Mary Sheehy Moe: Give thanks this day, but know too the unbearable grief of others

The thing is, you forget.

You forget that when you first met this delicious child, so full of wiles and whimsy, he was a pair of glossy eyes on a body not much bigger than your foot, staring out at you from an incubator. You forget the tubes he had up his nostrils and down his throat and into his veins, performing the most basic functions for him. You forget the surgery when he was just a month old, when they snaked a scope through an impossibly tiny vein and then up to his heart, where they clamped a hole shut so his life wouldn’t drain out.

You forget all that … until the moment a few hours ago when he called out in the night and you went in and pulled his wriggling shape out of the crib, and there in the darkness, his chest pressed next to yours, you could feel his heart beating. That same once-frail, compromised heart, beating wild and strong now with the impatience of youth. Then you remember. And give thanks.

Forgetting is probably a good thing. Without it, we’d tiptoe our way through life, always fearful of getting hurt. So, like the baby who startles at every sound until she learns which sounds matter and which don’t, we tune out the unpleasantries of the past.

With the ever-accelerating speed of change and a world full of distractions, I worry that we are now forgetting too much too soon. Just over 9 months ago we reeled in reaction to the carnage at yet another American high school that took 17 lives, injured 17 more and terrorized hundreds of kids there and across the nation.

But within a week, the forgetting started. There was another death, with another 7 injured, in a gang shooting in Kansas.  Then 5 folks were wounded, including a policeman, at a San Francisco barbershop. Then in a Tennessee Waffle House, 4 killed and 3 hurt by a nut wearing nothing but an AK-47.

Then 2 kids killed, their 4 friends wounded, when someone with a gun pulled alongside their car on a Memphis highway. Then 5 newspaper staff killed in Annapolis. Then 11 worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue.  Then 11 patrons and another police officer at a bar in Thousands Oaks. And more after that and more before and lots more in between. With a mass murder occurring in the United States every 36 hours now, maybe we can be forgiven for forgetting. Too many numbers. Too many variations of the same theme.

We know how to go numb when the numbers get big. We’ve had practice. Over the course of my children’s lifetime, the land of the free has claimed the world title for incarceration. It’s a blowout: Nobody nails ‘em and jails ‘em like we do. And as Serial’s Sarah Koenig recently put it after illustrating it compellingly in the third series of that podcast, “Every joint in the skeleton of our criminal justice system is greased by racial discrimination.” Compared to white people with the same criminal histories convicted of the same crime, she says, “Black people and other people of color are arrested more often, charged more harshly, given higher bails, offered worse plea deals, handed longer prison sentences … and their probation is more often revoked.”

Forget it. And God forbid some football player should trouble our Sunday afternoon by taking a knee for the anthem in which the highest, most celebrated note is given to the word “free.” He could forget too. He could turn back to a celebrity career with a salary that promises to lift him permanently out of the country where black Americans live. He could turn back to “winning,” as our President defines the term. But he won’t turn his back on his race – or on the ideals of his country. We used to call that heroic. The price for forgetting is vilifying him.

My grandson is back in his crib. A few days ago, I wouldn’t have been able to soothe him. I was a stranger invading his predictable world, turning everything upside down. But now he’ll let me hold him and pet him and rock him back to sleep. Meanwhile, scattered across this land I love, 175 of the 2,654 children separated from their parents at our southern border six months ago remain in government custody. Like me, they’re waiting for the dawn of a new day. I suppose their terror, too, has subsided now. Over time, you forget.

In a few hours, I’ll sit down to a sumptuous feast in the home of the great-great-granddaughter of an Irishman who fled a famine that left his countrymen’s corpses stacked in the streets while the British complained about Irish shiftlessness. Her husband is the son of a Cuban refugee from the Batista era. While their triplet toddlers torment us with their terrible almost-2’s, we’ll remember all the good people and strokes of good luck that brought us to this bounty.

We’ll remember, too, all the tables across this country missing for the first time a loved one at Thanksgiving – a child shot at school or a grandmother at temple, a brother incarcerated for being black, a mother taken away inexplicably and seemingly permanently. What an unbearable emptiness that must be.  Our actions as a nation – or inaction – have played a part in creating that emptiness.

So give thanks today? Sure. But give a damn, too, beyond today.  Don’t forget.

Mary Sheehy Moe retired from the Montana University System in 2010 and has since served on the Great Falls School Board and in the Montana Senate. She lives in Great Falls, where she is now a city commissioner.