by Charles A. Monagan
Dec 15, 2012
10:27 AM
On Connecticut

December Fourteenth


The following account was written by Ian Eller, the father of two children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

The only thing I know how to do is to write. The only tools I have have for making sense of the world are words.
I saw The Hobbit at the midnight show in Danbury. It was awesome. Even as I drove home I was dreading my 10:15 a.m. dentist appointment - an hour-and-a-half block of drilling and filling - but I was still high on the performance of Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins and mulling the relative value of director Peter Jackson’s tendency toward running battles. By the time I got home it was about 3:30 a.m.. Still a little high from the film, I had a glass of wine and made a couple Facebook posts and let the dogs out - okay, the one dog, because Freya refuses to go outside at night. I let Loki in, turned off the lights and went into the bedroom to brush my teeth and crawl into bed.
I don’t remember if I dreamed or not.
I woke - not unusually for a Friday morning, since I have not had to work on Fridays for some time (thanks, recession and housing collapse) -- to the sound of arguing between my son and my wife. I did not hear my daughter but I assumed she was being no less a pain in my wife’s ass, just in her quiet, pouty, passive-aggressive way. People talk about the terrible twos, but you don’t know trouble until you have a six year old girl.
I should have gotten up, helped diffuse the situation a little. Frankly, I was still tired and I knew that if I got up I would be cajoled to go outside into the cold and play catch while waiting for the bus. I convinced myself that I was due a good sleep-in. Hadn’t I earned it after sitting through the fourth-grade holiday choral concert the night before? So I half slept, half listened to the fighting and to my wife getting them on the bus.
I must have fallen asleep because I was again awakened by yelling. This time it was my wife and she was yelling at herself. She was late. She came into the bedroom and got dressed and told me she was heading to the school to make gingerbread houses with my daughter’s class and don’t forget your dentist appointment and goddammit I’m late and love you goodbye.
I got up and got dressed. I resolved to brush and floss after breakfast, so I staggered zombie-like to the kitchen and devoured an orange and a cup of yogurt. (You see, I am trying to get in better shape, particularly when I am not eating a giant bacon-filled sandwich or downing pint after pint.)
I looked at the clock. It was almost 10 am. I was going to be late.
I was on my way back to our bedroom and master bathroom to perform the aforementioned brushing and flossing when the phone rang.
I know that was a lot of words for “I slept late and didn’t get to see my kids before they went to school and goddammit I suck” but I wanted to make it very clear: up until the very moment, the very picosecond I answered that phone and the electrons streamed through the ether and made sound reverberate from the handset, life was normal. It was good and it was bad and it was full of laughs and swears and the occasional tear. But most of all, it was normal.
From that moment on, it was no longer normal. It couldn’t be. Not for me or for my wife or my children or our family or our friends or our town.
It took precisely one moment, the flit of one subatomic particle between this place and that, to utterly destroy our universe and rebuild in its place one nearly identical, except stripped of innocence.
My wife was crying. I could barely understand what she was saying, but I caught, “The school is locked down,” and, “There are police going in with guns.”
I reeled. That could not be right. Obviously, she was misinterpreting what she was seeing. And didn’t I have a dentist appointment to be at? So I tried to calm her and told her to call me back when things settled down. And I hung up.
I fucking hung up on my wife who was at my kids’ school while she was telling me there were armed police entering it.
So I could make my dentist appointment.
I cannot say with any certainty what was going through my mind right then, or why I reacted the way I did. In retrospect I can imagine my subconscious bargaining with me: “These are your choices: Come get your teeth drilled and endure 90 minutes of pain and discomfort, or believe that your wife and kids are in imminent danger.” It made a compelling argument.
Then the phone rang again. As i grabbed the phone a wave of pure dread swept over me. Before I even pushed the button I knew this was no bomb scare or drill or whatever else I had convinced myself it was. I had been very, very wrong.
She was crying. She was hysterical. I could not understand anything except the words, “I heard gunshots.”
Fuck. No. Fuck no. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. No no no no no. I told her I was coming. I would be there in a minute. She bawled.
I do not know how I got in the car or when I stopped talking to her or how I tried to calm her and reassure her. I know those things happened, but I am not sure that I - the awake, everyday “I” that I am - did them.
The school is just a mile or two from the house. I make the drive almost every day to go pick up my kids from their after school program. It’s a quiet drive, but you do have to watch out for runners and cyclists and kids on the windy, narrow parts of the road near the park.
I am pretty sure I did not hit any runners or cyclists or kids on my way, but I could not raise my right hand to it because I was so consumed with thought as I drove. I was consumed with one thought: “Think about now. Right now.”
I’m a writer, a storyteller and a daydreamer. I live at least half my life in my head, whether it is at a keyboard, at the gaming table or while I am going for a run - or a drive. I can’t help it. When I am in a place where muscle memory takes over, my mind goes off on its own. And this morning, driving from my house to that school with my wife’s shuddering sobs and barely comprehensible terror crawling through the phone into my mind, my imagination was running wild.
It was not the usual heroic fantasy that creeps in when I think abstractly about the Bad Things that happen to Other People. I wasn’t daydreaming the valiant act of rescuing my kids and wife and our friends’ kids, or even disarming the Bad Guy with the power of my doughy, late 30s, used to be a wrestler and was in the infantry but never saw more danger than a bottle of Jaegermeister super-heroism.
