Same Song, Different Verse

Tuesday, May 24, 2022
I am writing from the upstairs bedroom of a yellow farmhouse in northern Illinois, far from the crumbling castles and cobblestones of the Setúbal region that I love. Outside, spring rains are soaking the prairie fields, already lush with clover.

I returned to the States late last week to accompany my parents to two memorial services for relatives who have died — a great aunt well into her 90s, and my Dad’s favorite cousin who was felled by COVID on New Year’s Eve.

Days before I boarded the plane in Lisbon, the news from the US was grim. First, the uproar of the impending Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade and decimating the right of women to own their own choices, their own bodies. And then, in rapid succession, a mass shooting on May 14th targeting black people at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York; and another the very next day, at a church luncheon in Orange County, California.

As I folded clothes into my suitcase, I wished for reasons not to go. My 11-year-old daughter tried to convince me not to make her go. But it had been nearly six months since I last checked on my parents, and nearly a year since they had set eyes on Filha.

My mother, who turns 80 in a few months, is losing herself to dementia. My father, her caretaker, sounds lonely and sad on the phone. The relatives’ funerals had been planned since late winter, scheduled for a time when the most far-flung nieces and nephews could attend to remember, to mourn, to comfort each other.

Filha and I needed to go to Illinois, needed to see and be seen. There was the bonus promise of being picked up at O’Hare airport by my decades-long friend Chrissy so we could catch up on the two-hour drive to my parents’ farm, as well as the promise of my sister arriving from California, with Filha’s three beloved cousins in tow. I wanted to see them all, longed for the overdue hugs and conversations that meander through a thousand topics in the way of old friends.

Still, I dragged my feet every step of the way to the airport. Were it not for family and friends who are like family, I think I would not go back to the United States at all. Not to visit. Not to sightsee. Not to remember. Not for anything.

The depth of this reluctance has surprised me. When we moved to Portugal last year, I thought I’d be happy to travel Stateside once or twice a year. I thought I’d want to go back to San Francisco; thought I’d look forward to visiting. I was wrong.

Sometimes you don’t realize the depth of a feeling until you stop having it. I knew, long before I moved to Europe, that for me, living in the States meant living with an ever present drumbeat of fear and dread and despair. I was accustomed to the stress I carried in my shoulders, to the habit of threading keys through fingers on a dark walk to my car, to checking over my shoulder when footsteps came up too fast, to scanning for exits in public places, sitting with my face to the door in restaurants, begging any god who would hear me to keep my baby safe when I dropped her off at school. I had contingency plans for every worst case scenario I could think of.

Then, Portugal.

And it all stopped. In Portugal, I don’t fear for our lives, for our safety. I don’t dread the newsfeed. I just… go about living my life.

It’s quiet. Peaceful. And not without its own stresses and concerns, of course, because this isn’t fairy-floss story spun in Hollywood. But it’s so very different — a difference that I’ve quickly gotten used to. I don’t want to go backward.

But right now I’m sitting in a farmhouse in the middle of America, and this afternoon in Uvalde, Texas, a teenager outfitted himself for war and unleashed a fusillade of terror at Robb Elementary School.

He murdered 19 children and 2 teachers and I do not have enough room anymore to hold this hurt and this rage. Again. Again. Again. This country bleeds from so many wounds and yet will not relinquish its death grip on weapons of war. Again. Again. Again, it turns the gun on itself. On its children.

And for what? For freedom? This isn’t freedom. But we’re going to have that debate now in America, just like every other time. Here comes the hymnsong of thoughts and prayers. There will be outrage and vigils and tears and candles and op-eds and parents weeping in parking lots after they drop their children off at school and little ones waking up at 3am from nightmares about bad guys with guns hunting them down.

“The sheer psychic damage done by the omnipresence of guns in America is self-evident (no healthy society should have to train its children in active-shooter drills), while the social damage extends far beyond the immediate casualties.” That’s what Adam Gopnik wrote on March 25, 2021 in his NYT article “The Return of Mass Shootings.”

Back in Portugal, after I told her that it was important to go see her Mimi and Papa, her aunt, her cousins, Filha was quiet for awhile.

“It’s not that I don’t want to see them,” she said. “I do. But Mom, what if we get shot in the airport? Or in the grocery store? Every time you leave the farm to go into town, I’m going to worry that there will be a shooting and you won’t come back. I got used to not worrying about that anymore. I’m scared to go back to America.”

