Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Losing Sleep

I wrote this about two weeks after I returned from covering the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. Since that time, I've kept it buried, shown it to just one other person, someone who worked the story up there with me.

Mostly, I wrote it just because I needed to get it out of my head and I've been uneasy to put it out there for two reasons. 

1.) I've been nervous that it just comes across as me complaining about my own personal situation.
2.) I've felt a certain amount of guilt for feeling so badly when there are obviously people who were directly and significantly affected by what happened far more than I can imagine.

Additionally, I've wanted to distance myself a little from my coverage in Newtown. It's not a fun thing to talk about so I largely avoid it, though there are times when I'm drinking with buddies that things will slip out.  

But a few things made me decide to post this today. When I woke up this morning and did my customary scan of Twitter, I saw a Tweet from another journalist I worked with up there who had a nightmare about it.

And then I read Will Bunch's column today on the front of the New York Daily News on the death of the assault weapons ban in Congress.

One of the biggest fears of the reporters I worked with was that Newtown would happen again and some of us might be there to cover it, like Mike Topel, one of my editors up there who covered the Columbine shooting.

In fact, we were confident it will happen again. Seeing the assault rifle ban bill won't be voted on made me truly realize that Congress, the NRA, their friends and well-wishers, all aren't losing much sleep over that.

            In my first day back at The Mercury since I returned from coverage in Newtown, I walked in and flipped on the lights to the empty newsroom.
            Dropping my bag by my desk near the door, I looked down to see if there were any notes put there in the week since I’d left. There were none, surprisingly, but I was suddenly drawn to my desk itself and the contents upon it.
            It seemed frozen in time to the minutes before I literally ran out of the newsroom to pack for the trip up to Connecticut.
            Press releases from Dec. 12, 13 and 14, 2012 lay in a jumble, my trusty desk pen at its usual angle atop them. Sitting on my AP Stylebook was a newspaper from the week before that I’d meant to get my clippings out of Friday afternoon.
            Not one spot on the desktop carried any reference to Sandy Hook, Newtown, or even Connecticut.
            Slowly, I lowered myself into my chair, removed the faded baseball cap I’d worn throughout my time covering Newtown, and silently put down the week’s collection of newspapers I’d missed that I’d just grabbed downstairs.
            I was entirely alone for a few hours to begin my shift, for which I was glad. But it felt surreal to simply write up press releases or listen to the usual chatter on the police scanner. I felt almost numb, as if only my muscle memory were guiding me, like I was performing some dance I’d learned years ago.
            Later in the day, I realized I was finally hungry and decided to grab some lunch. For some reason, during my time covering Newtown and the first few days following it, hunger wasn’t something I truly felt. Of course, I got hungry, but it was dulled from the usual sensation, feeling more like someone whispered me the idea than actually feeling it in my stomach.
            Replacing the baseball cap on my head, I trotted down the stairs out of the second floor newsroom and headed for the back door of the building to where my car waited to take a quick trip to Wawa.
            As soon as I pushed open the door and the outside air hit me, a thought started in the back of my mind and charged to the forefront of my consciousness, screaming at me.
            You don’t have your notepad.
            My hand instinctively shot to my back pocket where I routinely carry it. Nothing was there.
            I suddenly was in the grip of the worst panic attack I’ve ever experienced. It didn’t last long, just eight or ten seconds, but I couldn’t breathe and I was hyperventilating all at the same time. My entire body began to shake.
            My mind was suddenly a cacophony of shrieking thoughts.
            WHAT ARE YOU DOING?
            WHERE’S YOUR PEN?
            It was mostly over before long. I was able to tell myself that I was going to grab lunch for half an hour at Wawa on the Saturday before Christmas. What would I possibly need my notepad for doing that?
            More or less back in control, I fished my keys out of my pocket and approached my car, wondering what the hell that had been.
