It was my mother who told me about the shooting. I had just landed at the Pittsburgh airport en route to visit her and I was tired and I had no idea what she was talking about. “Did you hear?” she said. Her voice was aggrieved and near tears.
No, I hadn’t heard. Furthermore, I didn’t quite believe her. She had been susceptible throughout my childhood to bouts of hyperbole, especially concerning the suffering of others. She would weep often, often over the minor concerns of strangers. Her compassion, while immense, seemed to serve as a necessary distraction from the reality of her own life—and mine—which included years of divorce, dislocation and depression.
“Those children,” she said on the phone, “all those poor children.”
I suppose it was fitting that she would be the one conveying the news. She was ill now. She was dying. Or possibly dying. She was seventy-nine and her head was shaved and she had perhaps three months to live. She’d been given the sudden and sobering diagnosis of stage four lymphoma. Her chances were fifty-fifty. “There are things I’d still like to do,” she’d told me wistfully. There were books she wanted to read, movies she wanted to see, places she wanted to go. An avid bike rider, she wanted to ride her bicycle again. Instead, I had moved her into an assisted living facility.
Waiting for the bus at the airport, I listened to her talk on about the shooting. There were ten, fifteen, twenty dead. She wasn’t sure. She was tired, too. “Awful, awful,” she said. But it was almost a relief to converse about this. We could be heartbroken about a lot of people we didn’t know and who hadn’t yet begun to live their lives. They could take the place of those imperfect, uneven, regretful people we did know.
Arriving at the assisted living facility, I stopped by the care station on my way to my mother’s room. The nurse on duty told me what I already knew: my mother had been glued to the radio all day listening to reports of the carnage.
“I told her,” the nurse said, “‘Martha, you need to turn that radio off.’”
I thanked her. “That was good advice,” I said.
But what I should have said was that under the circumstances it just might be better to have left it on.
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh is an author and playwright. His award-winning memoir is called “When Skateboards Will Be Free.”
He is one of five writers commissioned by WNYC to write essays on the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.