Massacre in Orlando has ripped off the veil, and now is the time to act

    Caleb McGrew

    Caleb McGrew

    My 15-year-old, perpetually gummed to her phone, was the first to tell me. “Ama, do you know about Orlando?” She whispered a few details — a shooter, a gay club, lots of people dead.

    My 15-year-old, perpetually gummed to her phone, was the first to tell me.

    “Ama, do you know about Orlando?”

    She whispered a few details — a shooter, a gay club, lots of people dead. But I couldn’t give the news my full attention, because I was with a bunch of relatives, eating bagels and fruit salad following the unveiling, just that morning, of my father’s gravestone.

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    We Jews bury our dead quickly — within three days, according to custom — and mourn at length. Seven days sequestered at home, 30 days of subdued activity (work, yes; parties, no), 11 months of murmuring the mourners’ prayer every morning or evening.

    And then, usually around the one-year anniversary of the death, loved ones gather at the cemetery to see the newly engraved stone for the first time. It’s called an unveiling because the stone is, literally, veiled with a gauzy fabric that the mourners must remove.

    Like much of Jewish tradition surrounding death and grief, this practice makes deep psychological sense to me. Who is ready, immediately after a funeral, for the finality of seeing a loved one’s name chiseled in granite? Who is ever ready?

    But perhaps, after a full spin of seasons, a year of anniversaries and birthdays and ordinary days, we’re a little sturdier, a bit more prepared to confront that reality.

    Making sense

    This past Sunday was also Shavuot, the holiday that marks the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Before our gravesite ritual, my cousin asked how a Reconstructionist Jew like me, who does not believe God authored the Torah, makes sense of Shavuot.

    “I think something happened that day,” I told him. “Some kind of communal revelation and resolve.” Then we knelt in the dirt — my mother and partner and daughter and I — pulled off the veil and read my father’s name aloud.
 One thousand miles away, parents and partners and sisters and brothers clung to each other, to their phones, to the terrifying newsfeed: Forty-nine dead. Fifty-three wounded. Worst mass shooting in America.

    So far.

    And then, on that same incongruous day, I curled on the couch with friends to watch the Tony Awards. Already, the Orlando tragedy had an emblem — a silver lapel loop that glinted on tux jackets and Zac Posen gowns — even as actors and playwrights, presumably the most articulate among us, groped for words to name their outrage and grief.

    Lin-Manuel Miranda’s voice choked as he read a sonnet in lieu of an acceptance speech for best original score:

    “We rise and fall and light from dying embers, remembrances that hope and love last longer. And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.”

    More juxtapositions: a commercial for Kentucky Fried Chicken, followed by one for an anti-aging cream, followed by one for a medication that may help forestall Alzheimer’s. Eleven awards for a musical that celebrates radical inclusion, a musical featuring an exuberantly multi-racial cast telling a story of the founding of this scrappy, stubborn, so-far-from-perfect nation.

    My head hurt. My heart hurt more.

    How is it that human beings can create such gifts, soul-shaking and mind-bending works of art like “Hamilton” and “Spring Awakening,” and also produce the deadening hatred and fear that compels a man into a gay club at 2 a.m., armed with a legally acquired killing machine?

    What does it take to tear away the veil — all the consolations we whisper in order to bumble through our days, buying office supplies and pushing our kids on the swing: It couldn’t happen here. It can’t happen to us. It won’t happen again. How many “worst mass shootings” will it take to persuade us that, at the very least, we must demand that our elected officials restore the assault weapons ban they allowed to expire in 2004?

    Lifting the veil

    I remember my first time in a gay club. I was 22, and it was New Year’s Eve in Washington, D.C. I felt worried about a lot of things: whether a woman would ask me to dance, whether I might see a colleague from work, whether I would have enough cash for the cab ride home to Dupont Circle. I never worried that someone would enter the club at last call and begin shooting.

    I remember dancing — with women, with groups of people, with the gay male friend who brought me. I remember the champagne at midnight and the scrambled eggs at 5 a.m. I remember shouting to my pal over the beat of Madonna’s “Borderline.” I’m so happy. How come I’m so happy here?

    I believe there are moments of communal revelation. Sometimes they happen in the theater; you can feel it, a collectively held breath when a gesture or a line rearranges life as you’ve always known it. Sometimes they happen after a national event: the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the shootings at Columbine, the election of a first African-American president.

    They are moments when the veil lifts — tenderly or brutally — to reveal the whole seething world: the inescapability of death, the irrepressibility of joy, the juxtapositions that hammer the heart. They are moments when I shake with the certainty that I am linked to every other person — not just the ones standing around my mother’s living room with bagels and moist eyes, but everyone, in every place.

    The dead in Orlando, and the ones weeping their loss: they are my people. And those in San Bernardino and Newtown and Paris and Syria. We are not just spectators to this life, we are actors in it, altering it for good or ill with every word and gesture. We are equally capable of cowardice and love, hatred and genius, and the unfolding of our story depends on what we do, right now, together, in that glittering, shattering instant before heads tuck back in the sand or the wool slips over our brows, before possibility gets buried in rhetoric.

    Quick. Do something for good. Do it now, while the veil is off and our eyes are stinging with tears at all we have made possible, the wreckage and the brilliance, and all that we must do next.

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