Thursday, December 22, 2011

An Abiding Sense of Tragedy

My son Jack fancies himself an artist. He paints, draws, and colors his way through life. I blame it on our Lithuanian nanny who watched the boys back when I still worked. Edita put a crayon in Jack's hand when he was 7 months old, and Jack has hardly put it down since.

In tidying the house for Christmas, I decided to tackle the mountain of artwork that has collected in a huge basket for months. I needed to decide which pieces would be laminated, and which pieces would meet the recycle bin.

I couldn't help but get emotional when I found a "book" Jack created on this day last year. For those unfamiliar with the story, two Chicago firemen were killed in a southside collapse days before Christmas 2010. The call for the fire came during a shift change.

Many firemen had already been relieved and left for home, unaware of the impending disaster. If you watched the live broadcast that morning, you saw dozens of firemen frantically digging around in the rubble. Nobody knew for sure who was accounted for and who was still missing due to the natural confusion of the shift change.

Tragically, two firefighters were killed: a 12-year veteran named Edward Stringer and a former Chicago policeman turned firefighter named Corey Ankum.

Our phone rang off the hook that morning. Joe was part of that shift change for that fire, but he had already been relieved before the call even came in. Unaware of the collapse, Joe stopped by a repair shop on his way home because somebody had attempted to burglar his car by smashing a window. While he was cleaning up broken glass and getting repair estimates, he remained oblivious to the tragedy unfolding on television that morning.

By the time he arrived home, I was glued to the news coverage. I didn't even notice Jack sitting rapt in front of the television for hours, not saying a word.

In flipping through Jack's drawings of that event, it is evident he understood the significance of what he had witnessed. Page after page captures the chaos, the fear, and the tragedy of the day. One picture shows a colorful, smiling fireman about to go into the fire, and within a few pages, the mood is darkened:

Joe and I have never really shielded our kids from tragedy or death. We both figure it's a part of life, and our job is to counsel and help them find ways to cope. Perhaps it was a mistake to have the kids participate in the funeral procession a few days later. But if this neighborhood has taught me one thing, it is a respect for ritual and tradition.

We stood out in the cold and acknowledged the heroism of these men who gave their lives in an attempt to save potential homeless people from the fire. Hundreds and hundreds of cars and fire engines from all around the country slowly processed down Western Avenue, blocks from my home. It was a sight to behold. My boys still remember it vividly.

It was in that moment, watching a neighborhood of countless Irish firemen and police, that I remembered an old line from William Butler Yeats:

Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.

Many people would disagree with such a generalization. But for me, it feels spot-on.


  1. Oh sweetie. Thank you for my morning cry! I'm proud of you for how you're bringing up your boys. I honestly think it's a brave way to do it, to not shield. I think I may have sheltered Nathan too much and when tragedy really hits, we may be in trouble. I can only hope and pray it's a long time before we have to deal with it.

  2. I hadn't heard of this tragedy, being a Brit but Jack's picture's had me in tears.

    The fact that he is able to express himself through his drawings, is a wonderful thing.

  3. Erica - I'm sorry! I didn't mean to make you cry! I think wanting to protect your kids is normal. Yet loss seems to find us pretty regularly, so we figure we might as well prep the kids now. I hope you all have a Merry Christmas!

    Lily - Gosh - no tears. Jack is amazing with his working everything out through drawing. I wish we could do the same. Hope you guys have terrific holiday. xoxo Mar

    Kelly - Thanks, Kelly.