Heather Bell asked me to post the first chapter of The Grief of Wisdom. Here it is:
In Memory of
David Shawn Hunton
Because in much wisdom there is much grief… -Ecclesiastes 1:18
There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.
Isobel Allen stood at her living room window looking
out at the snow capped Jemez mountains, the steam rising off her morning Americano as she raised her cup for a drink. Pink and purple hues colored the blue tinted sky with the promise of a warm April day. She watched the neighbor’s cat creep along the adobe wall in her front yard, stalking early morning prey at the bird feeder. She tapped on the window with her knuckle, watching the birds take flight and the cat turn its head in annoyance. Isobel smiled, knowing the cat couldn’t reach the birds, even if it leaped, but it never gave up trying. She carried her cup to the kitchen sink, then gathered her things and left for work. Friday was her favorite day of the week, just as it was for all of the faculty and students. As Principal of Sangre de Cristo High School, a small alternative school in Santa Fe, her job was rewarding, but often trying. She had a rough school population of kids who for many different reasons did not succeed in a regular school setting. Meeting their needs required a flexible attitude, discipline, and lots of love.
As Isobel pulled into the parking lot that morning, she looked forward to the day. She loved her job and her students. In her fifth year now, she had a cohesive staff and a strong reputation in the district. Grabbing her things off the seat next to her, she glanced at the time, 6:30. As she headed into the building she knew she had almost an hour to do paperwork before her day became the usual mix of issues needing to be addressed or solved. She dug in and didn’t look up until her secretary arrived and popped her head in the door.
“Good morning, Isobel,” Anna said, as she held the door open.
“Good morning, Anna. 7:45?” Isobel glanced at her watch as she laid aside her work, picked up her radio and walked towards the door where her secretary stood.
“Yes, and it’s Friday. At least the savages are happiest on Friday,” said Anna.
Isobel laughed, as she joined Anna at the door. “Okay, I’m going out. See you shortly.” Isobel headed to the front doors, slipping on her sunglasses as she stepped outside. Greeting students as they entered the building gave her the chance to talk to any student who looked like they might be spinning out of control and hopefully gave them a sense someone cared. She expected her teachers to greet students as they walked into their classroom, and she expected nothing less of herself. When the bell rang, and the stragglers came barreling from the parking lot, she waited a few minutes and went in behind them. As she stepped into the office, she said, “Let the wild rumpus begin,” making Anna laugh, then went to her office to try and finish a few more items before first period ended.
The day had flown by, but towards the end of the last period, she listened with her chin in her hand to Odette, who had been brought to the office by the assistant principal for disrupting class. She made time to talk with students, often finding herself patiently listening to a student’s troubles wondering how they survived the lives thrust upon them. Isobel worried about Odette and checked on her often. Though Isobel had had her own issues as a teen, she felt her life had turned out rather ordinary and normal in the long run.
“Ms. Allen, they were doggin’ me again. I’m gonna punch that whore, Audrey! She…”
“Please, watch your language, Odette,” Isobel said. “Listen, I’m glad Mr. Andrews brought you in here before you got yourself in trouble again. You can’t go around punching everyone who stares at you. Honestly, Odette, you are a striking young lady. People are going to stare at you, or at least take a second look, the rest of your life, so take it as a complement instead of a threat.”
“Thanks, Ms. A, but they weren’t lookin’ for that reason.”
“Maybe not, but are those girls worth being suspended for? Hmmm?”
“Suspended? I haven’t been in any fights this year.” “Um, yes, and let’s keep it that way. A fight means you’re out of here, and it sounds like you were close.”
“Ok, ok. Can I come here if I need to talk? The counselor’s a bitch and …”
“I mean, I don’t like talking to her. Ok?”
“You know you can stop by and if I’m available, yes, I’ll talk to you. And if you find you can’t control yourself, just come sit in the office and talk to Ms. Bassett until you cool off. But no ditching class. Agreed?”
“Gotcha!” Odette, flashed some kind of sign, smiled, and flipped her hair over her shoulder.
“Now, back to class before the bell rings, and have a safe weekend.” Isobel came round the desk as Odette stood, giving her a quick shoulder hug and sent her on her way.
Isobel laughed to herself as she stacked up the last of the files on her desk. Isobel couldn’t help but like Odette, even if always on the edge of a blowup with someone. As a junior in high school, she seemed to be at last recognizing the need to control herself to get on in life.
Isobel’s assistant principal, Brian Andrews, stuck his head in her door, already wearing his orange safety vest. “Where do you want me today?”
“I’ll take the road, would you cover the bus lane, please.”
“Sure thing,” as he gave her the thumbs up signal. Isobel pulled her vest from her bottom drawer and headed to the main entrance to direct parents and students as they came and left the parking lot. Everything became gridlocked otherwise, the last thing she wanted on a Friday when she could actually go home early.
When Isobel reentered the building, the halls echoed with the Friday afternoon silence of students and staff having deserted as fast as possible. Isobel planned to leave soon too, but she could see Anna waving frantically at her to come into the office.