The sheer psychic damage.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022
I paused in posting this edition to make sure I really want to put all of this out there, because I’m not going to debate in the comments. I’ve heard the theories about good guys with guns and #notallgunowners and etcetera ad nauseum. Sandy Hook was nearly 10 years ago. We’ve heard it all since then, and nothing — nothing but the death toll, the zip code, the gut punch photos of those gone-forever faces — ever changes.

Life doesn’t have to be this way. This blood-soaked. For pretty much Every Other Country In The World, life is not this way. Why do (a minority of) Americans insist on making it so?

I’m angry and I’m heartsick and I’m relieved, so deeply relieved that these daily fears and the gun-toting bogeymen of her second grade nightmares do not exist for Filha anymore, not in Portugal.

We fly back to Lisbon in five days.

Until then, I’m going to soak up the all-to-brief moments with my sister. I’m going to hug my disappearing mother, and listen to my father’s late night tall tales. I’m going to enjoy all the iced tea on tap and take another piece of toast the donkey out back.

And then, Filha and I are going HOME.

…I wrote this poem in October of 2016, when my daughter was six and stalked by nightmares after an active-shooter drill and Trump had not yet soiled the Oval Office and George Floyd was still breathing and Chanel Miller had not yet revealed her name and wildfire season in the west wasn’t quite as dependable a horror and things (in hindsight) were so much brighter and yet, somehow, still so very bleak. Every once in a while I find the poem again, and read it, and marvel about how much things stay the same, the same, the same…

Sweet Child of Mine

I want to give you the world
but not this one.
Not the one where a boy
with dirty fingers
can stuff you with leaves
behind a dumpster
and get off easy
because he can swim 200 meters
in a hot fucking minute.

Not the one where a man
with a grudge and a gun
turns a dance floor
into an abattoir
where rainbow lights pulse
on the tortured limbs of dying men
who came out for the music.

And those bullets, oh child,
you have to dodge them everywhere,
take care, take cover
at work
at school
at concert halls and cafes.
Even first graders here
know how to cower
in a closet
while their teacher
lays down her body
as a barrier.

Not for you, a world
ruled by moneyblind megalomaniacs with
big fears and small minds
and small hands
and small opinions of women
of poor people
of gay people
of brown people
of people in general.

There is no equality here
so don’t expect understanding
if the gender gifted you at birth
makes your very skin crawl
and you require stitches and knives
to make it right.
Don’t expect impartiality
if you share a bed
a life
a love
and genitalia, too.
That rainbow flag waves
in defiance here
more often than joy.

I want for you no limits
not the size of your curves
or the shape of your smile
or the purity of your unsullied sheets.
I want for you the assurance
that your sex does not determine your worth
or your health or your wealth or your freedom
of choice.
of voice.
Because this world does not want to listen, child,
this world will not give you ground and I

want to give you the sky but not this one
where dispassionate bombs
fall from the blue
obliterating schools
and hospitals
and hope.
Death delivered by remote control.

And people flee that death
and horror, that loss and ruin
unleashed by all the powers that be.
People run and they crawl and they swim
and even as their children sink beneath waves,
we won’t let them in.
There is no room in this world
for the war torn
for the foreign born.
No vacancy for the burqa bearing.
No clemency for the keffiyeh wearing.
One whiff of otherness and
the door slams in your face.

I want to give you a window
to crawl through. I want to give you
wide open space. I want to give you
the ocean-deep depths. But the water
is choked with plastic and the prairies
are plundered for oil and
this place, child, this place
is headlined by blood by bullets by bastards
Every.
Gods.
Damned.
Day.

I do not want for you a world
where a cop fires his gun into a car
regardless of the
Baby on Board
because
the man behind the wheel was black
and then he was dead
and he was unarmed
and then he was dead
and his hands were up
and then he was dead.
And white men kill black men kill white men kill people
kill sons kill fathers kill sisters kill mothers kill brothers kill daughters kill people
kill kill kill.

And still
tonight another man in blue will strap on boots
and his badge and his wife
will wait red-eyed by the window
while across town a black man slips on shoes
and his wallet and his wife
will wait red-eyed by the window
because this world, sweet child,
this world is ruled by fear.

I cannot give you this world, child.
Not the world that makes me
want to lie down and die
day after day after
24-hour news cycle.

But for you, for you
I will get up and go on
for one more day
and then another.
For you I will stand
I will fight
I will speak
I will write
I will see
I will love
I will hear
I will hope.

For you, I will.

Originally published in Word Salad Newsletter

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LaDonna Witmer

LaDonna Witmer

Reader. Writer. Hangnail biter. @wordsbyladonna