The first sign of trouble came just before lunch.
I was around eight years old, and my class was writing stories. My elementary school heavily emphasized the creative arts and as a young, budding nerd, I was not admired. But that morning, my academic style came in handy. While my teacher wandered the classroom helping the kids who were “stuck,” the others turned to me for spelling and grammar. I remember a girl asked me to spell dog, a boy was stumped by house, and another forgot the difference between a period and a comma. In appreciation, my teacher gave me the coveted Morning Helper Award. I was pleased with my prize: pick a friend, and return the classroom’s books to the library. I quickly chose Connie, who also loved to read.
As we happily lugged a stack of books through the front office on our way to the library, the adults were acting strange. Roz — our receptionist, who remained calm in the face of anything – was crying. Ruth — our principal, a renowned motor-mouth — stood silent. Libby — our music teacher, who annoyed us with her constant singing — sat mute. Connie and I exchanged a grown-ups-are-weird look, and continued on our mission. As we left, Ruth whispered something to Roz, who covered her face with her hands.
“Did Ruth whisper someone was absent?” I asked.
“I think so,” Connie began to skip.
“The only one absent from our class today was Alan.”
Afternoon carpool was uneventful. Brian stared out the window. Julie crunched potato chips. Eddie sang a round, chasing himself in musical circles. My brother, 2 years younger, mentioned he needed a new square-dance partner because Debbie was absent.
I looked up. “That’s Alan’s sister. He wasn’t in school either.”
As soon as my brother and I opened the front door, we knew something was extremely wrong. My father was ashen, my mother in tears. They sat us down and spoke tenderly, knowing their children’s world was about to crash. That morning, Debbie and Alan’s father had shot his wife, then his children, then himself.
My family talked for a long time. My brother had recently been to Debbie’s birthday party, and met their father. I asked if he was “mean.” My brother thought carefully. “No, it was more like he just didn’t care.” I wondered how much someone needed to “just not care” to murder his family.
Now, decades later, since the massacre in the Orlando nightclub, I find myself thinking of Alan and Debbie. I wish I could tell them that I’m sorry their lives were cut short, and that their deaths were so harsh. I’m sorry their dad “just didn’t care” enough to reign in his worst self. I’m sorry their community didn’t realize they needed protection.
I wish I could speak to the victims in Orlando, and the survivors as well. I wish I could tell them I’m sorry that some people are so filled with rage, so emotionally blunted that they could commit this hate crime. I’m sorry that some people have such a long way to go in understanding that LGBTQ+ is simply a part of the spectrum of normal. I’m sorry that some view Latino heritage as anything other than enriched and enriching for our entire country.
I’ve also been thinking about the Saturday after September 11, 2001. The World Trade Center was down, death toll rising, rescuers pouring into Manhattan to perform acts of courage that would go down in history. I was living in Northern California, and had never been involved in organized religion. But all three of my children wanted to explore their Jewish heritage, so I found myself sitting in synagogue, listening to the head rabbi’s drash (rhymes with wash, a Hebrew word, a comment on scripture). To my surprise, the rabbi didn’t talk. Instead, he sang the entire drash. He paced as he improvised his song of sadness, anger, hope — a quiet dirge as he tried to comprehend the incomprehensible. Somehow his drash made sense.
Since the Orlando murders, I’ve spent days trying to formulate my thoughts, preparing to write this post. But now I’m wondering if I should approach this piece differently. As I grieve in the wake of a terrible wrong, maybe I shouldn’t strive for wisdom. Perhaps in this circumstance, writing with balance and eloquence isn’t important.
Instead, maybe I’ll pace and bring forward my own improvisational dirge of sadness, anger, hope. In this moment, trying to comprehend the incomprehensible, perhaps somehow that will make sense.
Amy Kaufman Burk is a novelist, blogger and mother of three grown children. Amy wrote her first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, in reaction to seeing gay students bullied in high school. Her second novel, Tightwire, follows a rookie psychology intern through her first year of training. Amy blogs on a variety of subjects including parenting, gender equality, LGBTQ+ and a Rolling Stones concert. Amy also collaborates with educators who use her books in their curriculum. To learn more about Amy, visit her website.