A Reflection on Newtown: Two Bens

I watch a lot of documentaries on Netflix while I work on other things. This is what the screen of my laptop usually looks like:

Those 15 tabs open on the left include research for summer camps for the kids, Twitter, Facebook, a text messaging app, research on Leviticus 13:13 prompted by an intriguing question from a friend, and my calendar, Soon there will be more tabs as I do research for this blog post.

On the right is Netflix, where I'm currently watching Newtown, the PBS documentary about the school shooting in December 2012. The film is an intimate portrait of how parents, educators, first responders, and the rest of the town, survivors all, has endured.

Parents of several of the murdered first graders are interviewed, including David Wheeler, father of six-year-old Benjamin Wheeler, whom they called Ben. From David's description, Ben Wheeler was a lot like our Ben at that age. He had sticker charts for all kinds of behaviors, including sitting through an entire dinner, keeping his body calm at school, listening to the teacher, etc. Five stickers in a row led to a reward or some positive reinforcement.
Screenshot of Ben Wheeler's sticker chart, from Newtown.

Both of our Bens had some difficulties getting those sticker spots filled. David describes his Ben as being "so full of energy that his feet didn't seem to touch the ground," and recalls a picture of Ben jumping, caught in mid-air, which a friend titled "Flying Boy." In the videos of him, Ben Wheeler is exuberant and effusive, words and energy coming so quickly he is a blur in front of the lens. We have many such videos.

At one point, David is searingly honest about parenting his Ben. "Ben was a challenge," he says. "The dinner table was so hard, because he was just all over the place... Nothing ever moved fast enough for him."

My heart broke when I realized this will always be their Ben. David Wheeler will never get to realize, appreciate, relish, suffer, and witness the transformations between boy and young man. What a great gift he has lost: the perspective of looking back on a first-grade Ben and thinking, "Boy, he was a handful back then! Remember what dinner was like?" while enjoying a delightful dinner with a ninth-grade Ben. To be a witness to growth and change and maturity.

As I am sitting here writing this, my Ben is practicing bass guitar downstairs. He's working on a difficult Red Hot Chili Peppers song, and he is just nailing parts of it. His grades are good, his homework gets done, he's in a band and has a group of friends. He has a generous spirit and a compassionate heart. His room is a disaster, he spends entirely too much time playing video games, and he can be as much of a knucklehead as any other 15-year-old, but in a few years, we won't care about those things. Right now we have moments like these:

My Ben jamming with his dad.

The Wheelers had two children, and like most parents, they marked their children's heights on a wall, a door frame in their case. Their Ben's final height was marked in November of 2012, one month before he was killed. Above that mark is just empty wall space for a couple of feet, until the place where is older brother scrawled, "Would be here."

We mark our Ben's height every year on his birthday, in September. There's over a foot of growth between the mark for 9/3/12 (three months before Newtown) and 9/3/16, on his 15th birthday. He's now taller than I am. I look up to him.

Of course, at some point, our Ben's tick marks will stop, too.
When he reaches his full adult height.
When physical growth stops.
When nature determines it.
Please, let it be when nature determines it.

Until that happens, I'll be keeping another Ben, his parents, and a blank space on a wall in Newtown in my mind as we watch our son grow and make his marks.

(Visit www.sandyhookpromise.org and www.benslighthouse.org to see how the Wheelers are carrying their Ben's legacy forward.)

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