It was my second-born son’s first date night, and the cute couple had planned an evening at the Washington County Fair with his big brother and friends. That night, I couldn’t wait to hear how it went. I envisioned them leaning close in their baggy jeans standing in lines below bright jolting rides, drinking torso-sized Coca Cola, and eating funnel cakes for supper. The County Fair is one of our trusted establishments, always just wholesome enough. My dear friend is a master canner and made her yummiest jam to be entered for the blue ribbon in her category. Our farmer friends’ sons had lambs and calves to show along with their adorable boots and belt buckles just the next morning. I wanted to be a fly on the wall (with a Polaroid camera) for it all.
As the mom of teenagers, I spend a great deal of my energy trying to act chill regarding things about which I have no chill at all. It’s my whole job. Motherlove demands that I work in deep breaths and calm smiles, and I glory in the fact that I react to them a lot less now than I did when they were small. I’m not perfect at it, but I’m slowly learning the art of holding back, of sorting my caddywompus emotions and my urge for control. It feels like a success if I act like I’m at peace. My motions have become “chill,” even if my insides want me to text every 10-20 minutes to see how everything is going.
I’ve made some motherly-improvements as we’ve aged, but they know better. They know I’ll never be a pro. They hadn’t answered my call when they missed their curfew. They didn’t call to tell me what happened as they made their way home. They waited until they were face-to-face with me on the edge of my bed.
The date had been going well, and the couple had separated from the big brother, eating at a picnic table when the gunshots rang out. They saw the smoke and the flash and first hid below the table before running with a thick stampede. My oldest son was standing just on the other side; the gun shot in the space between them; someone had been hurt.
They said it was sudden terror but also a slow realization that there was an active shooter. A friend froze and then sprinted before falling beneath feet. My oldest pulled her from the undertow, and they joined the ones who ran for the fence and jumped. No one knew who was bad or good. Order went sideways, cell phones at every ear, explosions of sirens and lights, daddies running toward the smoke, frantic to find their kids.
And I was at home in my pajamas, clueless and excited to hear how it all went.
The weight of their bodies through the door told me something was wrong. It was alarming to see trauma in the faces of my children and harrowing to know the details of their own survival instincts, how each of them made protective moves for those around them. On a first date that was a first shooting, my son made it his priority to get his date back to her mother. They carried another friend in shock home to her mother, too. They held strong for me, not wanting me to be afraid. As I held them both and told them they don’t have to worry about me—I’m here for them, not vice versa, not yet—they melted from their freeze mode a bit. They finally paused from their flight and felt it. When they weren’t worried about how I’d handle it, they felt it.
The moment I heard they had endured such fear and that another mother’s baby had been wounded, at minimum, I felt ferocious. I could have stood nose to barrel with a shooter myself. That’s what motherlove does. It goes in, like those daddies did. It’s also true that motherlove can do something stronger than that. It can see her kids in pain and be present to it, wrapping softening arms around the ones who are frozen in fear.
After years of battling the after-effects of trauma myself, the county fair became an unexpected testing ground. What do I believe about God when it comes to my kids and their experience of pain? The thought of them alone or suffering in any way has always been terrifying to me, an obsessive hurdle for me through the night for years. It was one thing for me to go through my own painful story and to experience healing, but it’s been another thing altogether to trust that God works the same for them as for me: present in their pain and offering wisdom, movement, and healing when it least makes sense.
This isn’t to say I didn’t spiral later into a whirlwind of what-ifs and a barrage of whys. I didn’t move the entire next day, but then I purposely took long walks to work the energy out of my body. I talked it out with friends. I raged that someone brought a gun to the fair and then used it. I walked my memory through the ways that trauma had taken me under before and then saw where I am now. I saw, too, some of the ways I haven’t healed. I had to face it like I hoped my children would face their own pain and fear.
My past trauma has taught me that hard walks and raging tears can be a Psalm. My past trauma has also been its own stampede, swooping my feet out from under me, and yet I’m here, still moving forward, still growing, still making my way toward peace.
The night of the shooting will always be a marker for me to watch for God in my kids: the way they processed with their minds and the way he made their bodies to work well, to process trauma later and not in the moment so they could survive. They were rattled weeks later and when they would say it out loud, I would call how they named their pain good. There was no stranglehold I could have used to keep them from the pain. I had no option but to stand back and watch them face it themselves. In doing this, God helped me unfurl my fingers and further release the work of their safety, their healing, and their joy into the care of divine love. It’s strange how a wound can teach us to trust, how it births courage in us.
Trauma shows up in little aftershocks for far longer than we’d ever dream. My sons now jump when they hear a boom, but I am learning even from those fears that surface. God is at work in their minds, in their bodies, and in their souls. Watching my kids process fear and pain has made me want to dig deeper, to trust harder for my own healing. I face my fears as an act of faith that God’s love is present and active in the lives of the people I desperately want to protect. Is there a more ferocious motherlove than God’s?
Amber C. Haines is a soulful writer and a blogger. Her first book, Wild in the Hollow: On Chasing Desire and Finding the Broken Way Home was published by Revell in 2015. Her second book, The Mother Letters: Sharing the Laughter, Joy, Struggles, And Hope, was co-curated with husband Seth Haines (Revell, 2016).