The following blog post was written by one of our longtime writers Dede Fitch as an essay in The Examined Life. We’re reposting it here in full.
I was sitting in St. Timothy’s on a weekday morning late in May, trying to remember a name that started with P. I had memorized 20 names—the names of the Sandy Hook Elementary School children who had died in December—but that morning I could only think of 19. I knew this name started with P, because I knew there were four P’s, and I’d thought of three of them. I’d remembered the two B’s—Charlotte Bacon and Daniel Barden; the three H’s—Dylan Hockley, Catherine Hubbard, and Madeline Hsu; and the two M’s—James Mattioli and Grace McDonnell. I’d thought of the two R’s—Rekos and Richman, and the two W’s—Wheeler and Wyatt. I had remembered all the singletons as well—the E for Engel, G for Gay, K for Kowalski, L for Lewis, and the hyphenated one—Marquez-Green. But I only had three of the P’s: Pinto, Pozner, and Previdi. I’d forgotten one.
No one told me I had to memorize the names. I just wanted to. After the shootings, the words “Remember the children” were everywhere, and during that first week we did remember them. We held prayer vigils, we lit candles, we rang church bells.
But when the week was over, I didn’t feel that we’d done enough. I was angry, and our expressions of sorrow did nothing to diminish the anger I felt at yet another senseless act of carnage. Had we learned nothing from Columbine, from Virginia Tech, from Tucson, and Aurora? After each mass shooting, we staggered through shock and sorrow for a week or two—and then we went on with our lives, until it happened again.
Something had to be different this time. I had to do something different this time. And during the sad days that followed the shootings, I gradually realized what it was. The idea percolated up closer to the surface each time I saw a list of the children’s names or a montage of their faces on TV, until I realized that my mission was in that simple command: Remember the children.
That’s what would be different this time; this time I would remember. I would remember the children—every one of them. I would learn their names and their faces, along with the names of their brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers. I would look squarely at this tragedy and learn all there was to know of its human cost.
My friends with children couldn’t bear to look this closely. It took them too close to their own worst nightmares. But I could do this. With no children of my own to protect and reassure, I could make these 20 children my children. I could get to know them, and then after the news cycle moved on and the sorrowful chatter on Facebook subsided, I would remember.
I chose an evening late in December, after the funerals were over, to review all the pictures and obituaries and news stories, and then commit the facts to memory. Dylan Hockley was autistic. Jessica Rekos loved horses. Caroline Previdi took ballet and danced everywhere. Chase Kowalski was missing his two front teeth.
Memorizing is easy for me, so it didn’t take long, and as I studied the stories, I recognized the children I would have wanted as my friends when I was in first grade. Catherine Hubbard shared my love of animals—and I would have idolized her for her red hair and freckles. Ana Marquez-Greene had a parent who was a musician, as I did, and she loved to sing. Allison Wyatt liked math.
I noticed others I had less in common with. Grace McDonnell would probably have invited me to her birthday party (because she probably would have invited everyone), but I doubt we would have been friends. We had different priorities. I was a tomboy, and Grace was all girl, through and through. Jack Pinto, the talented young athlete, already had plenty of admirers. I would have been among them for a while, but before long our paths would have diverged. He was headed toward varsity stardom; I could distinguish myself only in the classroom.
And then there were the others, whom I might have gotten to know, had I been assigned to sit next to them or pair up with them in gym class. Or they might have remained outside of my orbit, their names and faces familiar but their lives unknown. My six-year-old self wouldn’t have known what to make of Olivia Engel, who was learning her rosary, led grace at her family’s dinner table every night, and never failed to produce a thank-you note when she received a gift. I doubt that as a first-grader I would have appreciated, much less coveted, her gifts of spirituality and thankfulness. But now I wonder what, given the chance, she might have taught me.
In first grade, I wouldn’t have recognized Daniel Barden’s precocious level of empathy for what it was; I might even have been a little suspicious of how good he was, how nice he was. He sought out and befriended people who were alone. He held doors open for others almost compulsively, requiring his parents to retrace their steps to find him after they’d left a store. When I was seven, I was accustomed to receiving care and attention, not giving it. But deference and random acts of kindness seemed to come naturally to Daniel, who, on that last day of life, had gotten up early and run down the driveway in his slippers to kiss his big brother good-bye.
As I studied the details of each young life, I prayed for the family that was left behind to grieve. I prayed for Catherine’s brother, Frederick, who wondered who was going to help him get on the right school bus. I prayed for Noah Pozner’s twin sister, Ariel; for Jesse Lewis’s big brother, JT; and for Shane and Travis Rekos, who had been adored by their older sister Jessica. I wearied halfway through, but I persevered. Memorizing the names was the necessary first step, but the important work, the work of remembering, lay ahead.
I reviewed those names every day until they all came readily to mind. Then praying for the children became part of my routine. Some days I’d pray for all of them. Other days I’d focus on a few. And then one day last month I realized I’d forgotten one. Who was it? Who was that fourth P? I checked the list by the door as I left church that morning, and there it was—Parker. Emilie Parker.
Emilie. How could I have forgotten her? Her face was one of the first beamed out to us by the media; her father Robbie spoke eloquently just one day after the shooting. Describing his oldest daughter as an “exceptional” artist, he noted that Emilie carried markers and pencils with her everywhere, so that when she encountered someone who was sad or upset, she could comfort them with a picture or card. Emilie was loving and caring, he said, not because of anything her parents did, but because those were her gifts from God.
Robbie and Alissa Parker will always remember their daughter Emilie, their gift from God. And now, so will I. Emilie and her 19 classmates deserve nothing less. To some people they’re already just statistics, just 20 more children lost to gun violence. But to me, they’re unique and irreplaceable individuals. They are Benjamin and Josephine, James and Avielle, Charlotte and Madeline—my children, all of them, as long as I remember.
Dorothy Fitch, Copyright 2013