rdm Wetterlings

A few weeks ago, the press descended on a small town in Minnesota, just a few hundred miles from where I grew up in Wisconsin. They were there because the remains of Jacob Wetterling were found, and his abductor and killer was apprehended. Jacob Wetterling was born in the same year that I was, and my childhood was marked by his disappearance in 1989. We — the children in the area hundreds of miles surrounding his hometown — all knew his face from the countless posters put up around town, and the news reports that we were all too young to hear. For years, his family continued to look for him, and his mother, Patty Wetterling, became known for her crusade to not only find her son, but to find other missing children as well. Their agony was so public that we grieved with them when Jacob’s remains were found. Patty Wetterling issued this statement after her son’s abductor was arrested earlier this month:

“Say a prayer
Light a candle
Be with friends
Play with your children
Giggle
Hold hands
Eat ice cream
Create joy
Help your neighbor.

That is what will bring me comfort today.”

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The same week, one of my favorite children’s authors, Anna Dewdney, died. Dewdney is famous for her “Llama Llama” books, which gave rhymes and reason to the everyday problems of small children: going to school for the first time, going on boring errands with “Mama Llama,” and sharing with friends. Ms. Dewdney died of brain cancer at the age of 50. Her publisher said in a statement that “in lieu of a funeral, Dewdney asked that people read to children.”

Fast forward to this week. As my husband and I were preparing to get our kindergarten and third grade sons into the car to go to school on Monday morning, my phone flashed with stories about an active shooter near our neighborhood. In Monday morning’s still-dark hours, a man began shooting bullets into passing traffic, on a road we travel several times every week. He injured nine strangers. We found out later that he was dead by the time we were driving to school, but the details were still unclear as we left our driveway that morning.

I muttered something to my husband, trying to keep the children from hearing me. I was trying to whisper to him which route to take and why, and desperately racking my brain for why we hadn’t come up with a code word yet for “The-Kids-Can’t-Know-About-This-But-Just-Listen-To-Me-Carefully.” He somehow understood, and we carried on with our usual Monday morning routine of songs and jokes and bickering, just to keep our conversation light. When we pulled into the parking lot at the school, though, I was disappointed for once that there wasn’t a long car line. My stomach turned. We were first in line. “Listen very carefully to your teachers today,” I said, trying not to imagine their regular lock-down drills. “And be nice to your friends … be nice to everyone.” Jesus. Is that the best I could do? My voice shook as I thanked the teacher in the car line, and I watched them disappear into the school with their backpacks wobbling on their backs. I couldn’t wait to get through the day so I could just be with them again.

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I sent my baby — my firstborn — to Kindergarten less than a year after the Sandy Hook attack.

I read with horror about the Charleston church shootings, learning that a clergy spouse called the police when she heard the shooting from her husband’s office, where she was waiting for him. I’m a clergy spouse, too.

Every time one of these horrific events happens, we all imagine ourselves in the places of the victims and the bereaved, and we vow to ourselves that we’ll follow the advice of Patty Wetterling and Anna Dewdney. We’ll eat ice cream and giggle and read to our kids without skipping any pages. We tell ourselves that we’ll do better, that we’ll slow down, and that we’ll hug our loved ones tighter and appreciate them more.

But we don’t. Or at least we don’t for very long. By Monday evening, I had given myself a paper cut and snapped at my kids about colored pencils. I grumbled at the dog for barking too loudly. I complained about the spam email flooding my inbox. I am terrible at following the advice to “enjoy every moment.”

I cannot “do better” at appreciating life, even when a tragedy happens close to home. I can’t sustain a self-improvement program of “enjoying the little things.” Even with the starkest and closest reminders of our frailty and fragility, I am hopeless.

Let me be clear: I do not believe even for a second that God sends us tragedies to remind us to do better and appreciate more. I believe that God weeps with us, frets with us, and mourns our losses. I need the God who will come all the way down from heaven to die on a cross, because I cannot meet God halfway, even if halfway is just doing better at appreciating what I have.

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