The fire truck that led us into Newtown turned on its speakers. And out came a mournful rendition of Amazing Grace on the bagpipes. I stood this past Saturday with 120 other runners, and headed into town. We were a mile or two away, and we ran slowly toward its center.
We had gathered on the edge of town after running from Roxbury, 12 miles or so from Newtown, to pay our respects, to donate money, and then leave without overstaying our welcome.
While we had the support of local officials for our fundraiser, and the Roxbury fire department had escorted us the whole way, lights blazing, we still didn’t know what to expect in a town overwhelmed with grief, memorials, and visitors. Many, many visitors.
Where is the line between honoring the memories of innocent lives and showing support, and the uncomfortable feeling that some may view outsiders as participating in a morbid sort of tourism? That line, of course, is unknown, as it resides in the ever-shifting sands of emotion within each of us. That which is acceptable and welcome to one may be unacceptable and unwelcome to another.
The run — not a race — was organized by Brian Vanderheiden, a local runner living just eight miles away. He gathered friends in the area, centered around a vibrant running community in Roxbury, and then invited others from the outside to join him. On short notice in a grief-stricken week, he and a supporting crew put this together.
It was cold and cloudy when we left the park that was our staging area, with an ever-so-light sprinkling of fresh snow giving a bucolic covering to the farms and fields on rolling hills that we ran past. We chatted as we went, green and white ribbons flapping in the wind, all the while wondering and worrying about what awaited us.
Losing innocent adults to a hail of gunfire is awful enough, but what is the right thing when a child is lost? What is there to say to the family? To do? On NPR, Linton Weeks discusses that very subject, knowing from tragic experience, having lost two sons in 2009 to an out-of-control tractor-trailer that crashed into their stopped car. He has much to say, even if there might be little to say for the friends, neighbors and others trying to provide support.
As 120 runners approached town in unison, pulling hats from heads and choking up, a few on the sidewalks gave a gentle applause of acknowledgment. Homeowners on nearby porches gave a thumb’s up. A couple of drivers going the other way on our road stopped to say thanks.
The town was filled to the gills with makeshift memorials that would crack the soul of any that breathe. There may easily be a thousand or more stuffed animals within them, along with all manner of flowers, candles, Christmas trees, stockings, personal notes and letters and more. A giant broken heart sits by the firehouse inscribed with the names of those lost. A group of leather-clad bikers walked by, among those paying respects for an incomprehensible tragedy.
One person in our runner’s group wrote on Facebook about the reaction she had received:
At the finish a friend and I were approached by three teenage girls who thanked us for what we did today.
I don’t know what we did, but they were in tears.
Life doesn’t always present us with clear choices on which road to take, as the potential choices may defy empirical analysis. We cannot always appreciate how others will view our actions. We go sometimes with our gut, and we hope for the best.