I try not to torture myself, but I know why I keep checking. I know why I keep refreshing the CNN homepage, why I’m watching The National instead of the episode of Mad Men I downloaded. I want to know his name. I need to see his face. I need to think about his mother, and be devastated for her, and secretly be thankful she’s not me.
I remember years ago, before I had my now two-year-old son Benjamin, a friend telling me that as soon as she had her daughter she couldn’t watch hospital shows anymore because something might happen to a kid. I thought she was so silly, so soft, so irrational.
But now I understand. The absolutely physical, visceral reaction I have now whenever something random and terrible happens that involves children — Sandy Hook, the Eaton’s Centre shooting, air strikes in Syria — makes me feel ill, and seems completely out of my control.
It’s as if having a kid opened up some painful, bottomless maw of empathy and terror in me that connects me to every other parent, to every other child. After the Japanese tsunami, my first thought was: “Surely, no children were swept away in front of their parents eyes. Surely no children died. Because that would be too awful.” (Surely they did). I find myself obsessively scanning photographs of war zones. Surely no children.
I lay awake at night running through drills of what I would have done if Ben and I had been in Syria, or in Boston, or at the edge of a beach when everything suddenly went wrong. I would have thrown myself over him so the shrapnel wouldn’t hit him. I would tie him to me with my shirt as the waves pulled us out to sea. As if anyone in any of these circumstances has a chance to do anything at all.
But seeing Martin Richard’s face, imagining his parents and feeling — however remotely — the heart-wrenching, throat-clogging possibility of losing a child, isn’t something I ever understood until I had a child myself.
And I can’t watch hospital shows now either.