs unless someone goes with him. His biggest fear is “monsters.”

“They live here on the earth, you know,” he tells me.

He thinks dirty diapers and silly noises are funny. He knows there are other countries and states, but I doubt he fully understands it. “So, do we live in the city of Maine?” he sometimes asks. “Or is Maine our country?”

His world is his our home and his kindergarten class.

His biggest concern is wanting to read like his older brothers.

His greatest annoyance is his dog Sparky stealing food from his plate.

He has no idea what happened in Newtown, Conn., Friday.

How would I even begin to explain?

My older boys had to know. We had to tell them. They would surely find out anyway. They can read, and they have varying, age-appropriate understandings of the larger world around them. But I don’t believe either one of them fully understood (until Friday) that evil truly exists.

When I told Owen, 10, he covered his mouth with his hand and said quietly, “Like Anakin in Episode Three?” Then he started to cry.

At first I was confused. Then I remembered the scene: Anakin walking into the Jedi Temple and killing a classroom of children. I stopped for a moment, stunned. My son has such a limited understanding of evil, the only connection he can find is with fiction. (Or, maybe this is part of our society’s problem?)

In many ways, I was comforted that my son couldn’t say, like so many of us adults have, “No, not another one! This has to stop! What is happening to our world?” Owen has no concept of the horrible things that people do. Even 9/11 is historical for him. He is innocent and childlike, as his Star Wars comment suggests.

Children aren’t supposed to understand these things. Many times, they aren’t even capable of it. And children certainly aren’t supposed to experience them, as the schoolchildren in Newtown did.

Before Owen went to bed Friday night, he knelt beside his sleeping younger brother’s bed. He petted Lindell’s head and smoothed his hair. “I can’t stop thinking about those kids,” he said.

I doubt any of us ever will.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at

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