Susan J. Demas: The season of silence and letting go
Ten months after the mass shooting at Michigan State University, the last hints of autumn are fading away on campus. And my oldest is getting ready to graduate.
Like so many of her generation, she spoke out afterward against loose gun laws that make these tragedies daily rituals in our country. The stories students shared at rallies of the horror and confusion they felt on the night of Feb. 13 — and long afterward — should haunt us all.
Our children deserve so much better.
Fortunately, she and her fellow MSU students actually got to see gun reforms signed into law just weeks after three students were killed and five were critically injured. There’s much more work to be done in Michigan and across the country. We know that sadly, it won’t be the last time kids are ordered to “Run, hide, fight” from active shooters terrorizing schools or movie theaters or festivals.
But it’s a start.
And my daughter has real hope that things can change, which makes this Gen X cynic slightly weepy. That’s no small thing for someone who was just 17 when the pandemic hit and had to grapple with mass death, isolation and an insurrection during her first years of college.
That she is graduating early — and with honors — is simply amazing to me. And it’s her achievement alone.
But like many soon-to-be empty nesters, it all feels a bit surreal. It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was a new mom contending with a dizzying new world of Pack ‘n Plays, breast pumps and trying to get my baby to sleep for more than an hour (I didn’t figure that one out until she was a toddler). Unbelievably, I was only four years older than my daughter is now.
After divorcing my first husband and becoming a single mom when she was 5, it was just the two of us for years. I know I treated her to an unusual childhood of backpacking through the Sierras and dragging her to campaign rallies I was covering (she says that’s why she wants to run for office, so I guess I did something really right or really wrong — take your pick).
My only financial goal, aside from paying my bills, was trying to make sure I could afford to send her to college — every networking coffee, every freelance story I squeezed in was in service to that goal.
That’s not uncommon, of course, but after being broke for years before she was born — the dealing with vermin in your basement apartment and going to the doctor at the free clinic kind of poor — let’s just say I was particularly motivated.
I recall an editor asking me why I looked so frazzled one day when I was trying to knock out my fourth story before my kid’s afterschool program closed and he reminded me that being a mom was a choice. It took everything I had not to burst into tears, because believe me, that man was not going to see me cry.
After my daughter survived Feb. 13, it never occurred to me to take time off, because working through adversity is just what I do. There are so many important stories to tell, my team needed me and somebody has to keep things together — something we eldest daughters from traditional households have known how to do since birth.
In the years since then, I’ve gotten remarried and managed to save up for not one, but two kids’ college educations, with the added bonus of being far happier while running two publications.
But now my husband and I are both left wondering: What’s next? When your lives and finances completely revolve around your kids and you wake up and they’re suddenly both in their 20s, it’s a bit disorienting. And quiet. (I suppose it’s good that we still like each other).
That feeling obviously is heightened for me after the toll of the pandemic and the MSU shooting. After my daughter survived Feb. 13, it never occurred to me to take time off, because working through adversity is just what I do. There are so many important stories to tell, my team needed me and somebody has to keep things together — something we eldest daughters from traditional households have known how to do since birth.
But I’ve also come to realize that really has been my life since March 10, 2020, when we thought the presidential primary was the biggest story that day — but then the pandemic also barreled into Michigan.
Keeping my family safe was my top priority. There was endless worry — that my aging parents would get sick after a trip to the grocery store, that my teenage children would be scarred for life, that the rage and resentment so many felt would boil over (which it sadly did).
I did my best to support my team and keep them safe, and not just having them work from home before vaccines were available and stockpiling KN95s and N95s in the office after. For a couple of years, it was a blur of after-hours phone calls, filling in for others, trying to track down COVID tests and more.
But everybody navigates trauma in different ways and has different needs. So many people in my life have struggled with anxiety and depression; some have unfortunately lashed out. None of us are the same as before the pandemic began.
At some point, after years of extolling the virtue of self-care to others, I finally had to practice what I preached. I knew I didn’t need to step away from the job that I love and my fantastic team. But I did give myself permission to take a break from writing about the world and how I see it and process things in private.
It wasn’t an easy decision. I love writing my column — it’s who I am, I think I melodramatically told one of my editors who wondered what a twentysomething woman really had to say about politics (or anything, for that matter).
I’ve fought to keep writing it as newspaper after newspaper slashed their budgets and high-powered folks in Lansing (yes, from the left, right and center) loudly griped that I had a big mouth and the wrong opinions, while some of the more industrious ones lobbied to get me fired.
But I learned to work through the guilt of taking a creative hiatus and ultimately, give myself a break. I don’t expect anyone else to, but I owe that to myself. I found myself reveling in the silence (and rambling around hidden corners of Yosemite alone with my daughter before she begins this next stage of her life didn’t hurt, either).
So I waited until I had something to say to others before I returned to column writing this fall. And in a rather delightful way, it feels like coming home again.