On My Watch

The flag was the first thing I noticed. Half-staff and limp on this windless morning.

Mourning as we all were, refusing to wave or stand tall.

Driving into the staff parking lot, this familiar drive I have done countless times, my heart was in my throat.

The kids were pouring into school, running to catch their friends or sneak some playground time before the 8:30 bell. Moms and dads walked along behind them, the familiar march I see most weekdays. A bit more somber than usual, I sensed.

This school is home to me. I started here as a rookie kindergarten parent back in 1999, when my son was 5 years old and school seemed the safest place next to my arms.

Years passed, and both of my kids moved up the ranks from the kindergarten crowd to the upper grades.

I snagged an amazing job working with at-risk kids in small groups, teaching social skills and being someone they could count on to talk about their worries or help them deal with rough times at home.

I love these little ones. So fragile, so trusting and so amazingly resilient.

How will I face them today, when that same fragility that endears them to me now makes them seem so very vulnerable?

As I walk the campus after the bell, I feel like I’m on my watch. Every little thing that seems off is questioned. Doors are locked, gates secured and parents gathered in whispering groups, their eyes full of fear. One of them stops me for a tearful hug, thanking me for what we do.

It reminds me of September 11, when the nation’s eyes were glued to the television and our whole world changed. Our feeling of safety stripped from us as if we were no longer entitled to it. I still sent my kids to school that morning. Many did not, but I felt the intense need to move forward, to make it right.

To make my children believe that there is good and fairness and safety in our world.

How do we do that now?

I pick up my first little group — three adorable, full-of-life little kindergarten girls — and we laugh, we sing, we compare shoes and we learn about taking turns.

They are blissfully unaware that their parents had to make a choice this day. A choice to send them to school and to let them live without fear or worry. To trust that the adults in charge are doing everything they can to keep them safe. A choice to keep their lives normal during all of this chaos.

And the choice to just let kids be kids.

And on my watch, that is just what they will be.

Little Boy Lost

She just let him be a kid.

That’s what the good mothers do, especially those with little boys who need to run and get dirty and build things.

He needed to ride his bike or his skateboard, needed to build with his dad in their garage, and just needed to be a boy.

So she let him.

We buckle them into seat belts and strap on helmets, wrap sharp coffee table corners in bubble wrap, and use safety gates to prevent little guys from being hurt on too-steep staircases. We puree homemade baby food, vigilantly prevent choking hazards, and sneak into the silent darkness of the nursery at night to watch them simply breathe. We hold little hands as we carefully cross the street, practice calling 911, and use safety scissors.

That’s what the good mothers do, after all. We do everything in our power to keep them safe.

She just let him be a kid.

As I sat in my family room that night the news began to spread through our small town the way modern-day news travels…over Facebook. A comment about a horrible accident, a young boy injured, speculation about who the young boy was, exchanges between young and old trying to figure it all out, and finally the sad news that he did not survive the accident.

And then I saw the message that made my heart sink.

I knew who this boy was, knew his mother. We work together at the school and she is wonderful.

She always talked about her boys.

Now one was gone.

She just did what others mothers do every day: she just let him be a kid.

How do we do this every day, when there is no guarantee? No promise of a future, or of grandchildren on our laps, no cure for cancer, no special bubble wrap that can protect our children? We let them go each day, like small pieces of our hearts with goals and ambitions and a will all their own.

We pray and we wish and we cross our fingers that they will be OK. Throw a bit of faith or fairy dust into the wind as we shout, “Have a nice day!”

How do we do this?

I have wondered this many times over since that night in May…and since the warm evening in June when we all stood and cheered as his mother walked down the aisle amongst the 8th graders to accept her son’s diploma…and since the late afternoon in August on what would have been his 14th birthday, as I hugged his mom in the memorial garden the volunteers have created for her.

How do we do this?

I have become a bit more tolerant of the eye rolls, a bit more relaxed about the have-to-do things. A few more minutes to stay up, an extra hour to browse at the mall, another cookie, maybe a pat on the head as I walk by.

Because life reminded me that we truly don’t have unlimited time with our kids.

So I just continue to do what the good mothers do.

I just let them be kids.


 This post originally ran on Moonfrye

April 22, 2004

A beautiful day in early May. The sun shining brightly, teasing us with the possibility that summer was just around the corner.

The beautiful bride and her bridesmaids gathered in the waiting room, chatting and laughing, anticipating the day ahead. The young ring-bearer was running all around the room, charming the twenty-somethings as they sat in their gorgeous gowns with sweet-smelling bouquets.

Red rose petals scattered along the aisle. The ring-bearer holds my hand and stops here and there to pick them up ever so gently.

An incredibly moving and private ceremony; powerful emotions and laughter bringing two people together who were bound to be one.

Another beautiful day in early May, two short years later. Sun shining a bit brighter than expected but the mood not so bright. Bagpipes play in the distance, getting louder as they approach….

Family members and friends gathering. Hundreds of fans and on-lookers, camera crews and reporters. A surreal mixture of intense grief and ceremony.

Nothing private about this day.

Rose petals carpet the ground from hundreds of rose bushes in the Municipal Rose Garden where the service takes place. The former ring-bearer, not so small anymore, takes my hand as we walk past the huge pictures of his uncle and talk about each one.

Former NFL star Pat Tillman, who walked away from his professional football career with the Arizona Cardinals to serve with the Army Rangers, was killed in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004.

Seven years ago today.

His death left an incredibly huge hole in the lives of my brother and his family, in the lives of those who were close to him as friends.

In the life of his wife, Marie.

It’s not often in this life that you meet someone who has the conviction to do what they think is right. Who has the honor and integrity to take the lone road, make their own choices, do in the end what is not just the hard thing but the right thing.

A person who takes the time to learn about other people, their beliefs, and their lives.

Pat was a man of incredible honor.

My son was in fifth grade when Pat died, and already in awe of this larger-than-life man who was serving our country. The last time we saw Pat, he was in Army fatigues holding my then-infant nephew and gazing into his eyes.

Strength and compassion, side by side.

And as my son has grown through middle school and high school, the honor and courage that Pat showed has carried forward as a lesson on how to live your life. Pictures and articles still adorn his bedroom mirror.

We discuss difficult choices and how to do the right thing, even when it’s the hard thing.

Thank you Pat, for your service to our country. And for leaving a legacy of honor and courage for the younger generation to follow.

The Pat Tillman Foundation invests in veterans and military families through education and community. To date, 111 Tillman Military Scholars representing 28 states and attending 46 academic institutions nationwide have been awarded over $1.3 million in scholarship support.