The Act of Writing: From My Hut After Uvalde
I write not what’s before my eyes, but what’s behind them. I write not what comes from my lips, but what catches in my throat. I write not what rushes through my heart, but what abides in my chest, in an anteroom set apart for hope and wonder.
Words have been scarce lately, though. With one exception, no composition has materialized. Writing is imagination residing in the eye sockets, airway and sternum. The act is physical, and when the bodily loci of imagination are assaulted, sentences protest with silence. They won’t surface. The trachea blocks them.
Finding myself thus bereft is physiological, as distinct as a blood sugar crash. And assault is the word.
In real time, toddler grandson Gavin chases wife Kathy around the backyard. My aforementioned bereavement has been dulled by red wine, so the scene is a kindly denouement: “Everything will come out fine. You’ll see.”
To my left, grandson Cole’s foam airplane keeps nose-diving, but he won’t give up. At eight years old, he is closest in age to the 19 children who collapsed in a red mist in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24th, the date beauty ran out on me.
Soon I’ll put beans and franks on for the boys, including Killian, the middle who eats big and presently leaps like a frog atop freshly cut grass. Later, Gavin will sit in my lap. I’ll fold down my right pointer finger and rub his perfect cheek with the skin between my first two knuckles. Will he ever understand my gratitude? He might, decades from now.
I write far too much about my grandsons, but believe this: If all I get out of staggering around on earth is time to take grandsons into my arms and touch their faces, every concussion and laceration has been worth it. No heaven, no eternity, no everlasting, just three boys. Sweet. Terms accepted!
And there was afternoon and there was evening, the darkening day. Gavin went home with Mom and Dad, and the older boys lay down within the safe borders of grandparents. In Grandma’s king-size bed, the elders’ sleep is a feather lifted, then thrust back down by small voices.
“Mama,” Cole called out God knows when. “I want Mama. I want to go home.” He got convinced somehow that he had a gentleman’s hernia and would need an operation.
“Pal,” I whispered, “I’ve been a guy for a long time. I know what you’re afraid of.” In what I count as a miracle, I convinced him that he shouldn’t be concerned.
After a glass of water, he said, “Okay, I’m good,” and was out in minutes.
Later it was Killian’s turn. “Grandma, I’m scared.”
“Oh, best buddy,” Kathy said. “Snuggle up with Pop.”
I pulled the boy in and thought, “Well, the kid’s right. There’s a lot to fear.”
My daughter and son-in-law are wise and vigilant. Any exposure the boys get to the carnage du jour is rare. Cole is homeschooled and Killian will be as well. Still, there are grocery stores and playgrounds and amusement parks like Erie’s Waldameer, which Kathy takes the boys to once a week in summer. Dear Lord, the possibilities.
And there are wicked weapons with hellish ammunition. In The Atlantic, radiologist Heather Sher recounted what she saw when an assault rifle shooting victim landed at the Florida trauma center she served: “Nothing was left to repair—and utterly, devastatingly, nothing could be done to fix the problem. The injury was fatal.”
Sher’s assessment is gripping, but abstract, and I’ve not yet been detailed about why I am silenced as a writer. Best get on with it. For good or ill, I refuse to remove myself from Uvalde. I’ve decided not to get over it. I won’t move on. Even as, especially as, I held Killian to calm his twilight terror, I received then and claim again now the wretched images of May 24, 2022.
In a crevice of punishing imagination, I stand with my grandsons in a classroom at Robb Elementary School. Summer vacation’s frolic and glow awaits. I envision this out of obligation.
The words that follow filled my throat as I kept vigil over Killian’s profile—just enough moon and night light to discern the slope of his nose and curve of his chin. Dr. Roy Guerrero, a pediatrician at Uvalde Memorial Hospital, describes what he encountered in a surgical area on the day of the massacre: “Two children, whose bodies had been so pulverized by the bullets fired at them, decapitated, whose flesh had been so ripped apart, that the only clue as to their identities was the blood spattered cartoon clothes still clinging to them.”
When a grandparent embraces a grandchild, it’s often to ease a needless fear. True, the statistical possibility of my pretty ones coming under assault is remote, but writing doesn’t do arithmetic. The scenes appearing behind closed eyes don’t first consult an actuary.
Were the unspeakable to happen to the vulnerable life I guarded in Grandma’s feather bed, my fervent wish would be to surround him. Little would be left of us. Even so we would “slip the surly bonds of earth,” together “dance the skies on silver-laughtered wings,” and “put out our hands and touch the face of God.”
You think I’m writing? Actually I’m crying. If this is writing, it’s from exile, a country where love and beauty face extinction, where an aging man’s body feels alien to itself in the breathing in and out of words.
A second ago Whitey landed at my feet here in the writing hut and took me away from this page. He is a robin with splashes of white all over and has become a companion. I put out worms, which sustain my friend and his many dependents. Maybe I overfeed this flock and domesticate these parents and children. I can’t help myself.
Instead of writing lately, I’ve convinced Whitey to take worms out of my hand. A few of his charges draw near, but they’re jittery. I don’t blame them for flying off. Human beings are seldom worthy of trust.
In 2022, who doesn’t dread an ambush? Kathy, an oncology nurse, read of carnage at a medical facility and now in dark moments worries.
At a church meeting I attended days ago, an elderly woman shuffled to the microphone and said, “Last Sunday, for the first time in all my years, I was afraid to go to church.”
Whitey hasn’t been himself either. It’s been a week since he has pecked a worm from the platter of my hand. He’s come close today, and I’m not about to give up.
“Hey, I won’t hurt you,” I tell him and the others. “I promise. Okay?”
When Whitey’s trust returns, maybe decent sentences will come back, too. We’ll decide that neither of us is safe, but our bodies should relax enough for him to accept my worms and for my body to allow writing to happen again. May the first word to arrive be hope.