Recollections of a childhood tragedy

Days before, a friend had suggested acupuncture. To my surprise much relief came immediately upon the first visit. But the doc warned me it wasn’t over and I needed to come back. I get Julia dressed and ready for her mother’s morning out program. I groan as I put her in the car seat that is so littered with bits of toddler snacks, I’m afraid it will sprout like a Chia Pet if it doesn’t get cleaned soon. There’s just too much to do! I drop off my daughter and head to the doc’s office. I am hurting and ready to give that Chinaman a piece of my mind.

Getting some relief from Snow White and accupuncture

By Debra Cole

It’s Thursday evening and my daughter wants to watch Snow White for the 17th time. I do what she wants and cuddle with her on the couch. I look at the screen and wonder, why do all the evil witches in Disney movies look like drag queens? Someone at Disney must have been a cross dresser. I try to enjoy the time but my back is hurting. The next morning, the pain is more intense. I feel like the old woman who poisons Snow White with the apple. She’s the one with warts on her nose and osteoporosis.  Ugh! This is worse than labor! I struggle to get out of bed and conclude I should have had a baby in my 20s. Forget emotional maturity, this kid is killing me.

Days before, a friend had suggested acupuncture.  To my surprise much relief came immediately upon the first visit.  But the doc warned me it wasn’t over and I needed to come back.  I get Julia dressed and ready for her mother’s morning out program. I groan as I put her in the car seat that is so littered with bits of toddler snacks, I’m afraid it will sprout like a Chia Pet if it doesn’t get cleaned soon. There’s just too much to do!  I drop off my daughter and head to the doc’s office. I am hurting and ready to give that Chinaman a piece of my mind.

Photo: Debra Cole

He tells me to calm down and gets out the needles. He says there’s nothing really wrong with my back. It’s just sore because I overreact to everything. He tells me I can’t function in fight or flight mode anymore. That’s easy for him to say. I’m self-employed and divorced. And I’m co-parenting a toddler with a man who is “difficult” on his best day.

The acupuncture helps. But I’m warned again that it’s likely to get worse before better. We talk more and settle the bill. I go to the coffee shop to wait on Jules. While sipping my morning Joe, I look up at the TV and see there’s a shooting at a school. I don’t pay much attention. After all, we’ve seen these things before. I pick up my girl and go home. We walk in the house.  “Mommy, I want “chokit” milk!” I fix her the milk and check the news on my IPad.

I get more details of the shooting. I am horrified and stop breathing. The next morning, I read the names of the dead and cry at my kitchen table.  Afterwards, I go to a rehearsal. I’m thankful to be doing music instead of comedy this weekend. Many of my comedian buddies had posted on FB, “how am I supposed to tell jokes right now?”  In the evening, I attend a dinner party.  There’s much lively discussion about guns, NRA, and mental health. I finally get to bed late but wake up at 4 a.m., sweating with my heart racing.  I am sad, angry, and scared.  I feel like a helpless little kid.

Sunday morning comes and I have the Christmas cantata. My back is worse and now I have a mouth full of canker sores.  I decide to not think about those little kids and concentrate on the annoyances in my immediate vicinity like the amateur violinists sitting behind me. Such timid entrances, people just play! I try to make myself comfortable but the chairs are horrible. And the drummer doesn’t know what he’s doing.  Does he even read music? What a hack!  I sigh and think I’m going to end up with a back brace at this rate. But I soldier on and play my flute like a professional.

On the drive home I talk to myself. I’m a comedian so it’s not unusual. I complain about my pain. My hips are burning and I’m tempted to call someone who has highly rated and perhaps illegal pain medication around the house. I make a mental list of possible candidates. My ex mother-n-law is at the top. I talk more about who and what has irritated me. Then my irritation turns to anger.  And the anger is upgraded to tears. It takes everything I can to stay focused on driving and not completely break down.

I wake up Monday morning and am in so much pain I want to punch that Chinaman. I show up at the doc’s office with a forced smile and sarcastic tone, “It’s me again.” There are more needles and more talk about breathing.  He tells me to imagine the situation that bothers me the most.  Well that’s easy, I just think about my ex.  Everything is his fault, including global warming. The co-parenting, his moods, his comments, it’s all too much. The doc instructs me to breath and leaves the room. A few minutes pass and I realize the problem isn’t the ex or climate change for that matter. I start to remember.

It was the 70s and I was in Kindergarten. We were watching a film that day. I don’t remember what we saw, but I remember the sound of the projector and the lights being off. It was February and cold especially for South Georgia. Mom picked me up early to take my brother to the optometrist. He was in second grade. After the appointment we drove home. My older brother Buddy was supposed to already be there. He was 14 and had planned to walk home from school.  We opened the door and called his name. There was no response. I went to his room and saw his books on the desk. And then I heard my mother scream. I ran to find out what happened. She grabbed the phone and called for help. But it was too late. Buddy was dead. He had used one of my daddy’s guns and blew a hole in his chest.

