Parents live with the `what ifs'

April 22, 1999|By Susan Reimer

I WATCHED the drama of Columbine High School unfold on live television, and instinctively I felt the waiting, the not-knowing, the unrelieved dread of those parents.

I felt it as if I were inside the skin of those frightened grown-ups. I felt the panic that would shoot out like sparks from a brain that had suddenly stopped working. I felt the stomach-flipping terror that would make my guts feel like they were sugar cubes dissolving in hot water. I felt the apple-sized ache in my throat as I tried to suppress a scream or a sob, I don't know which.

I felt like I was there.

Where is my son? Is my daughter safe? Oh, God. Dead? Are children dead? Do I know them? Are they my children's friends, my other children?

The waiting, the not-knowing, would suck the life out of me, I thought. There is nothing worse.

I slept and woke and resumed the nationally televised vigil, and still the parents were waiting.

The bomb squad and the crime scene people had not finished their work. It was morning and still the parents waited. Parents who now knew that their children were dead inside that cavernous tomb. Parents who were unable to rescue those children, parents who could not comfort those terrified, dying children, parents who cannot caress those dead children and bathe them with their tears. Those parents still waited.

The waiting, I thought, would turn my heart to charcoal.

How can I presume to know these feelings? Because I am a member of a special club -- parents. When I joined, someone flipped a switch inside of me and turned on the terrible "what if" imaginings that play inside the mind of a parent like a loop of video tape.

"What if?" "What if?"

What if their father should die and leave me, half alive, to raise these children? What if I should die, abandoning my children before they have been launched into adulthood?

And the most dreaded "what if" of all. What if my child should die? And then we replay, again, the terrible accidents or diseases or tragedies that could befall them.

"Sometimes I just want to turn the `what iffing' off," a friend said to me. But if you are a parent, you can't. Even on your best days, the "what ifs" play in the back of your head like a droning, mechanical hum.

The "what ifs" serve a purpose, I believe. Only because we have played out these tragedies in our heads can we survive them in real life. Only because we have imagined what would happen if our partner died, if we died, if we lost a child, can we live through it.

Once, when my daughter faced a routine surgery, a friend comforted me by speaking the unspoken. She acknowledged the "what ifs" and said to me, "You know what she will wear when you bury her, don't you?" she asked. And I collapsed in grateful tears.

That's why for millions of parents, the "what if's" exploded into horror Tuesday at Columbine High School. A place we send our children every routine day had become a killing ground. What was the morning like before that day at school? we wonder. Did the parents scold their now-dead children for some minor offense? Was there no chance in the morning rush to say goodbye? Did anyone say, "I love you?"

Each time her children leave the house, my sister calls out to them, "Happy day!" Is that her wish for them? Partly. But those are also the last words she wants her children to hear from her, just in case they are.

This is how parents think. And we know the fine print of the pain those Colorado parents feel because we have allowed ourselves to feel it. It is not because we are morbid. It's because we know we could not live through such a loss without a dress rehearsal. We prepare ourselves to face the unimaginable by imagining it.

In Colorado Tuesday, the unimaginable happened. I watched as parents clutched their rescued children and I felt their sobbing, trembling relief. I read the flat, dead words from the waiting parents and I felt their numbness.

And as I watch them bury their children in the days ahead, I will think of my children, releasing my anguished empathy for those parents like a scream into a pillow.

Pub Date: 4/22/99

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