My husband Brian, news junkie extraordinaire, usually forwards me his breaking news alerts when there’s important news. It’s not that I want to live under a rock, it’s just that I don’t believe 90% of the breaking news alerts are actually breaking news. The winner of American Idol? Doesn’t qualify. The details of the plea bargain for Lindsay Loser Lohan? Doesn’t count. Any sports team winning anything? No thanks. So I won’t subscribe to any of them because they just clog my inbox with crap, and no offense to anyone who emails me, but there’s already plenty of crap in there. So every now and then I get a breaking news alert email from Brian telling me about a shooting of a congresswoman (horrid), or the bike racing champion of the world telling Oprah he’s a big fat liar (how does he live with himself?). That’s news. And it might come up in conversation the next time we go out to dinner or out to drinks. So it’s good I know. The rest, meh.
There has actually only been one time in my life that I was ever able to break news to Brian, and it was the coup of all news stories. Since he’s usually glued to his blackberry (or in the last few months, his new iPhone, welcome to the cool club honey), I’m never the one who knows stuff first. Except for once. Brian was playing some game with the kids on the floor in our living room and I went to check my email. Of course, he had been using my laptop and so there was a news website open, and on a lark I happened to hit refresh. “Dick Cheney shoots fellow hunter in the face”. I did a quiet intake of breath, read the first paragraph, and called “Brian, honey? I’ve got news”. “Yeah?” he says, half paying attention. Me: “Dick Cheney shot someone in the face.” Within a nanosecond he was pushing me aside from the laptop – literally – a full on shove me out of the way. I burst out laughing. The best news story on the planet and it will forever be mine to say I told Brian first. Politics aside, the VP shooting someone in the face is the best gaffe in history. Hands down.
In our lives, there have only been two times that I remember that he’s called me to tell me about something in the news. When he calls it’s really bad news and I don’t like bad news and tend to block it out of my head. I can’t watch the local news (because as I learned at BU during my years studying TV and Film, “If it bleeds, it leads”). We DVR the NBC National News so if there is something I need to know more about I can wait for Brian Williams to tell me about it. And if it’s weather-related, I go to my man Lonnie Quinn on CBS who rolls up his sleeves when the first cloud appears on the radar. The rest of the bad, permeating, anxiety-inducing nonsense, I don’t need. And then there’s the big stuff that won’t be ignored. The first news call I remember getting from Brian was about Newtown, CT. I was walking into my kids’ school at the time to pick them up early for a doctor’s appointment. Brian called – almost like a warning – like he needed to be the one to tell me – and I almost tripped up the stairs going in. He knew early on that it wasn’t a minor deal. That is was a historical, horrible day, and that there were so many kids involved. I was never so glad to pick my children up from school in my life. We talked to the kids together that night and tried to tell them in kid terms what happened. The only way to do that is to tell them that sometimes there are people in the world whose brains don’t work correctly, and that they don’t know the difference between right and wrong. There’s no sense in the “why”. I don’t care what those crazy people THINK their reason for doing it was. There is no reason. It was craziness. Mental Illness. That’s it.
And then the second time Brian called me on my cell with news was while I was walking the kids home from school with the dog. It was a gorgeous day last April. A little chilly, but still perfect walking home from school weather. I knew immediately when I heard his voice that something was wrong. At first I thought work stress and I asked him if he was ok – when I heard his big intake of breath meaning something was wrong I thought someone must have died. I am notorious for thinking of the worst-case scenario. When he told me there had been two explosions at the Boston Marathon at the finish line, I just kept saying “oh no oh no oh no”. Boston is my town. I went to school there for four years. I lived in Kenmore Square. We went to the early Sox games on Patriot’s Day and walked down to Back Bay and cheered on the marathoners. Every year. Patriot’s Day is a magical day up in Boston. The weather always cooperates, and if it doesn’t no one bothers to discuss it because it’s New England and you should expect such things, and on Patriot’s Day the whole town stops working and just celebrates the simplest things. Baseball. Walking around a wonderfully walk-able town. Marathoners from all over the world coming to this little piece of New England perfect city. I always knew I wanted to go to a big school for college. And I wanted New England and I wanted a city. I knew that when I was 18 Manhattan was a little big for me. So I chose Boston. Picture perfect, 25% of the town was college age. It was a safe place. Let me say that again – it was safe. If you stayed out of Southie (and back then the Fens), the rest of the city was your oyster. Bad stuff didn’t cross over into the neighborhoods with nice parking permits. We walked everywhere at any time of night and always felt safe. Missed the last T (yes their subway closes at night) from Harvard Square and don’t have money for a cab at 2 a.m.? No problem. Walk home from there. The worst that could happen was the blisters. Have a serious hankering for the fresh bread in the North End Italian bakery at midnight? Yes, let’s walk there, eat a loaf of hot bread with butter and walk home. Party in Allston/Brighton way too late on a Saturday? Let’s wipe the strawberry fluff off our fingers and borrow that shopping cart to roll back home down Comm Ave…. Safe. Not always entirely smart, but safe.
