Pondering An Act Of God

I'm one of the lucky ones. When the helicopter and the airplane collided over the grounds of Merion Elementary School in suburban Philadelphia on April 4, my son Andy and his classmates were in their third-grade classroom discussing plans for the much anticipated arrival of the circus. The plane exploded, the helicopter fell and fiery wreckage rained on the schoolyard where first and second graders chased one another in the spring sunshine. The crash claimed the lives of two children and five adults, including Pennsylvania's U.S. Sen. John Heinz.

As news of the accident spread, hundreds of parents like myself, swathed in terror, rushed to the school, plea-bargaining with God or some other higher power to spare our children. Most of us found our children frightened, but unharmed. Three families weren't as fortunate. Becky Rutenberg arrived only to learn that her son David had been airlifted to a hospital burn center, with burns over 68 percent of his body. For two families, the Blums and the Freundlichs, the unthinkable happened. Their 6-year-old daughters were killed by falling debris.

Gratefully, I retrieved my son from the nurse's office, where he had been sent because his "head hurt." Small wonder. He and the rest of his class had witnessed the explosion from their window. In the car, Andy buried his head in my lap and whimpered softly, "Mom, do you think there was a purpose to this?" The question startled me. Bitterly, I considered to myself what purpose there could possibly be in airplanes falling out of the sky onto a playground. To Andy, I replied calmly that I thought it was just a terrible accident, but that I wondered what purpose he felt there might be. Looking at me with eyes rimmed with tears, my son said simply, "I think God made it happen so people would appreciate each other more."

Life in this community is not unlike that of any other suburb. Through the years, paths cross at school events, at church or synagogue, in scouts or at soccer games. Grocery shopping is a social activity. This is a stable community. The kids move from kindergarten through high school together. They know one another's families: whose parents are cool, whose siblings are pains.

In this community, as elsewhere, things are not always rosy. People lose jobs, divorce, get sick and die. We have our share of scandals--a doctor accused of sexual misconduct with patients, a prominent businessman indicted for bribing IRS officials. There are also tragedies--a house burns, a child is killed while walking on the train tracks. All the stuff of life, one might say.

But burning plane wreckage cascading down on a schoolyard of children-that's different. That's not real life. Andy described the explosion to his older brother as "just like what you see on 'Miami Vice'." That's what this is about. It's the stuff of TV and movies. This is not supposed to happen-not in an affluent suburb, not in an urban neighborhood, not in a rural farm community. Not anywhere. This is not supposed to happen in the real world.

But it did. And it confirmed every parent's worst fear-- terrible things can happen to our children, things beyond our control. All the seat belts, the bicycle helmets, the knee pads, all are useless when planes fall from the sky. We've had to face the fact that life is unpredictable and that our children are like library books, on loan, with a due date that remains unknown.

As the plane wreck became a major media event, the days took on a macabre quality. We watched our neighbors and children being interviewed on TV and saw their pictures in the papers. Telephones rang constantly with calls from concerned friends and family. On the streets, we comforted each with warm hugs-embraces that belied the wrenching anxiety now planted in us by our children's brush with death.

In the ensuing days the school district set up a crisis hot line and a drop-in support center. On the Sunday afternoon following the crash, so many Merion School parents turned out to meet with the principal and a school-district psychiatrist that a second location had to be found.

On the first day back to school after the accident, Andy expressed reluctance to go out for recess but was reassured when I promised that his teacher would stay with him. With the marvelous resiliency that is childhood's gift, he speculated on his chances of being interviewed by the press. He arrived home smiling and chatting about his day, as usual.

But that night, Andy took out a paper on which he wrote "To Lauren Freundlich" and "To Rachel Blum." By each name, he put some change and between them, he placed a dollar bill--all the money he had. He asked me if God would come and take the money to give to them. This, from a 9-year-old who, just a few months ago, indignantly assured me that he's known for a long time about my undercover activities as the tooth fairy.

What could I say to him? I didn't ask him why he thought Rachel and Lauren needed money. Instead, I suggested we send the money to their memorial funds. While that may not have been as satisfying as a direct delivery, Andy seemed to accept this alternative.

Right now it's very important for Andy to find some purpose to this tragedy, some reason to explain how something so horrid can happen. He keeps asking me what purpose I think this accident served. He wants to believe that these things can't happen randomly. I repeat that I don't think that tragedies happen on purpose, but, and I echo his words, if people learn to value one another more and to appreciate how precious life is, then perhaps some good can come from something so awful. That's all I can say to him. It's the only answer that makes any sense, Most of us in this community are asking the same question. Why did it happen? In the end, the musings of a 9-year-old boy, struggling to find a reason, are the musings of us all.