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How to survive in a country full of guns
Living in fear isn’t a way to live.
Not long after Jamie ran his first half marathon, he told me he wanted to run another. He wasn’t happy with his performance—the run took a lot out of him and his time was slower than he hoped. He had wanted to hit a two-hour finishing time and was eager to try again soon.
“Hmm, I’m not sure,” I said. I wanted to be supportive, but didn’t know enough about running to determine whether or not it was a good idea. I encouraged him to ask our friend who was a personal trainer.
That friend gave Jamie the green light, along with instructions to keep up his training and eat lots of bananas. I followed suit, supporting him in his endeavors. For the next couple of weeks, Jamie prepped for his upcoming run, while eating an absurd amount of potassium.
The night before the race, Jamie shot a video after finishing his last banana of the day. I’m standing at our trash can, foot on the pedal. Off camera, Jamie tosses the peel in my direction while I step down and open the lid. The peel doesn’t even get close to landing in the trash can. It hits the side of the canister with a thud, as Jamie and I erupt into giggles.
The next morning, Jamie ran his second and last-ever half marathon. His heart gave out in the last mile of the race and he died. He was 32.
For a long time, I was haunted by the horrible knowledge that I had the power to say no when Jamie brought up the idea of running such a long and draining race again. I could have said, “I don’t think you should run that race. But I do think you should get your heart checked out.” I could have saved his life.
I never want to make a decision like that again—one that, unknowingly, plays a role in whether a loved one lives or dies.
Much of the healing work I’ve done after Jamie’s death centers around accepting the impermanence and unpredictability of life. I’ve had to accept that diseases like cancer happen, that undiagnosed heart conditions exist, that people get inexplicably sick and die. I’ve come to terms with the possibilities of car crashes and freak accidents. I remind myself that we all have a finite amount of time on this earth.
But I have a really hard time accepting guns. Fucking guns.
I also can’t yet accept that, in a few years, when my daughter goes to elementary school, I will be making a decision—day after day—to send her off to class and thereby do something that may put her life at risk.
I loved elementary school. It not only felt like a safe space—it felt central to my entire being. It’s where I was first encouraged as a writer, got to read as many books as my heart desired, and discovered the joy of learning new things. It was where I met lifelong friends, embraced my goofy side, and made lasting memories.
Both my parents were public school teachers, and our household revolved around the academic calendar. We took road trips every summer, had the same days off from work and school, and ate dinners as a family most nights. Later, as a high school student, I volunteered as a reading coach at the elementary school where my mom taught; I wanted other children to have the same positive experience in school that I had.
My love for elementary school is also part of the reason I wanted to become a parent. I could never clearly picture myself caring for a newborn. But watching my future kindergartner learn to read? Working on school projects with my bright fourth-grader? Helping my kiddo with math—well, for at least a few short years? I couldn’t wait.
But now when I think about those upcoming school years, I pause.
Guns are currently the number one cause of death for children in the United States. And while, statistically, I know the number of people who die in mass shootings is a small fraction of the overall population, that fact brings little comfort.
The children at places like the Covenant School and Robb Elementary are so much more than statistics. They were full of life and promise. And their senseless murders have left behind families and communities faced with an unimaginable amount of grief and pain.
Parents in this country are sick with fear and frustration. We feel like we’re being forgotten left and right—from the beginning of our children’s lives to the moments when they become adults. We are trying to do the best we can, in a country whose definition of “best” feels increasingly misguided.
Sometimes, I can think back to that banana peel video and smile. Still, it’s painful to watch—to witness proof of how alive, happy, and unaware Jamie and I were, just hours before his world ended and mine came crumbling down.
I also can’t bear to watch or read interviews with grieving families, the people who knew and loved victims of gun violence. I think of how unfair it feels to me that Jamie died at the young age of 32, and from a heart condition, no less. But to lose a child at 9, 12, 6, 18—from gun violence? It’s beyond horrific.
Since I began this newsletter in 2018, I’ve lost track of the number of mass shootings the U.S. has experienced. I haven’t said much about them, because what is there to say? What is there to do? It all feels hopeless. Instead, I find myself falling back on the same cliche many of us use: “I have no words.” It’s often the easiest thing to say. It’s certainly easier than trying to describe the growing pit in your stomach.
Last week, Olivia Muenter offered some words in her newsletter. “If you’re anything like me, maybe you’ve found that feeling much of anything about gun violence is difficult lately,” she wrote.
“Mostly I’m finding that with every tragedy and all that comes after, I feel less,” Olivia continued:
I cry less. I post less. I watch the inevitable chain of events tumble out before me, the cries for action and the lack thereof, the Facebook posts promoting the 2nd amendment, the people who tell me they care and then vote for NRA-backed politicians again and again, the thoughts and prayers of it all, and I just feel tired. Aren’t we all tired? Aren’t we exhausted from feeling the fear, from giving it to our children and hoping it saves them? Of the thought of them one day doing the same exact thing with their children, too. That is, if they’re lucky enough to not go to a school like Marjory Stoneman Douglas or Sandy Hook or Covenant Christian or they don’t go to a movie theater like the one in Aurora, Colorado or a grocery store in Buffalo. Because at this point, that’s what it is. For all of us. Luck. And even if we’re lucky, the fear remains.
The fear remains. It never really goes away. Even though we know the odds of a child dying in an U.S. school shooting are nearly 10 million to 1—similar odds to being killed by lightning or dying in an earthquake—we experience that same terrible fear every time we see another horrific headline. Sometimes, we get gripped by fear so intense that we reconsider sending our children to school at all.
But living in fear isn’t a way to live.
If surviving unimaginable loss has taught me anything, it’s that every day, whether we realize it or not, we are given a choice to face the fear. We choose whether to let that fear dictate our lives, or to do the much braver, bolder thing: to continue to live our lives with our hearts open to all the possibilities ahead of us.
We do things like noting the good moments, documenting things we want to remember, and expressing gratitude for others—and try to store those data points in our own statistical wheelhouses. The probability of something special and wonderful happening today? Exponentially high.
We hug our children a little tighter, but we also let them go. We let them explore and learn and discover what it means to fail. In return, we give them a safe, loving, patient, and understanding place to land.
And we nurture ourselves. We turn off the news, we take a break from social media, we whisper our own version of a thought and a prayer. We look for proof that the world is good. If we have the energy, we do one small thing to make our corner of the world a little better, even if it is just putting that dirty spoon in the dishwasher instead of the sink. We give ourselves a hug. We take a deep breath and remember that tomorrow is another day.
The night before Jamie’s last race, we had no idea that he was a statistical unlikelihood. We were blissfully unaware that his undiagnosed fibromuscular dysplasia—a rare condition that affects fewer than 200,000 people in the U.S. per year—would end his life the very next day. Instead, we shot a dumb video of a poorly thrown banana peel in our kitchen, neither of us experiencing an ounce of fear. We were sweet and goofy. We made each other laugh. We were ourselves, up until our final moments as a couple.
Facing fear doesn’t mean accepting the norm. I can embrace life as it is today while also working towards a better tomorrow. I can let my daughter play outside and also support organizations like Everytown and Moms Demand Action. I can read aloud children’s books and write words like these. I can raise my daughter to be a kind and caring citizen and reach out to my elected officials, asking them to do better.
I can do what I can to not let fear get in the way of life. That’s the beautiful choice we all make, every day.