I lived in NYC after graduating from BU. Brian was at NYU for law school. I spent many a night in his tiny “you can actually touch all four walls with a golf club from the bed” apartment until we found our upper west side fourth floor walkup on west 89th street. I walked a little differently in NYC. A little quicker. A little more aware of who was around me. Maybe I was a little older and smarter. Maybe I was used to there always being college kids around at night in Boston, so when the only folks around in NYC were either older or scarier or homeless, I was a little more edgy. And then September 11th happened. And I will never be more grateful for Brian (who works downtown) being late to work that day. I was late too, so we were both home in our way too hot for September 500 square foot apartment. I was deciding whether or not I would pass out if I tried to dry my wet hair when he was watching the Today Show. “Some idiot flew his plane into the trade center!” he called. I shook my head. That’s stupid. I think I’ll go to work with wet hair. I can’t dry it. I’m already sweaty. “Someone just called the Today Show and said it was a commercial airplane!” Well that’s stupid too, no pilot would ever be so dumb to do that – it’s not like you can’t see it coming – it’s the tallest building in the city. My hair’ll be dry by the time I get there or dry enough that I can just put it up and it won’t bother me I wonder if I’ll be cold with the stupid AC I wonder if I should bring a cardigan…. And I walked into where Brian was watching TV and tying his tie. And then boom. We heard a crack reverberate off the buildings outside. And then on the five-second delay from the tv we saw a commercial airliner fly into the second tower. And life was never the same again. I was in a complete daze. We walked everywhere. To the Red Cross site on the Upper West Side – we wanted to give blood – there was a crowd of hundreds of people and one lone volunteer turning everyone away. They didn’t need blood – they needed nurses to take the blood because they didn’t have enough medical staff. Most stores were closed. I remember thinking how people had hand-written signs to post in the doorways letting everyone know they were closed. Some said “Due to current events” or “Due to downtown”, no one knew how to name it. One person had written “God Bless Us All”. I thought to myself, I just need to know today’s date, at least that I will remember forever. Little did I know that 9/11 would become part of the historical vocabulary, because to this day we don’t know what to call it. Later when I went back to work, Channel 13 had become a headquarters for the Red Cross and the missing. We had lost an employee, our engineer who monitored the TV antenna on top of one of the towers that produced our signal to the tri-state area. Part of my job as an events planner back then was to help plan the memorial service for him for our employees. The rest of my day I spent inputting names of the missing into the Red Cross database. On the way home, I’d look at the names on the posters of the missing on every telephone pole. For awhile I kept looking at the people I passed on the street to see if they were the missing, as if they were walking around with amnesia instead of beneath the rubble of the trade center. No one was the missing. Everyone was dazed. Not long after was when the anthrax scare began. I walked by the General Post office at 34th Street every day on my way to work. I’d find myself holding my breath like I did when I was a kid passing a graveyard. I would cross my fingers, I’d blink slowly when I looked to cross the street. I invented things I could do to have OCD so I could find some semblance of order and control at a time when there was none. But never while I was walking around NYC did I ever need to worry about one of the terrorists still lurking in my city. The 9/11 bombers were wretched and horrible and brought new realities to the world, but they were dead.
