One year, when I was in junior high school, I read in the local newspaper about a family in the next town. There had been a fire in the middle of the night. A major fire. Trucks and men and hoses had arrived, too late, from all over the county. It was the third week of December.
I spent much of that Christmas Eve thinking about the family, wondering what it was like to lose all of your possessions in a single event. They had no house, no furniture, no clothes. As I stared at our Christmas tree, I imagined theirs going up in flames, along with any gifts that may have been under it. If they’d had any money stashed in a drawer, it was now reduced to ashes, as were books, photographs, and their important papers.
Such thoughts lead, inevitably, to an appreciation that everyone involved was safe, that they had all gotten out of that building alive and uninjured. Over time and with the help of friends and strangers, they would replace what had burned. That’s the thing about physical objects — most can be duplicated. Within some number of months, I would guess, they were in a new home, furnished with at least the most pressing necessities: beds, chairs, food, shirts, pants, shoes, towels, pots, and dishes. All of those items would have come from different places, assembled now to fill their needs. And eventually, the people would have adjusted, adapted, and felt comfortable and normal again.
A few days ago, in Connecticut, an entire town had a similar experience. Similar, and yet completely different. No houses were burned, no furniture lost. Even the gifts, wrapped and hidden in parents’ closets or tucked under the tree, may still be resting where they were placed in recent weeks. But family members have been taken away, murdered in their classrooms. Little boys and girls, put onto a school bus or dropped off on a Friday morning, will never come back. Adults who arrived at work that same morning, prepared to educate and care for those children, have been taken, too. The other students and staff were traumatized beyond description. And so, once again, a moment of insanity experienced by one person has shattered the lives of thousands, and has knocked the breath out of the entire world.
This is not a community helping one family to recover. This is the entire community folding everyone into its arms, gritting its teeth, and soaking in its own tears. Newtown will survive this. But there will always be an aching hole in its heart. The pain will ease but will refuse to disappear, and in moments of quiet, thoughts will turn repeatedly to those minutes of pure horror in which days and months and decades were stolen and destroyed, without warning. Human beings are not replaceable, and the lives that go on will never be the same.
It has not been a good couple of months in the northeastern part of the United States. And just as New York and New Jersey have had to live up to their names, recovering and rebuilding after a natural storm called Sandy, now Newtown will have to find some way to renew itself after this man-made storm in Sandy Hook. The old town, the town that was, just days ago, settling in for the holiday season and a long, cold winter, is gone forever.