All the other parents swooped into the rec hall to collect their kids from the “children’s mass” except mine. I was five. Stranded. Abandoned, like, forever probably came the panicky whisper in my child’s mind as green and unruly as a field of wildflowers.
We were not really a churchy family. My father swore off Catholicism after growing up frog-marched into church where he lost hours to the drone of stony clergymen issuing God’s most fearsome decrees in Latin. Who wouldn’t rush to join this religion? My mom took the lead in giving us some kind of spiritual foundation. A self-described “cafeteria Catholic” who took the prime cuts of the faith and left off what wasn’t for her, mom took my older brother and I to church every few Sundays.
The “children’s mass” must have been the stroke of genius of a nun sick of listening to annoying, fidgety, squirmy, whiny kids like myself act up during mass because we were both too young and too bored to appropriately absorb the juicier bits of Old Testament guilt and judgey scripture. Held in a little rec hall just across the parking lot from the church, the “children’s mass” meant that kids and adults alike could get their Bible ‘larning on uninterrupted.
I attended once and have no memory of what actually happened in that hour except a vague recollection of sipping sticky, sweet grape juice from little Dixie cups and eating ‘Nilla wafer cookies. What I do remember is being left behind after the center had emptied out along with the flurry of parents. I remember shifting from foot to foot in the square patch of light coming through the large open doorway, putting myself in plain sight lest my mom should somehow overlook the only child left in the room. I remember the tightness in my chest and the block of wood lodged in my throat as I struggled not to cry. I remember the heat of my small palms, digging my nails into the pads. I remember the clammy sensation of my feet stuck to the cheap material of my off-brand Mary Janes, the prickle of heat racing over my scalp. Raw fear. What if she never comes?
At one point, one of the adult volunteers came over and knelt down, putting her arm around my shoulder. She must have said something comforting. It didn’t matter. She was a stranger; I was alone. And just when I thought my heart would splinter into a thousand shards, my mom’s familiar shape filled the doorway. Apologies. She got caught up chatting with Mrs.-such-and-such. Concerned look at my face, undergoing a series of contortions from the effort of trying not to burst into hysterics of relief and anxiety. A look from me to the woman, a smile, a hand outstretched, it’s okay, c’mon honey.
There was about a .000% chance that anything bad was going to happen to me. The uncertainty and apprehension that I was someone never going to see my mother again were nasty trolls thumping around on the bridge of my kid brain. Fictions. Irrational. But what I felt in those ten or fifteen minutes unmoored from a sense of family center were powerful, etched into my circuitry forever, as realistic today as they were more than thirty years ago.
I think of those sensations infinitely magnified to a point beyond what I, and most of us, cannot even begin to fathom for the children caught up as human bargaining chips in this humanitarian crisis. I have a hard time thinking of little else these days. I have an even harder time understanding the people who don’t think much of it at all. Children belong in homes, not kennels.
This is not who we are.
That’s a tidy refrain.
I want to believe, Mulder, but history jams a mirror up to our faces and the reflection is, let’s say, unflattering to put it lightly: our collective condemnation of all children when we failed them at Sandy Hook; the demoralizing internment of Japanese Americans; the brutal annexation of Native Americans on the Trail of Tears; the shame of segregation; the abomination of slavery. It isn’t Snow White’s face filling the frame. It’s something closer to Golem from Lord of the Rings.
A different refrain to fit our bruised and bewildering times: This is not who we have to be. We have a chance to rise above our history, a chance to do what is right, humane, compassionate, and just. We can’t do it if we hide behind our entrenched biases about one another, if we cling to the comforting logic like suckling at a rum-soaked binky that it isn’t just this administration, it isn’t the first time, it can’t be about ignoring the law of the land. Wrong with a colossal helping of no-fucking-ope. The second you make it about something other than people, fellow human beings just like you, you forfeit your turn. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. None of us can afford to abdicate our complicity; that is the most direct route to willful ignorance and, worse, disengagement.
While writing this on Wednesday the bad news seemed to only accelerate, collecting into one of those dirty snowballs. You know the kind–made out of late-March snow mixed with mud and ice and bits of gravel, the kind that can really take out a chunk of cheek or bloody a lip if it hits just right. Babies housed at “tender age” internment camps—what craven moron thought no one would see the irony in that designation? Girls moved around the country in the middle of the night in secrecy as if they are nuclear warheads. Pundits, analysts, and political cronies shilling lies and sowing more discord in service to a morally bankrupt administration without a hint of shame or remorse.
And just when it seemed like the levee would indeed break, a concession. Something hastily printed up on elegant card stock, signed, held up in front of cameras because all political theater needs its props. The order put an end to enforced separation between children and their families; the order was a writ of admission that this leadership got its foot caught in its own bear trap. It’s merely a reprieve, a kind of cease fire. Because there is no clear plan in place to reunite the families already sheared away from one another. There is no accounting for the massive psychological and emotional damage already done. There is no real sense that this crisis has actually passed, only that it’s been passed along.
Instead, what remains is a square patch of light in the open doorway inviting us to arrive, to show up, arms outstretched as who we could be.