As weary as we are of discussing the Newtown, Columbine, and Parkland tragedies, while factoring in growing list of other shootings such as El Paso and Dayton, the silent witnessing of these horrific acts alone will not inspire peace across the land. How do I know this? Because sales for assault rifles skyrocketed on the days following the Sandy Hook shooting…along with magazine clips designed to increase the speed of any assault.
We are slowly making progress in our fight against the NRA, however, for us to further scratch beneath the surface of the usual gun-control debates, we need to identify many other issues that can only be addressed in unity. I think it will take much cooperative effort to effect true change that can make a lasting difference…and not just for our children, but our grandchildren as well. We all must try to understand how Adam (and many other mass shooters) somehow failed to become a part of us as caring members of their communities, and drifting so far beyond our grasp that not only couldn’t we help them, but we couldn’t even defend ourselves, or our children, from them.
Keeping guns out of the wrong hands seems to be the only idea that all civilized people in our nation can agree upon…so, perhaps this can serve as a starting point for our national dialogue, which has become painfully polarized, clichéd, and clouded with confusion; it is crystal clear that the time is now for us to come together and create a safer society, especially for the most vulnerable among us. I believe we do know how to do it, but we still can’t get the powers that be to implement assault rifle bans, expanded background checks, closed loopholes and a buy-back weapons and other such concepts, although I know we will keep trying.
Mental health is the card the NRA plays when they feel we are gaining ground here with them beginning to lose in the court of public opinion; blame it all on the mentally ill and focus on finding ways to ferret them out and fix them in time to prevent all potential tragedies. Trump weighed in just yesterday to say it’s time we began to build those institutions we used to have, the ones we left behind decades ago. This shortsighted view of menta health is dangerous, and rather than yellow stars, I can envision our Trumponian world’s next step as a calculated attempt to dehumanize those deemed “mentally ill” before we detain them, perhaps indefinitely, the way we used to, or kill them, the way the Nazis did not that long ago. In fact, a whole ward full of children, the first children ever diagnosed with Asperger’s by the man himself, were exterminated as the Holocaust was just beginning to pick up steam; please don’t think we this won’t happen again because we are above this level of thought because we seem to be sinking lower every day in our national dialogue.
We all know of certain parents who are a bit askew: the neglectful parents who drank too much, the mothers who weren’t enough of a presence for their children or were way too much of one, and not in a good way. There were also the absentee parents, whose crimes were more neglect than abuse, but whose absence created a painful vacuum rather than full bellies and a hug at bedtime. Certainly not all the children of these wayward parents will end up mass murderers…but many of them will, in fact, end their own lives, with suicide being homicide’s quiet and sneaky cousin, or grow up to face prison time or a lingering depression or domestic abuse.
It would seem that society should create a better safety net for all of these children before the damage has been done; perhaps creating a support system that would allow children to counterbalance the homelife, school life, or social life that is destroying them can make a real difference. If school could expand their goals for students they are supposed to serve far past simple test scores (i.e. their “holy grails of achievement”) to focus more on the social and emotional growth of all of our children, this would definitely help. Yes, it will cost money to do this…but can we really afford for any more children to grow up as alienated as Elliot, or Adam, or the vast majority of mass shooters? If so, can we also continue to allow for such easy access to assault rifles, as well as to the extreme violence available on so many film and television screens?
These questions weren’t on my mind back when I was raising Danny. I did not yet know the deepest of implications behind the struggles he was facing as he tried so hard to conform to social and behavior norms inside his mainstreamed kindergarten classroom. However, Danny did know the name of every one of his classmates, despite the lack of social acknowledgments he offered them; he had also memorized the entire text and musical rendition of the story of Peter and the Wolf. On the second week of school, before he had spoken a pragmatic word to anyone, he surprised his teacher by raising his hand and answering all of her questions about the correlations between the various characters in the story and the haunting melodies of the music itself.
Madison, who was Dan's assistance dog at the time, proceeded to break some social ice for him, year after calendar year. He was a frequent visitor to all of Danny’s classrooms, and he helped tremendously to form and sustain friendships upon our relocation to Mansfield. Here, in this town that exists in the shadow of UConn, they actually cared about Danny’s education, and they did not view our relationship as adversarial. Danny truly began to thrive there, thanks in large part to several great kids who befriended him…and special thanks goes to one extraordinary boy in particular. His name was Brendan, and he served as Danny’s personal angel unaware.
Brendan was one of eight Kissane boys who would accompany their mom, Debbie for visits to our home. She was usually in some stage of pregnancy back then; I’d bring a blanket and cold drink out for Debbie so she could lay quietly in the sun, along with a giant box of popsicles for the boys, and they, in turn, gave us every inch of the sense of community we were craving. They taught Danny to play the neighborhood games I was at a loss to teach him; they knew the “rules of the streets” along with my own, but they also knew when it was important to break or bend them. I think, in retrospect, the Kissane boys knew how needed they were by the Gross clan, and they decided to rise to my unspoken challenge. In my gratitude, I treated them with more adult-driven respect than they were usually afforded, which dovetailed with all those popsicles quite nicely. We had several extremely-fun summers, to their everlasting Gaelic credit and considerable charm.
