“Lord, I lost my baby girl today, PLEASE don’t let her death be in vain” – Nelba Marquez-Greene, bereaved parent
Kate and I spent Friday with Jimmy and Nelba, close friends and quite literally two of the kindest, most loving people I have ever known, and parents of Isaiah and Ana, two incredibly sweet, affectionate children. While other parents were reacting to the horror of hearing about the Newtown, CT shooting by hugging their kids tighter, Jimmy and Nelba did not have that option with their beloved Ana Grace, and their hugs for Isaiah (who was in the building but survived) were enmeshed with the unanswerable question of how this boy will cope with incomprehensible tragedy.
For privacy’s sake, I am not going to give much detail about the last couple days, but there are three very important things to note:
1 ) A website has been set up for people to communicate with Jimmy and Nelba about this tragedy. So many people want to help, and that is amazing – for now, their basic needs are being met and this is a non-intrusive way to share condolences, mobilize support, and be in the loop when needs emerge and news arises about funeral arrangements, memorial contributions and so on. You need to create an account, but it’s a classy affair so don’t let that deter you. Signing up to receive updates will ensure that you are kept in the loop. Click on and/or share the link below:
2 ) Amidst unspeakable grief of their own, Jimmy and Nelba remain concerned for the other victims and those affected by this and other similar tragedies. They are strong, their faith is strong and they are able to appreciate the incredible gift of six and a half years with this superlatively loving child in their lives.
3 ) They do not want to see this horrible murder stir people into a frenzy that is then forgotten in a month, until the next one – whether through the sensationalism of the (inhumanely and sickeningly intrusive, FYI) press or through genuine concern that simply dissipates. The impact will not dissipate for this family – they will move forward, but this hole will remain unfilled.
This was, of course, not how I planned to spend my birthday. In fact, it was dumb luck that I even found out about it before heading off to NY. Kate and I had plans, made back in June, to go in, hang with a friend, eat lots of carbs, hear Eddie Palmieri’s career retrospective at JALC. Mainly the plan was to spend some relaxed together-time after (by standards that seemed relevant 24 hours ago) a stressful couple weeks and difficult year. As I walked out of Choate Rosemary Hall, someone in the office told me the basics of what had happened, and it didn’t take me long to put 2 and 2 together.
A bit of irony in there can be found in what I was doing moments before I heard the news. I was wrapping up week 3 of my first-ever full-on academic course for high school students, a sabbatical fill-in stint teaching Music of the 1960s. This week was folk music, particularly protest music. All week, using music as a vehicle, I’d been trying to get across one primary point: many of the comforts and freedoms and protections you now enjoy are there for you because people fought and struggled and stood up and risked their careers, reputations and even their lives. There were urgent things being protested. This was serious sh** (yes I said the equivalent of “poopie” to high school students, pink slip presumably forthcoming).
We listened to a whole class of songs by the SNCC Freedom Singers and discussed the transformation from work songs and spirituals to more modernized pleas for freedom and equality. We watched Pete Seeger retell the story of the concert after which he sat backstage and sang “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” with the man who had come with the intent of assassinating him that night. And then Friday we listened to Bob Dylan. I wanted them to look past the singing style (which resembles so little that one hears on the radio now) and recognize how prophetic “The Times They Are A-Changin’” was and how tragic and absurd “With God On Our Side” was. I especially wanted them to hear “Masters Of War” and feel unsettled and disturbed enough to appreciate, regardless of their own personal viewpoints, the urgency and confusion of the times and, to a large extent, of the human condition at large. For their subsequent homework, I assigned them to listen to “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” with hope that they would empathize on some level. It was important that they understand the tradition of deciding that privilege (including being protected from war, violence, oppression, hatred and inescapable poverty) should inspire responsibility and not complacency. Even oblivious to the news I would learn minutes later, I found myself near tears listening to these songs and absorbing their intent.
I left wondering if a) I had gotten through and b) I was being self-indulgent by contextualizing the music in this way and not simply playing some tunes and saying “so, uh, cool tune, eh?” I still don’t know if I got through, but boy am I convinced now that we as a people need to WAKE UP and that’s true of all age groups and socioeconomic strata and political affiliations. The group of people who mobilized to be with the Greenes affirmed for me that this is possible – I saw so much love and support and emotion, but I also saw clear-headedness, cooperation and capable and pragmatic problem-solving.
These are not silver linings – there are no ways to sugar-coat this colossally bitter pill. But deep in my heart, I do believe that we shall overcome someday. More specifically I believe that WE, the human race, have the capacity to CHOOSE how we move forward from this. Whether you were touched directly by Ana or whether your sympathy simply comes from being a human with feelings, she will not have died in vain if this is the moment when we as a people refuse to accept hate and violence. This is not about laws and politics and ideologies – I’m talking about basic human brotherhood here. Jimmy and Nelba moved to Newtown, and specifically their neighborhood, primarily because of this school. A Hollywood script-writer could not have chosen a more gut-wrenching way to illustrate that none of us are immune to tragedy.
In class we also listened to “Blowin’ In the Wind,” and I felt a chill during the lines at the end “how many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry? Yes and how many deaths will it take ‘til he knows that too many people have died?” I am listening to that again and again as I type through the tears. I know there is no way to “make sense” of this all, but for God’s sake, let’s make this the moment when we have officially reached the threshold of “enough” and let’s build a world that embodies cooperation, peace and most of all the love that Ana Grace herself embodied.