Having it all?: Ashes to ashes

I am preparing for death, and everyone else is on Instagram.

click to enlarge Photo from the perspective of student Aidan Minoff hiding from an active shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School of Parkland, Florida. - Aidan Minoff
Aidan Minoff
Photo from the perspective of student Aidan Minoff hiding from an active shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School of Parkland, Florida.

"I am preparing for death and everyone else is on Instagram."

This line by Kate Bowler in Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I've Loved, a book about a woman learning to live with faith in the face of terminal cancer, has stuck with me this past week. It resonated particularly yesterday, the day of the Parkland, Florida school shooting just a few hours from here. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre marks the 18th mass shooting in 2018, and the year is still young. The news was quickly flooded with first-person images, but there's one I can't shake. It's of a student who is peering out from under a flimsy plastic chair, who has wedged himself beneath its four metal feet, looking up at the same industrial desks that are in my son's school. Because of the photo's angle, because the student is crouched low on the ground, his vantage point is the height of my son's. He may as well be — he is, they are all — my boy.

The Parkland tragedy occurred on Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent. This day reminds people of their mortality. As the preacher or priest marks with ashes the sign of the cross on the penitent's forehead, we are to "remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return." The preacher on Wednesday marked my six-year-old son's forehead before she marked my own, and the symbol seemed more to me like an arrow than a cross, connecting me, to him, to Parkland. I stared at this sign of his mortality and wondered selfishly, as I always do when I hear of such tragedies, how much time I have left with him.

This futile timekeeping — this fruitless obsession with the question "how much time do I have?" — began the moment I learned I would be a parent. I could not tell a soul I was pregnant until the twelve week mark, when miscarriage becomes less likely. Time crawled as I carried the secret I wanted to tell everyone. When the due date approached, time slowed again. He was heavy, and I was tired. When the newborn arrived, I couldn't mark time at all. Days blurred with nights, and then months blurred with years. Infancy shifted to childhood in a blink.

This rapidity might explain why parents are often so eager to document the parts of their children's lives that, to everyone else, seems astonishingly boring. Her first dance recital. His 100th day of school. Their 35th basketball game. Although I have read a lot of finger-wagging books about the dangers of iParenting — viewing much of what your kid does through the lens of a smartphone — perhaps the impulse comes from a place that isn't as gross as it seems at first glance. Sure, maybe we're taking a picture of our kid eating quinoa to brag about our triumphs as parents. And, yes, it probably does deter us from living in the moment and being present. But maybe we're also doing our best to hold on to what we know won't be with us forever, whether snatched from us by a distracted driver, a gun-toting madman, a swift disease or our own ticking clocks. 

Kacy Tillman is a displaced Texan who is an Associate Professor of English and Writing at the University of Tampa. Follow her on Twitter @kacytillman or check out her website at kacytillman.com

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