By Michael Morse
In a small Connecticut town, a week or so after the 25th, I sat with my cousins, celebrating what we call Serbian Christmas. It’s a lovely day, a time for extended family and friends to share whatever is left of the holiday spirit, relax, break bread and carry on some of the traditions that my cousin, Dennis’s family took with them from the Orthodox Christian Church celebrations in Serbia.
For me, this yearly pilgrimage to Connecticut renews me, brings back my belief that the America that I want to live in still exists. Working as a firefighter/EMT in an urban environment wears on you, leaves cynicism where optimism belongs, and that cynicism needs to be expunged periodically. It’s only a few hours away, this picturesque town, the meticulous volunteer fire department, the library that has been there for hundreds of years, right next to the elementary school and the businesses that keep the town afloat coexist in harmony, and the people who live there love their little town, and feel safe there, and raise their families who tend to stay right there, for generations.
We broke bread together, and inside the loaf a coin waited for the person lucky enough to have taken the piece that held it, for that person would enjoy prosperity in the coming year. My daughter got it this year, and I hope the tradition holds true. A candle that had burned all day, one with three wicks, was extinguished with a stream of red wine and the meal began.
The adults had the big table, the one in the dining room. The kids sat in the kitchen; at the table the adults wished they were at. Dinner was served, and we ate, and drank, and talked and laughed. When it was over, my wife and I sat at the adult table, joined by our nieces. There was just us, everybody else had filtered out of the dining room and were spread throughout the house, relaxing, enjoying after dinner drinks, or cleaning the mess. At the table we sat, and Christmas was over, and when somebody mentioned Newtown from the other room it was as if Christmas would never come again.
The two girls spent the day of the shootings inside classrooms that are located less than 50 miles from Sandy Hook. As I wrestled with my own demons as the events of that day unfolded, running errands, listening to news updates, shaking my head, pounding the steering wheel, ignoring horns as green lights turned red and I missed them, it never occurred to me what it was like to be a child in Connecticut as news leaked out, and fear rose, and the reality that things had changed for good seeped in.
The joy we had created during the day drained from their eyes, their lips trembled, their voices went low and they told us about their day. That day.
Their teacher was different, the older one explained; her phone became more important than the lessons. “Something is going on,” she said to her students, her eyes repeatedly drawn to the phone she had placed on her desk.
“She kept looking at her phone, and she couldn’t teach. We found out her nephew was at a school where somebody had a gun,” explained Madison, whose classroom I had visited three years ago, and sat with the third grade class, and read a story about firefighters for them. Who knew that years later, some fifty miles away, firefighters would respond to an elementary school for a different mission, one that nobody could have dreamed possible.
“From ten till noon my teacher didn’t know what was happening, nobody knew, who would live and who would die. She told us to go home and watch the news, that was before the officials told her how to handle things,” said Caroline, wise well beyond her years.
And my little cousins, nine and thirteen, left their safe little Connecticut classrooms when their day was done, and went home, where CNN and Fox and MSNBC plays all day, most days, and watched footage from the school a few towns over.
They told me every detail. The killers name, the kind of gun he used, how many rounds were fired, how Victoria saved her students, how the principal tried to stop the maniac, how they would have survived had the gunman come to their school.
The story flowed, tentatively at first, then uncontrolled, like a deep wound that starts to bleed slowly, then pours freely, building momentum until the blood is gone, and the victim is exhausted. They knew the murderer had killed his mother, knew that she died in her bed, knew that he shot his way through the school’s secured door, knew that all the precautions in the world will not keep them safe. They wondered why a twenty-year-old kid had an assault weapon in the first place, and what he could possibly use it for, other than to kill people.
Christmas was over, and life for us went on, and we sat at the dinner table and listened to two Connecticut schoolgirls tell their story.
Hearing it from the mouths of people whose days are spent in a classroom much like the killing ground chilled me to the bone, and I fought back tears as they spoke, eloquently, and heroically, and with more feeling and raw emotion that I thought possible.
The moment ended, and their dad came back, and he told them they spoke well, but it was enough. It was obvious that care and love were in abundance in their home, and the girls were able to process the massacre to the best of their ability, with supportive parents, and hopefully will find some peace. But the wounds will never heal.
The adults resumed their places at the table, and the girls went to play with their WII. They had some crazy dance program on and were mimicking the moves on the screen, and I heard them laughing over the music from the other room, and I tried to pay attention to our conversation, mercifully steered away from Sandy Hook, but I could not. All I could think of was the little kids that will never tell their stories of horror, fear, abandonment and pain, and how they would never dance.
But life for us went on, and Serbian Christmas continued well into the night, long after we put the kids to bed, where they slept, and dreamed, alone.
Michael Morse, a Providence (RI) Fire Department member for 22 years, writes about his experiences as a firefighter on Engine Co. 2, 7, and 9 and Ladder Co. 7 and 4, as well as his time on Rescue Co. 1 as a lieutenant and Rescue Co. 5, where he is currently captain. He lives with his wife Cheryl seven minutes from his station, which, fortunately for him, is “worlds away.”