Not this time. This time, all I saw was blood. My kids’ blood. Everywhere.
“Think about now. Right now.”
As I approached the school, I could see that things were different, wrong, out of place. Cars pulled up on the side of the road. Parents - mostly moms - standing there agape, hands over their mouths or talking frantically into cell phones. Police cars. Ambulances.
I remembered my wife had said something about not being able to get into the school parking lot, so I jerked the wheel and pulled into the volunteer fire company lot at the end of the road. I hopped out and started to walk - I walked, not ran, the whole way, like I did not actually want to get there until I had no choice but be there - and dialed my wife.
She was crying. Hysterical. i tried to talk her into calm. I don’t think it helped her, but it helped me. Having to be the Strong One - not the super hero or the action star, but just the Husband and Dad - gave me strength, centered my will and allowed me to shove the mind numbing, soul freezing, pants shitting terror I was feeling into a dark hole. I would excavate it later.
Then I did the dumbest thing I could possibly have done: I hung up. There were other parents around. There were cops. There was a man - he looked like a normal guy, just another Dad - in handcuffs. There were cops running toward the building with rifles and wearing protective vests. She was right there in the parking lot with the rest of them. She had to be. Where else would she be?
I got all the way to the perimeter established by the police, among maybe a dozen other parents. Some of them were crying and some of them were pacing and there was yet another guy in cuffs -- calm and sorry and as scared as the rest of us. But there was no my wife. She wasn’t there. Was she past the perimeter? Had she been too close to the school? I dialed her again. There was no answer. I hung up and tried again. No I didn’t. Stupid iPhone. Stupid buttons.
Goddammit. Where are you?
Fuck. No. Fuck no.
I turned around, looking at every face. Maybe, in my terror, I had missed her, misremembered what she was wearing. I do that sometimes. Goddammit. Where are you?
There. Getting out of her car. Barely able to stand, shaking with fear, searching for me too. The sight of her let me push it all back into its dark hole and I ran and grabbed her and held her.
My wife is strong. She has, many times, been my strength, my pillar. When we lost our baby, when the doctors told us we had to choose between a stillbirth and an abortion, she looked in my eyes and chose to suffer through the stillbirth for me. When my brother Lenn died while we were thousands of miles away, she held me as I bawled -- drunk and stupid and angry -- in the night. She is strong in the little ways, too. When things go wrong or one of the kids gets hurt or I manage to fuck something up, she is there.
But now, there was no strength, just terror and pain and shock. She literally wretched with anxiety and I held her up and squeezed her hand and made empty, faithless promises over things I could not have possibly hoped to control. I was her pillar because her needing me was mine.
I don’t know how long it took. I am sure there is an official timeline, cobbled together from 911 calls and official reports. It does not matter, because for me, it was quite simply an eternity.
We waited, holding each other. There were no more gunshots. Police continued to move in and ambulances parked. More and more parents came, having been alerted by news reports and status updates. One father tried to pass the perimeter but was stopped and calmed. I thought, idly, “Good idea, jackass, turn your kids into orphans, too.” It is probably not a fair thought, and maybe I’m just a coward and that’s why I did not storm the school in search of my kids. But I could not help but think it then, and now still.
An era passed between then and the time the first string of children were being led out of the school by a female officer. The little girl in front was holding her hand and bawling and the officer was soothing her with promises that, unlike mine to my wife, were very real.
None of them were either of my kids and I felt my wife sink under the weight of disappointment in my arms.
If the wait between my arrival and those first kids getting out was an era, the wait from then to each new line of children being led to safety by the police was an epoch. One group would appear, a breath of hope and joy to be dashed when we saw that, no, they weren’t among them. We saw friends’ kids and we felt relieved, but still we were not released.
Please. I don’t even know who I asked, as I am an atheist, even in the foxhole. But damn me if I did not beg. Please please please please please.
Then I saw her. my daughter, in her bright blue shirt and purple skirts and bright leggings. “There,” I said to my wife and she was out of my arms, running to meet my daughter as the police led her class away from the school and down the road to the fire house. I did not follow. I watched the school. Where was my son?
There had been order in the chaos so far, and that helped keep me calm. Holding up my wife had been even more important, but she had gone. The next group of kids to come out were older - my son’s age? - and they weren’t walking purposefully led by a police officer, they were running headlong from the school toward the police line. my son was not among them.
Why were they running. What had changed. Where was the strong, pretty, comforting police woman? Terror gripped my mind and I waited to hear shots again. I paced. Did I speak out loud or just think it? I want my son. Where is my son?
Then another group of kids burst out of the school and there he was, running with them, strong and confidently and doing exactly as he had been instructed. I hope I did not hurt him as I crashed into him and held him and kissed him.
I forced myself to let go. “Follow your teacher to the firehouse,” I said. My wife grabbed his hand and led him hurriedly and I walked a few paces behind.
Neither the fear nor the sorrow was over after that. There was a lot of rumors flying and uncertainty. We did our best to calm the kids and call other parents and console our friends. The story of the time from finding my children to this morning is long and terrible and wonderful and full of tears both joyful and sorrowful. There are people we know and love whose children never made it out of that school, teachers who our kids adored as well.
But for my part, this is the story I needed to tell, and it’s told.
December Fourteenth

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