As the wheels of time turned, we were all slowly, inevitably ushered out of our nirvana. The Kissane boys began to need more from me than just cold popsicles and an above-ground pool to keep them down on my farm, and their loss created a vacuum. Dan was in danger of being gradually left behind, like a door quietly closing on a sleeping baby. I barely noticed this, truth be told, until reality slapped me awake one day; Dan was a junior in high school, and I had to swing by to bring him a book he had forgotten at home. The office directed me to the lunchroom, and that’s where I found him…within a packed cafeteria, Dan was at the only largely-empty table, surrounded by empty chairs, literally boxed out by empty space.
So, was Dan officially “integrated” in high school? Well, not really, despite the fact that he has been mainstreamed since preschool. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Dan’s destiny in being a newborn with autism in 1986 was to avoid institutionalization and electric shocks, and to stay above the fray of segregation and even more severe bullying than he endured. The best he could do was to grow up mainstreamed, well-educated, perhaps even respected, but still roundly-ignored. It was only through Dan’s calculated and persistent efforts (along with his native showmanship) that others began to take note of him.
In Dan’s sophomore year he created a video about his high school class trip to Washington DC (featured above) that was broadcast on the monitors of all the homerooms, which gave Dan a bit of notoriety and a real boost to his confidence. At the beginning of Dan’s junior year, he announced that he would no longer take my advice in “dancing quietly around the edges” of popular cliques; he would now truly begin sharing who he was. It was a disconcerting conversation for me, for although I knew Dan to be a kind and funny person, I was fairly sure that not everyone at E.O. Smith shared my value system.
This was where I had to again put my trust in the Kissane boys, and their brand of “protection” I’d bought with all those popsicles…particularly Brendan, who was the first Kissane to have befriended him. With Brendan, it wasn’t ever about the bribery…the last time I saw him was over a decade ago, bumping into him in his Mom’s driveway as I was leaving from a visit, in our first-ever private moment as adults. I leaned in to connect with the soft blue of his eyes as I tried to properly thank him for all he had given Dan, who by this time was a junior at UConn with an eye toward film school.
Brendan seemed to think I was just being silly and endearing, as his own lovely Mom could be; he was a loved-up boy and always fundamentally respectful…even when in trouble with the Principal for selling candy at his locker, or literally crawling into a ventilation system and falling through the ceiling of an English classroom, where the students likely needed a bit of waking up. There was a note of chide in his voice when he informed me that no thanks were necessary; I realized then it was his pure authenticity that connected him to Dan for so long, as well as in the first place.
And, for the record, it was Brendan who had pulled the “I-killed-someone prank” Dan spoke of in his column. I watched it all unfold in his junior year, the very aforementioned year when Dan decided to be himself, consequences be damned. As their conversation wore on, I could see how Brendan’s questions became more serious and probing after the prank was well-established; Brendan was a Catholic boy, after all, and I could see that Dan’s references to the morality of redemption was striking a chord with him. It seemed as if he was fostering a cocktail of admiration and amusement that Dan’s heart could be this pure and innocent.
I didn’t inform Dan at the time that he was being pranked; I merely warned him of this possibility, and this was because of how much I trusted Brendan. I also trusted Dan’s decision to put the whole private discussion online, despite my belief that Brendan’s would have kept it a more private prank. I deeply admire the courage Dan must have had to allow others onto the bottom floor of this joke, and his generosity to share not just the giggles, but the thought that if anything outrageously-bad ever happened to a friend of Dan’s, he would be there, ready to help, no questions asked, with no doubts to cloud his empathy, and no cynicism to help him slink away.
It was on a cold February morning when Dan called me from the dorms at UConn and said there was something he needed to tell me in person. A full decade later, I am amazed that Dan waited until he was in the warm back seat of my car before sharing his heart-shattering piece of news with me. In a gentle voice, he informed me that Brendan had died in a car accident on the previous night…he put his hand gently on my shoulder, clearly thinking of my feelings over his own.
Thanks to Brendan, as well as Dan’s ever-widening circle of family, friends, and brothers-in-arms on the filmmaking circuit, I no longer consider Dan disabled. He isn’t cured, because autism isn’t a disease, and he hasn’t secured a traditionally-procured long-term job just yet, but word-of-mouth artists continue to find him. His friends are astonishingly diverse and loyal and his family is solidly behind him. He has built an incredibly safe and stable world for himself, and he is successful by any measure of this word; he accepts his differences and stays modest about his talent, always happy to share his gifts, as well as himself, with others.
I think that to truly stop mass shootings in this country, we need to do more than just change a law, incarcerate more people, have more discussions on political channels or more cleverly composed tweets. We have to actually care about the children we raise…not just mine or yours or theirs, but all of our children.