You grew up eight miles from Highland Park, and although you never wished to be from anywhere other than your town, you always admired it. It’s the fancy neighborhood with luxurious strip malls. You attend concerts on the lawn, feeling privileged when borrowing the family friend’s parking pass to munch on pita chips and hummus amongst the regulars. Several months ago, you were at a backyard birthday party there where your daughter danced with Big Bird and high-fived Elmo. And just last weekend, you and your extended family completed a charity walk downtown in honor of your beloved aunt.
This morning, you debated whether to attend 4th of July events. You wondered whose independence should be celebrated, still reeling over the recent Supreme Court ruling. The Amazon flag dress you purchased for your toddler last week would look so cute, but also, the Stars and Stripes really have made you cringe the last couple years. And so you feel half angry feminist and half nostalgic mom, and decide that attending a parade is not synonymous with casting a vote and go. Perhaps just once more because it’s more fun to make-believe everything is still okay. Besides, your toddler is two, and you want her to have the same memories you do — of the neighborhood picnic, the melting bomb pops, and the cool parade.
Nana and Papa come over for red, white and blue bagels, and you capture lots of special moments, including one from behind when your daughter wrapped her arms around their legs. Then you go in one car to the festivities. You’re in line for the mini-train when you get the text from your friend in Highland Park.
“Shooting at the parade.” You stay calm. You’re close by, but not there. You spell it out to your parents because your daughter is precocious, and continue waiting patiently for your ride. The people in front of you are discussing it — news travels fast — but still, you’re safe. There’s live music, face-painting, and that potato sack slide. And then it happens when you’re on the train – you notice energy shifting.
People around you are grabbing their kids and leaving. Maybe they have somewhere to go? Perhaps a storm is coming? You must be imagining this, the scene you’ve seen often on television, but never real life. And then a woman approaches ordering the driver to stop. She wants her husband and son off. The band silences, the head singer frantically paging his wife. A guy in a fluorescent vest gets a message. You watch it register, hear him relay:
“There’s an emergency. We’re evacuating.”
The image of your parents, in their 70s, holding hands and hurrying behind you will forever be etched in your memory. Your mom won’t get in the car until you do, and you’re rushing, but also nonchalant, as you secure your toddler. You always hated these straps, but never more than now.
At home you pivot, because you’re a teacher by trade and trained to be flexible. You pull out the pool — what fun! — and popsicles for all. Then you offer a screen — yes, we can watch! — before your parents leave and your toddler naps.
And then you get in the shower and cry, because the beating water washes away tears, and because you don’t know what else to do. You thought your anxiety would ease when she got her first dose of Moderna, but there is no vaccine for mass shootings. You think the same two-word phrase over and over.
And you realize — without a doubt — there will be more shootings. You can avoid parades, but what about school? How can you ever send your daughter knowing the risk? And also, as a single mom, how can you not? You ponder moving out of the country, wondering whether it’s better to live safely away from family, or be at risk but near loved ones. And now you’re physically clean, but mentally a mess, nauseous from your thoughts, and grateful your daughter is napping, but also grateful when she wakes because you can’t listen to another first-hand account on the news.
And when she goes to sleep for the night, you stay up, worrying. What can you do to ensure she’s not another fatality? She loves staying home. Can I keep her inside forever, baking and playing? Would that be weird or smart — or perhaps both?
And then you realize she’ll be up in less than four hours, and you’ve got to hold it together. Because she doesn’t know what was supposed to be and what was. And she needs you, body and mind. And so you take a deep breath, and a nap, before facing another day.