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27 Oct

On Murders And Mother-Love And The Bearable Weight Of Fear

I read the story of the nanny murders yesterday morning, at about 4:30am, just after I’d hopped in a town car to get to La Guardia for an early flight to Houston. I had, only minutes before, snuck into the dark of my childrens’ bedroom and kissed their foreheads and whispered goodbyes – softly, quietly, so as not to wake them – and lingered, for a minute, maybe two, with the idea that leaving them means leaving them. What if something happens to them while I’m gone? What if something happens to me? What if this is the last time that I see them? What if, what if?

And then I pull myself together and I go, because I must always go, because I can’t spend my life attached to them, because I can’t – because no mother can, and no mother should – have my eyes and hands on them at all times.

So it was that when I flicked open the New York Times app on my phone and landed, almost immediately, upon the story of the murder of two small children, left with the nanny while mom took the third to a swimming lesson, while dad was on a business trip, a murder that occurred in a warm and happy apartment in a part of the city that I can see from my own apartment, in the bosom of a family that I could know… I crumpled. I wept. I grappled, with difficulty, with the urge to tell the driver to turn the car around and take me home. Screw Houston. How could I leave my kids? How could I leave my kids? How?

It was immediate, and visceral, and almost entirely overwhelming, this feeling. It struck at the deepest nerve; it dug in and pulled back all the layers of self-protection and exposed that nerve to the cold, cold air and then stabbed it, but good. It’s crippling, the pain and fear that attend the exposure of and assault upon that nerve. That’s why we keep it covered up, in layer upon layer of soul armor, in the metal-plating of that can’t happen to us and that couldn’t happen here. And it is, ironically, why we so often peel back the armor and poke at the nerve ourselves, more often that we should – what if, what if, what if – because we know that it’s there, because we can feel its thrum, constantly, because we just can’t help prodding it, testing it, asking ourselves: if this nerve gets pulled right out of our body, if it gets truly exposed, if it gets torn… could we survive?

We suspect that we couldn’t. We read about the nanny murder and linger on the detail of the mother finding the bodies of her two children – she had just left them, she had just left them; they were with the nanny; they were safe! – and of her crazed, animal screams and we know, we understand. Yes, of course, it would be just like that. We would lose our minds. We would lose our selves. We would spiral and fall and become lost in a vortex of unimaginable pain. I thought, sitting in the back of the car that was taking me away from my own children: I would kill myself, if I found my own children like that. I would scream and scream and scream and then kill myself.

These are (and here I am burying the lede, shoving the most dangerous point down the page, down many lines of words and pixels) thoughts that only a mother will have. Or a father. Only a person whose heart lives outside their body, in the form of a dependent human being, in the form of a person whose life is in your hands. Only a person who carries or has carried this sweet burden, knows, viscerally, the feeling of its weight. This is not to say that those without children do not feel pain about the suffering of children; it is not to say that they don’t understand love, qua love, or that their emotional experiences aren’t as deep or rich as those of parents and other primary caregivers. It is not to say that they do not or can not appreciate the horror of a story like this one. Nor is it to say that every parent or caregiver gets this, that they all feel its weight. It is only to say that the fears here are only really truly knowable by those who live with them; that the terror one feels at even the prospect of losing hold of the heart that one carries outside oneself is a terror that can only be meaningfully known by those who carry.

This is the condition of parenthood: it is the condition of living, moment by moment, all at once, in the experience of the deepest love and the deepest fear. The fear is inextricable from the love; we fear because we love, and the scale of the fear is directly commensurate to the love. Only in knowing the love can you know the fear. It is because we all know this love and this fear that the terrible story of the Krims and their loss rocks us to our cores. We know how we would feel. We know, in our bones and in our hearts and in the furthest reaches of our souls how we would feel. And we know, too, that we cannot direct our lives by the lights of this prospective feeling, this fear. Because it is so there, because it is always so there, because it is something that we cannot escape from – something could happen, something could happen – it is something that we have to live with. And so we go on, rattled and exposed.

I went on, rattled and exposed, and caught my plane and flew to Houston. This afternoon, I’ll fly back home and hold my children, tight. And then we’ll go about our lives, much as we always do. Hearts in hands.

Hearts always in hands.