Exactly one week after 9/11, I decided I really wanted to have children after all. My husband Ron and I had been married for five years by then, and we’d both been ambivalent about starting a family. But something about the horrors of 9/11 crystalized for me what I wanted out of life, including being a mother. I thought (naively, egotistically) that creating a family might bring some hope and light to a clearly broken world. Fortunately, Ron was game.
Those sons we imagined into being over 18 years ago are now in high school, set to graduate next month. With a pandemic raging, Oregon’s Governor Kate Brown rightly cancelled the remaining weeks of this school year, putting an end to my sons’ high school education, and all the planned activities leading up to commencement: no prom, no senior skip day, no awards ceremonies, no goodbyes to teachers or peers. Perhaps no graduation ceremony itself, a possibility we are just now trying to accept.
The class of 2020 was born into a country disfigured by terrorism, and now will be launched into the world during a global pandemic. This year’s graduates have lived through other national tragedies in their first eighteen years, their lives intertwined with moments of collective grief. As parents, we’ve navigated these tragedies with them, often flying blind and without guidelines for successfully carrying our children through events that have gutted us as well.
I remember watching the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina with a toddler on my lap, crying into his sweaty neck about the horrors unfolding at the Superdome. I picked up my boys from fifth grade hours after Sandy Hook, wondering how I should tell them what happened at another elementary school, thousands of miles away. The Aurora theater shooting occurred while my sons were at summer camp, and I decided not to tell them what happened. When the Parkland shooting occurred, my kids were in high school, and I fought every impulse to immediately retrieve them from their campus upon seeing the news. And underneath all this unspeakable grief, children dying in Syria, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, their mothers sending kids to school not knowing if they would return home safely: this I didn’t speak to my boys about much at all.
Now my sons and their peers are caught in a pandemic, keeping them inside, bored and isolated from friends, unable to celebrate graduation, an extraordinary achievement in their young lives. It’s hard to know how to carry the grief of this loss, especially when we have personally been spared from the horrors so many others face. After all, Hurricane Katrina and Sandy Hook and Syria’s war occurred thousands of miles from us, the threat of a natural disaster or school shooting or drone warfare only a barely-perceptible thrum to our day-to-day activities. And while those tragedies also showed fractures in our world—places where power and privilege led to the dehumanization and destruction of others—they seemed like events beyond control, things I couldn’t make right, no matter how much I tried.
Even now, watching the news with unhealthy obsession, I feel like my family is living in another reality: one where the decisive action of our governor, the lack of urban density, and communities willing to isolate has saved us from the cataclysmic destruction New York, Detroit, and New Orleans are facing. Combined with my family’s access to health care, our status as members of the white upper middle class, and the continuation of our jobs, this pandemic feels so much less threatening than it must for others without similar privilege.
How then can I mourn for what our family has lost, including the end of my sons’ high school education and the lost opportunity to celebrate important milestones? When so many others are suffering unimaginable pain, is it right to still feel grief about what my kids will not experience? How do we teach kids to hold their grief and disappointment in tension with the understanding that their sacrifices now are saving the lives of many others?
That is the question with which many parents who have similar privileges must certainly grapple. While I don’t believe in tragedy as a ready means of teaching us important lessons, it’s clear that my kids—and many other 2020 graduates—are learning now that their consideration of others’ needs matter more than their own desires; and that, in a world broken by inequity, they are called to help the most vulnerable among us, even when that means giving up something they’ve long anticipated.
As a person of faith, I soundly reject the theology that asserts God is using this pandemic or other tragedies to transform us. Nor do I believe that God created this virus to punish us for our sins, sending a pandemic similar to the catastrophic rain that purportedly slayed humanity in Noah’s time. The Creator I worship is not a god of vengeance or spite, so small-minded that immense suffering would be caused just so we humans might fall to the floor and worship him (sic).
Yet this Holy Week and Easter, I was more fully aware of the God I do worship: someone who upended the structures of privilege and power by teaching us that we are called to love and self-sacrifice; and whose death and resurrection is a compelling reminder that goodness and light will always, always, prevail over darkness, whether that darkness be a tyrannical government set on killing a Messiah, or an insidious virus that has slayed multitudes.
Such a redemptive message seems especially prescient this year, when we are compelled to sacrifice ourselves—our livelihoods, our routines, our church celebrations—so that the most vulnerable among us have a better chance of living. This pandemic has laid bare fractures in our society that have been sublimated, starkly showing us how systemic evils like racism, a lack of accessible health care, wealth inequity, and ableism affect all our communities. The Covid-19 pandemic should compel us to wake up, to alleviate the suffering that exists all around us in this worst of times and in the best to come. And so, while dissidents grumble about wanting to jumpstart the economy and get back to all those activities that once constituted “normal life,” we should focus on this idea of sacrificial love, finding hope in the billions of people worldwide who have sacrificed for their neighbors and for strangers, the most holy manifestation possible of Jesus’ redemptive love.
Of course I wish my sons would be able to celebrate graduation next month. I wish they could have attended prom, ditched school with friends on senior skip day, danced at the all-night grad party I helped plan. A million times over, I wish we were still in that alternative world where governmental maleficence hadn’t allowed the virus to unfurl itself through our communities, laying bare the many fault lines in our health care system and our social structures. But this is the world my boys now live in, and they will be launched into adulthood more aware of injustice and of their own significant privilege—a privilege that has buffered them from some of the horrors other young people have faced.
Right after 9/11, I naively believed that bringing more children into the world might provide hope and light to a broken planet. Turns out, my sons—and others in their graduating class—are indeed providing hope, but not in the way I then imagined. As I celebrate the class of 2020, I feel hopeful that the world will not be that same, but that it will be redeemed by these young people, who will recognize exactly how their world is broken, and who are, through their own loving sacrifices right now, beginning to make things right.