“After the first death . . .”

There are amazing people in the world.

Brave people, like Victoria Soto, the 27 year-old first-grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., who ushered her students into a closet, and put her body between them and the shooter. “She was found huddled over her children, her students, doing instinctively what she knew was the right thing,” said her cousin Jim Wiltsie.

People who are wise in the way of compassion, like Robbie Parker, the 30 year-old father of Emilie, age six, one of the victims at Sandy Hook. Saturday afternoon, he faced a crowd of reporters and resisted the temptation to speak of hate and revenge; instead, he projected empathy with these words: “It’s a horrific tragedy, and we wanted everyone to know that our hearts and prayers go out to all of them. This includes the family of the shooter. I can’t imagine how hard this experience must be for you and want you to know that our family and our love and support go out to you as well.”

Compassion is not the providence of only the mature, evidenced as Parker described his daughter: “My daughter Emilie would be one of the first ones to be standing and giving her love and support to all those victims, because that’s the type of person she is . . . I can’t count the number of times that Emilie noticed someone feeling sad or frustrated and would rush to find a piece of paper to draw them a picture or to write them an encouraging note.”

Another mass shooting and what can be said? That we are saddened beyond measure and question the senselessness of it? Definitely. That we need to do more about mental illness. Certainly. That we must do something to curb the easy access to guns. Absolutely. But we’ve said all that before.

Friday afternoon, President Obama delivered a statement on the tragedy, and said, “We have endured too many of these tragedies.” I thought of the line in the song Bob Dylan wrote 50 years ago, “How many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?” I have a small sense that the shooting in Newtown is the tipping point, and that maybe, finally, too many people have died.

This weekend, we are a nation in mourning. But perhaps we have mourned enough over these many senseless deaths, perhaps we have spoken enough of the words we always speak in the aftermath . . .

Dylan Thomas, the great Welsh poet, once wrote a poem in memory of a child killed by fire, presumably from the German bombing of London during World War II. He refused to mourn, he wrote, and yet he did. In expressing his stubbornness about the act of mourning, though, he is telling us that to feel sadness, regret, at death is only grief, and that loss of even a single life demands something more than merely that. He does not tell us what exactly, however, I suspect that this Dylan, too, would say the answer is blowing in the wind . . .

A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London

by Dylan Thomas

Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness

And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn

The majesty and burning of the child’s death.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.

Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.

You can do something in the wake of this terrible incident. You can go to the White House website and sign the petition (in the site’s own words) “to force the Obama Administration to produce legislation that limits access to guns.” It’s a beginning . . .


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