There's no tragedy in life like the death of a child. Things never get back to the way they were
- Dwight D. Eisenhower
Years down the line if I remember this summer for anything it will be for the children lost over its course. Israeli terror in Gaza wreaked havoc in the lives of so many young. Looking at the televised massacre scenes the inseparable notions of child loss and parents being condemned to live out their lives in the absence of the most precious thing to grace their existence hits home starkly.
It was an unwelcome thought that found its way into my mind as I watched my children make their way back to school after the long summer break. The usual grumping, snarling, door banging and disarray was on display but at least they are here to disturb the peace. Not every parent has that fortune, their own peace disturbed forever by an unsolicited calm that brings with it anything but serenity.
Grief for a lost child must be the same the world over.
In the midst of what was happening in Gaza it is too easy to forget events closer to home. Towards the end of July a 13 year old boy from the town here, Gareth McGuirk, drowned in an accident in a local reservoir. He had been out paddling with some friends, lost his footing, disappeared from view and never made it back to safety. His young companions tried desperately to save him, linking arms in a bid to reach him but without success. One phoned her father who alerted the emergency services but the window of opportunity for retrieving life in this type of situation is infinitesimally small. A first responder who was part of the team that helped locate the boy’s body said that Gareth and his friends:
were playing in the water when he got into difficulty. They tried to help him by linking arms to get him out, one of his friends even got into difficulty then but managed to get out and make it to shore. They tried their best and did all they could, we were talking to them, they were very emotional.They couldn’t be much else. I recall at that age with so much in front of me, the death of a friend being hard to comprehend. The finality of it, the sudden denial of a shared future with a happy ending, the sharp lesson that life is not a fairy tale, the reminder of the mortality: aggregated, it is quite a lot to take in. That it gets much easier as we grow older and become instinctively attuned to the notion of dying is of no consolation to teenagers.
I spoke to my own daughter who was the same age as Gareth, just to remind her always to be careful, that things can sneak up in seemingly innocuous circumstances with terrible and irreversible consequences, that this life is no practice run for the next, so guard it preciously. She was aware of the accident. Probably all kids in that age range around the town would be. Yet it is impossible to protect them totally from the risks of growing up without stunting their maturation. The more you seek to shelter them, the greater the intrusion it becomes for them. Try getting a 13 year old daughter to wear a coat to school on the grounds that 'it might rain.' In the end the need to assert themselves in their own way is what marks their coming of age.
When kids get off for their summer holidays, parents expect two months of vitality-sapping anarchy before the more structured routine takes hold again. To watch children return to school must be heart breaking for any parent who loses one: a different type of bell tolling each day at the very time the child would normally come through the door, flinging the school bag into the corner before flinging themselves down on the chair in front of the TV, having first raided the fridge. The tumult from the schoolyard, normally uplifting because the noise it emits is a harbinger of the future, must, for those parents whose future has become an unfillable gap, stalk them like a ghost.
Leaving my son across the road this morning where he would catch his school bus, I involuntarily thought of the parents of Gareth McGuirk and shuddered. Gaza or Drogheda, when children are taken for whatever reason, lives are filled to the brim with an all-consuming emptiness.