            I soon realized that in Connecticut I’d never gone anywhere without a notepad and a pen. If I was going anywhere, I was going somewhere with an unpleasant job I was likely stressing over.
            Once I recognized that it’d probably been a strange leftover from my experience, I laughed a little to myself. But I was admittedly shaken for the rest of the day and my heart didn’t slow back to a normal rate until I left Pottstown that night.
            By some miracle, I was given both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off even before I went up to Connecticut. After working both Saturday and Sunday, I was ready for another rest.
            Each day since I came home from Connecticut, I felt myself improving. Christmas posed another opportunity to get back toward normalcy. Although it felt that much of the joy I traditionally reserved for my favorite holiday had been sapped this year, I still happily looked forward to it.
            Every Christmas Eve, my mom’s side of the family gathers at my Aunt Becky’s home to have our traditional meal which features Polish fare like handmade pierogies, stuffed cabbage and sauerkraut with butterbeans in it. It’s my favorite meal of the year, beating out even Thanksgiving.
            But outside of the food, I greatly enjoy the company of my family, which includes my cousin Denny’s two young boys, Owen and Aaron.
            For some reason, since they were toddlers, Owen and Aaron have had a special affinity for me. I think it probably has to do with the fact that I haven’t grown up in a lot of ways and am forever willing to sneak outside and play quarterback or catcher for them in their sports of choice.
            In any case, they seem to like to hang around me at family events.
            After dinner, I was sitting around the dining room table with my dad, sisters, and a few cousins, talking and grabbing Christmas cookies. Aaron came tearing over in his navy blue sweater and jumped up onto my knee.
            I held him there and listened as he told me where Santa Claus was, according to the tracker application he was checking every three seconds on my sister’s phone, burning out the battery.
            In Newtown, I covered one of the first funerals, that of Jack Pinto. It was an assignment I felt terribly uncomfortable with. At the same time, my editors asked me to do it and my conscience rarely allows me not to at least make an attempt to do something I’m asked to do.
            So I covered the funeral for the football fan who Victor Cruz declared, in writing, was his hero. It was the only one I was put on and turned out to be a very difficult, very personal assignment.
            Since that Monday, Jack Pinto has never left my mind.
            At the table after dinner Christmas Eve, I suddenly felt sick. Aaron, 6-years-old, a kid I love as much as if he were my own, was the same age as Jack Pinto.
            As he chattered away about the application showing him Santa’s travels through East Africa, he leaned his head back into my chest, where I felt my heart rate skipping up again and some of the shakiness return like I’d felt a few days earlier at The Mercury.
            With more time passing since I returned from Newtown, I do feel as if I’ve gained back a sense of normalcy.
            Nightmares are far less frequent, it’s easier to go to church and be alone with my thoughts, I have less trouble getting through a conversation with friends who ask me about my time in Connecticut.
            But, with the time that has passed, I’ve realized that Newtown may never leave me.
            When I was young, I had a lot of trouble falling asleep. I was always afraid that some skeleton or zombie or ghost might reach out and get me during the night.
            I may have been six when my dad, trying to help ease my attempts at sleep, told me about his father’s nightly ritual.
           My grandfather, who died the year before I was born, served in the South Pacific as a radar operator for a fighter squadron in World War II. According to my dad, Fourth of Julys were difficult for my grandfather because the fireworks sounded too close to the bombings and artillery he’d had to endure.
          At some point around the time he served, my grandfather, a Catholic like me, began to make the Sign of the Cross on his pillow before he went to sleep, a sort of way to protect himself.
          Since my dad told me about that, I’ve followed suit, making a Sign of the Cross every night on both the pillows in my bed.
          Every night since I returned from Connecticut, I’ve gone to bed and made the Sign of the Cross on my pillows. And, every night, I’ve made an extra, smaller one last, just where I put my head, for Jack Pinto.
          No matter how else I may get back to “normal” since I’ve come back from Newtown, I don’t think I’ll ever stop doing that.

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