I was terrified, but not really because of what I saw. Although ghastly and shocking, my mother pushed us out of the room so quickly I didn’t fully comprehend the violent scene. But it was her reaction that scared me. I ran out the front door so fast I didn’t see the tree.  I woke up on the grass. I’m surprised I didn’t break my nose. And then I remember the ambulance, neighbors gathering, and my 15-year-old sister’s arrival. Her face and the crying, it was so disturbing. I didn’t recognize her.

I continued to walk around the yard, looking at everyone, like they were in a fishbowl.  I saw my brother calmly explaining what had happened to a group of kids on bicycles. How diplomatic and adult-like he was for a 7-year-old. Later, friends of the family picked up Jim and me. Their daughters were teenagers, so the pajamas they offered were too big. We ate dinner and watched the Waltons. My sister didn’t come with us. She went to her best friend’s house. And my father arrived home in the evening, having received the news at work.  I didn’t see him until the next day.

The Chinaman opens the door.  I tell him my face hurts. After all there is a needle in my forehead.  He says it’s working and walks out. I go back to breathing. I start to think about the parents of the children at Sandy Hook Elementary. Reporters had talked about the distraught on the parents’ faces when they were told at the firehouse that their children didn’t make it. I then remember the way my parents looked.  Until Sand Hook, I had never thought of it.

I try to picture my father’s face. He was the least vocal of my brother’s death. The ordeal contributed to my parent’s divorce and his fatal heart attack my sophomore year of high school.  I wonder how he felt. The gun belonged to him.  He was a typical southerner, actually a redneck. But I don’t mean redneck as in the Toby Keith fans that shop at Bass Pro stores on their day off. Those guys are posers. My dad was the real deal. His best friends were WD40 and duct tape. He fixed his own roof, shirtless of course. However, my father didn’t like hunting.  He didn’t visit the shooting range.  So his guns were always locked away and never glorified. But sadly, my brother knew where they were.

Buddy had a traumatic brain injury from an accident at age 8. A car hit him as he chased a ball. His legs were broken and he slipped into a coma for a couple weeks. He recovered, but was left with seizures and severe depression the rest of his life. There was little understanding of brain injuries at the time, and few anti-depressant drugs. My parents did what they could, but fear and ignorance stood in the way.

I start to think about the children who survived the shooting at Sandy Hook. First grade, middle school, college, it will be different for them. I wonder how they will cope, the loss and exposure to violence.  My parents were products of their time and culture. Children were seen and not heard. Feelings were something swallowed and prayed about. So counselors were not called. Questions were not asked. Instead, there was isolation and unrelenting tension from unspoken grief.

The doc finally comes back and removes the needles. I leave and pick up Julia. I take her to the park. I am dizzy but she needs to be outside.  When it’s time to go she does the plop down on the sidewalk thing that toddlers do. She refuses to walk and I’m madder than hell. I yell at her, “Get your ass up!”   I’m so angry I don’t know what to do.  I walk ahead, trying to escape. On the drive home, I think about President Obama’s words about the shooting. He mentioned hugging our kids a little tighter. But I don’t want to hug Julia. I want her out of my sight. I am pissed she is here and I have so much emotional investment in her. I am furious because I can’t control what happens to her!

The next morning, Julia’s father arrives. I feel guilty for being so glad to see her go.  I spend the next two days stretching, walking, sleeping, and breathing. I follow the Chinaman’s orders. My back improves. The canker sores in my mouth start to heal. When I see her again, I am in better spirits. We spend the day laughing, dancing, and hugging. And we watch Snow White.

I stroke Julia’s hair as Snow White rides off with her prince. I’m glad she is with me Her life gives meaning to mine. She is a blanket to my otherwise cold feet. I think about my father.  I miss him. I wish I could look out into the audience at my show and see him applaud.  My beautiful daughter should know him. But I’m grateful for the pleasant memories. And I am glad my brother no longer suffers.

I guess I take some lessons from Snow White. What a trooper! Abused and nearly killed, and she still sees the good in the world.  Maybe the families in Newtown can also be transformed by their grief and rage, and turn their pain into loving actions.

Debra Cole is a self-professed ‘lefty’ who calls it like she sees it. She was a public school teacher in Georgia for 9 years. Currently, she performs regularly in Atlanta area comedy clubs. She’s known for her sophisticated and smart humor that’s delivered with a seemingly sweet and yet surprising sarcastic Southern Georgia twang. E-mail her at: or visit her website: or follow her on Twitter  @DebAtlantaComic or view some of her comedy clips here.


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3 thoughts on “Recollections of a childhood tragedy”

  1. Thank you for an educational, as well as entertaining story. It was a horrendous tragedy; and the grief affects each person differently. I shall look for more of your work to enjoy.


  2. I just completed a lengthy and thoughtful post here, only to have it lost by the system, telling me the password wasn’t retrieved.
    I haven’t the time or desire to try and recreate it.


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