A mother's shield

August 11, 1999|By Heather Donovan

LATE ONE night two months ago, while my daughter was waiting for the brush of the tooth fairy's wings, two young men, Shayne Worcester of Maine and his friend, a neighbor of mine here in San Francisco, were ambling uphill across our street.

They were walking home from dinner through a neighborhood so popular and lively and friendly that all of us who live here walk. All the time.

We go on errands to Walgreens or to the movie store at midnight, to the family-owned cafes and restaurants and bars any evening. Russian Hill is close to downtown and North Beach; it is dense with Victorian flats and apartments.

On that night two months ago, at the corner just outside our window beneath bright streetlights but partially in tree shadow, two other young men, who had been leaning against the brick wall of the apartment building there at the cable car stop, said something. Worcester and my neighbor realized they were in danger, and ran.

In a short breath of time, the two men had Shayne Worcester flat on the sidewalk. They took his wallet when he told them where it was. And then, in an act beyond understanding, they shot him, twice. A third man in an idling car sped the three of them off. Worcester died before his family from Maine could get to San Francisco.

I still can't tell my girls, age 7 and 10, what happened on our street. My fear is that someone will. Someone who was looking over their parents' shoulder at the TV, who heard their parents say, "Isn't that where your friend lives?" Or an adult who asks me, whispering, but in my children's presence, "Didn't I see your house on TV? Was that you and your dog walking by?"

And then I will start lying.

I have been lying to my kids for a long time now. When the morning newspaper headlines are unbearable, we keep that section in the recycling, and the kids, whose morning worries are whether they're going to get in trouble for forgetting to pick up after the dog, never know what they're missing. We are not a family who watches TV news.

Some traumatized kid at school usually lets the cat out of the bag. "We aren't going camping anymore because bad men do bad things to people in Yosemite." "Those guys in high school? They shot like the whole school? Like everybody?"

My 7-year-old still gets Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, rabbits who live under manhole covers, an old woman named Lulubelle who rides in a limo driven by a white chicken. The 10-year-old gets, well, "Kosovo is on the other side of the planet. Littleton was these really sad boys with guns. Yosemite -- you and I would have sensed that man was up to no good."

"Good dreams come true. Nightmares don't." This is what I tell both of them.

Surely, I maintain, we do more damage to our children by wrapping them in cloaks daggered with fear than by letting them believe the world is a lovely and generous place -- as it often is. How much confidence can a child raised in horror grow up with?

For days after the murder, TV vans crowded our corner every hour, shooting the same photos of the cable cars and our building, reporters adjusting their ties for the cameras on the same corner where my kids sold chocolate-chip cookies and lemonade the Saturday before.

I'd taken photos of my kids 50 feet away from me, by the fire hydrant, refilling lemonade glasses, handing over chocolate-chip cookies smushed in plastic wrap.

My kids were on their own a little bit in the world, living out an idea one of them had had, and taking in the kindnesses and generosity and friendliness of strangers. It was a piece -- picture perfect -- of what we hope a kid's life can be.

On the night of Shayne Worcester's murder, we had opened the window for the tooth fairy for my 7-year-old. She'd tucked her tooth under her pillow with a note wondering if the tooth fairy happened to have a silver dollar on her, could she maybe, please please please maybe, leave it.

Since that night, I've watched the tricks my mind tries to perform to distance myself from what just happened. These are the same tricks I use while reading the newspaper every day, but their ludicrousness is now inescapable.

"OK," I told myself. "Well, it happened across the street. Our side is still safe." ("Littleton's sort of atrocity won't happen here; San Francisco is just so much more tolerant.") "Oh," I told myself, "I'll just sit in the back of my flat, where I can't see all the TV trucks. That will make it more bearable." ("The Sund women in Yosemite didn't know how to suss out sordid people, whereas I certainly have hunches.")

My mind wants to do anything to say, "That was there, then. That was not here, now."

But to say that makes Shayne Worcester disappear. It takes him out of my heart and thoughts, as do my rationalizations of horror everywhere. And Shayne Worcester is the news that happened to my tribe, today, yesterday and the day before.

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