“Come look at this; isn’t this where your son works?” Anna said as she pointed at the screen. Isobel stared at the computer screen. A breaking story on an attack at a small television station at the university in Llano, New Mexico. She felt her knees begin to buckle and grabbed Anna’s desk to keep from falling to the ground. “Oh my God.”
Anna put her arm around Isobel and helped her to sit down.
“Where’s your phone, Isobel?”
“On my desk.”
Anna ran and got it, putting the phone in Isobel’s hand. She looked at the screen a message from Alec appeared, “I love you mom, I love all of you.” Stunned, Isobel looked to see what time the message had come through. 2:50, thirty-five minutes ago.
She tried to call him, but his phone rang and went to voicemail. She next tried Ian. He picked up. “Have you talked to your brother?”
“No. What’s up, Mom?”
“There’s been an attack on the station.”
“What? Mom, where are you? What did you hear?” “I’m still at school. Anna saw it on KOB just now.”
Ian flipped on the television in his office, “Oh my God. It’s on the Lubbock station too.”
“I tried calling him and it went to voicemail, but I had a message from him at 2:50,” she choked as she tried to tell Ian what it said…, “I love you Mom. I love you all.”
“Mom, I’m going to head over there.”
“Okay. I’m going to do the same.”
“Mom, are you sure? Are you alright to drive?”
“Yes. I’ll text you when I leave. I barely have service on that road though, so I probably can’t talk to you till I get there.”
“Okay. Meet me at Dad’s.”
“No. I’m going directly to the station,” Isobel said. “Besides, your Dad will be at the station, won’t he?”
“He’s at a conference somewhere.”
“Okay. If you hear anything, call me before I leave. Otherwise, I’ll meet you in Llano at the station.”
“I love you Mom. Be careful. I’m worried about you driving.”
“I’ll be fine. I love you too.”
Anna hugged Isobel as she hung up the phone. “Anna, would you call Martinez and tell him what’s happened? I’ll probably be back on Sunday. I’m sure Alec’s fine. Right?” Anna nodded in agreement, “but just in case…,” Isobel swallowed hard to choke back the panic she felt, “Remind Dr. Martinez, gently, that Mr. Andrews might need a bit of help if I can’t get back, so we don’t have a repeat of chaos like the last time I left.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll keep an eye on him and be sure he doesn’t burn down the school.” She smiled and Isobel hugged her.
“Thank you. This school wouldn’t run without you, Anna. I’ll call you when I know something.” Though Isobel spoke calmly, Anna could hear the panic in her voice.
“Thanks. Be careful. I’m praying for you and Alec.” Isobel grabbed her bag and laptop, then ran for the car. Fear coursed through her body as she drove to her house. She wondered if she should even go home or just drive straight to Llano, but she needed to believe they would all be together tonight and hear his story. Then she would stay the weekend and drive home Sunday evening.
When she ran into her house, she grabbed her suitcase from the hall closet on her way to the bedroom. She tossed in her jeans, boots, a few shirts, and a dress. She swept her makeup into a bag and threw it in the suitcase, then hurriedly grabbed up her toiletries, closed the case and ran for her car. Her adrenaline at full speed, she made herself take a deep breath before starting the car.
Her phone rang as she backed out of the drive. “Isobel?” Isobel could hear the panic in Diane’s voice, her best friend since she’d moved to Santa Fe ten years ago.
“I saw the news, Diane. I’m leaving the house now. Ian is on his way to Llano too. He’ll get there first.” “Do you want me to go with?”
“No, wait. I’ll call you as soon as I get there.” “I love you, Isobel. Be careful!”
Isobel tried again to call Alec, but still no answer. She left her driveway and headed for Llano. She drove as fast as she could, making an almost four hour drive in three. Thankful to not be stopped by a state patrol, she headed straight for campus and the television station, but a barricade stymied her way. She pulled to the curb, jumped out, and ran past the barricade, a policewoman on her heels.
“Ma’am, ma’am. Stop.”
Isobel looked over her shoulder and shouted back, “My son is in there.” She could hear her phone in her pocket, messages catching up to her as she now had service. She stopped and pulled it out to see if Ian had messaged. The policewoman grabbed her arm and Isobel yanked away. “My son is in there and I’m looking to see if I have any messages from him or his brother.”
“Sorry, but you can’t get any closer.”
Isobel kept walking and looking at her phone, the policewoman walking beside her, her hand on Isobel’s arm, tugging. Isobel’s eyes, full of tears she couldn’t even see her phone. “I need to find my son, please,” hysteria mounting in her voice. She managed to find Ian in her contacts and call. “Where are you? I’m here.”
“Mom, I’m in the Liberal Arts building. They won’t let us near the place and they haven’t released any information. They are making us wait here.”
“I’ll be right there,” and she shook free from the policewoman. “I’m going to wait with the others.” “I’ll escort you, ma’am. I am not to let anyone in this area, and I have to be sure you leave.” Isobel turned and started running, desperate to see Ian. Isobel knew the campus and headed for the Liberal Arts building, where she spent most of her time during her undergraduate days. She needed to see Ian, to wrap her arms around her son and cling to the hope that Alec was safe. As she entered the pool of light on the front walkway, there stood Ian, who, when he spotted her, came running.