Boston after the Marathon attacks had a different fear. The terrorists weren’t dead. They were hiding somewhere. We’d later find out they were hiding in a boat (and hiding in a boat on land is the worst getaway plan EVER). On 9/11 Police weren’t combing my neighborhood to find the bad guys. I wasn’t on lock down. I was able to go outside and find life again, however different it may be. When Bostonians were then locked in their homes and told to “shelter in place”, I shook my head once again and thought about how all the things that were never supposed to happen seem to be able to happen. And why?
It took me awhile to come up with the answer for “Why” when my kids asked about the Boston Marathon bombings. “WHY” would someone do this? I almost got mad, no I did get mad, when the media and news anchors and journalists started asking this question about the Boston bombers. Why? Seriously? Do you actually think there is a reason that you could hear and then you would say “oh, right, I get it, that makes sense now why they bombed a public gathering and killed three people including a little boy in third grade and injured and maimed dozens of others”. NO. Let’s say that again. NO. There is NO why. I don’t care if they call themselves terrorists or jihadists or mujahideen or purple furry monsters. When they fly planes into buildings, bomb marathon events, make their way into elementary schools or theaters or college campuses with guns, they are not proving a point about their beliefs. They are proving a point that they are not normal. I believe that the real answer to WHY is that they are mentally ill. Their brains don’t work the way they are supposed to and they don’t understand right from wrong and they made a terrible choice and they have no respect for human life. That is WHY. Period. Full Stop. Don’t talk to me about their politics, their belief system, or their religion. I don’t care. And no matter how mad or angry or annoyed you get about ANYTHING, there can be no explanation for killing people, or making bombs and set them off in public, except that those who did this were sick.
In the olden days of my youth, we had these places called mental institutions. We actually used to make jokes that my kids wouldn’t even understand – “oh my goodness leave me alone you’re gonna put me in a mental institution!” My kids wouldn’t know what that meant. But now, if you’re crazy, there isn’t somewhere for your family to send you. And guess what. We didn’t actually FIX the problem of mental illness – we just got rid of the hospitals that were taking care of these folks. Were the hospitals great? Probably not. When I was in high school our Psychology class took a field trip to Greystone over in Morristown, NJ. There were “open wards” where the residents needed a supervised place to live and eat and sleep, but the patients could go walk around the Morristown Green at lunchtime if they wanted a little fresh air off-premises. My dad used to tell me stories about how folks would walk around the green and sort of check out whether or not someone was wearing shoelaces. That was one of the only ways you could tell if someone was a Greystone resident or not. I’m not entirely sure why the shoelaces, unless they thought the patients were going to hang themselves with their shoelaces, which honestly doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, but never having tried to actually do that I can’t really say.
The super crazies lived in the locked ward, which is where we all went to visit. We weren’t allowed to bring anything in with us. I worried about them taking my shoe laces so I wore slip-ons. This was an eye opener. They were seriously nuts. Also a little nuts is taking a bunch of sixteen and seventeen year olds to a locked mental ward, but it was all in the spirit of education of Mr. Irving’s Psychology class. Some patients were off to themselves, slobbering and drooling like a sad senior center. Some were yelling, loud and scary. Some spoke Spanish, and since only one of our group knew enough to translate (way to go public high school encouraging foreign languages), she was laughing way before she could get out the translation. The one lady who had been talking and moving towards Brian yelling Besame! Kiss me! Thankfully the most danger we saw in Greystone was someone who wanted to kiss my adorable high school boyfriend. Disturbing yes, but not really harmful.
And then we closed Greystone. Not we, me, but we the state. All across the country, mental hospitals were closed down. And now we wonder why the world has become more violent, more unstable, more scary. Every time I read a story about a family who was so desperate and didn’t know what to do with their mentally ill child I start to have a heart-breaking temper tantrum. They need a place to GO. If we as a government can’t offer our citizens and residents a place to bring their family and friends when they are worried they will do harm, what kind of country are we? Open the hospitals. Train mental health care workers. Find the money here first instead of putting it towards all the other Band-Aids that come later. Mental health is the source of every wrong in our nation and if we could get better at fixing that the rest will be easy. Happy, well-adjusted, satisfied with life people don’t do scary horrible things. They’re too busy enjoying life. Until someone else stops them from that whole enjoyment thing by bombing them or their loved ones. We need to stop asking why, and start doing the things we need.