“Mom, oh Mom,” he nearly shouted, as he threw his arms around her and clung to her. They held on to each other, Isobel finally letting the tears come. The drive had been an exercise in mind diversion and she could now let it all out.
When they pulled apart, Isobel still held onto Ian’s arm. “Where’s Delia and the kids, Ian?” her voice full of concern for her daughter-in-law and grandchildren, but before he could respond, Nora, Ian’s stepmom, joined them. Isobel turned and gave her a hug. “Thanks for being here, Nora.”
“Of course,” Nora replied as she handed Isobel some tissues. Isobel smiled at her in gratitude as she dried her eyes.
“Mom, Delia and the kids are waiting for dad’s flight from Phoenix to get in, and then bringing him over. They should be here by midnight.”
“Any word on Alec?”
“Nothing other than to just wait. We think the police wanted the FBI to get here before they did or said anything.”
Isobel fought back the panic she felt inside of her. She closed her eyes and blinked back the tears. “He’s going to be ok,” she said, through shivering teeth.
“Mom, let’s go inside” Ian put his arm over her shoulders and guided her into the building. “One of the officers told me they airlifted someone out right before I got here, but she didn’t know who. Then an hour ago they sent someone in to say they’ll let us know soon, and soon hasn’t come yet. I want to punch something, I’m so frustrated.”
The three of them entered the building and huddled together in the hall, avoiding the overly bright foyer and a few other parents who had been trickling in because they hadn’t heard from their children.
“Mom, they said there weren’t many people in the building when it happened. Dr. Garcia came through awhile ago and told me most of the staff and faculty had been at a campus wide meeting. She thinks the shooter didn’t know or would have attacked the meeting instead. Alec might have been the only staff in the building, she said, and the rest would have been students.”
Dr. Pilar Garcia had been Isobel’s favorite teacher, though as dean, and now a vice president, she taught only one class a semester. Isobel made sure she took each of her classes. They become friends and stayed in touch over the years.
Isobel leaned against the wall, feeling she might collapse on the floor otherwise. “Are the kids okay?” she asked Ian.
“Yeah, they just know they’re coming to see Granny for a few days, and Papa J and Grammy Nora, so they are over the moon excited.”
Isobel smiled and leaned her head on Ian’s shoulder. Nora disappeared and in a few minutes came back with coffee for the two of them. “Thank you,” Isobel said, taking the cup from Nora.
They heard the door to the lobby open, and the three of them leaned around the corner to see a man in uniform holding a clipboard coming in the building. Isobel’s stomach started churning as they waited for him to speak. Those who had been seated in the foyer stood up in anticipation and Isobel, Ian and Nora, crossed the floor to him as well.
“I know you are all anxious. We’d like to speak to you individually.” Several other officers entered the building and flanked the first. “Is the family of Alec Davis here?”
“Oh my god, oh my god,” Isobel murmured as she and Ian clung to each other. She couldn’t catch her breath for a moment. “Yes,” Isobel was barely able to say as they stepped forward. She felt nauseous as an officer walked over and took her elbow, leading all of them to an open classroom. The officer motioned for them to sit at a table. He sat across from them, but avoided their eyes, as he shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
“What is your relationship to Mr. Davis?” he asked.
“I’m his mother, Isobel Allen. This is his brother Ian and his stepmom, Nora.” She managed to choke out.
“I regret to,” he said, his voice breaking before he could continue, “I’m so sorry,” he paused, “Mr. Davis is dead.”
Isobel screamed, “No, no, no!” before convulsive sobs began to shake her body, and Ian howled with the pain as he wrapped his arms around his mother. Nora stood up as her tears slid down her face, and went behind them, wrapping her arms around them both. Everything had been normal just hours ago, and now their whole world had been rocked right out from under them. Normal didn’t exist anymore. Isobel had held out hope till the last moment that Alec was alive. Until the words formed and were spoken by the officer she believed he had survived, and the delay in letting her know was because HE was hurt, and HE had been airlifted to Lubbock, HE was going to make it, her Alec.
The officer sat with them while they cried. He took a pack of tissues from his pocket and slid it across the table. In a few minutes he left and came back with bottles of water for each of them. He finally said, “The perpetrator shot Mr. Davis several times. I think you might want to know though, Mr. Davis shielded two of his students. The girl directly behind him is still alive at this moment, and has been airlifted to Lubbock.” He then asked if he could do anything else, and Nora shook her head no. He then left them to their grief.
Dr. Garcia came in and Isobel stood to allow Pilar to wrap her arms around her and hug. “Thank you for being here,” Isobel said between quiet sobs.
“I’m so sorry, Isobel. So, so sorry.”
“Thank you,” Isobel whispered.
“Can I get you anything?” Pilar asked.
“No. I think I need to go. We will go...” she didn’t know where, but Nora continued the sentence. “To my house,” and Isobel looked at her gratefully. Pilar walked them out of the building. “I’ll be in touch. Let me know if there is anything we can do for you.”
“Thank you, Pilar.”
The three of them walked into the cool evening and found their respective vehicles. This had been the longest day of Isobel’s life and she expected the longest night was to follow.