Yesterday was promising to be an eventful day. I knew I might be receiving some early morning emails, so I made sure to get the old clunker computer up and running in preparation for the anticipated work. When the system fired up, it first loaded, as usual, a news feed. It was inevitable that I would thus start my day knowing the news that has now horrified nearly everyone.
It didn’t take long for me to find out that this was not just a generic news story. The minute I connected to all my online links, an acquaintance on chat sent me one of those “did you hear the news about…” messages I’ve learned to dread. One of our mutual friends, a talented recent college graduate with an incredible future, had happened to be back in her home state—Colorado—where she happened to decide to join a group at the movie theater for opening night.
It was that movie theater.
Today, my tasks from yesterday are predictably tucked away in all their respective files and folders—and my friend has taken a radical detour from life-as-planned to spend some post-op time in a neuro-ICU bed. Someone had decided to play the Joker in real life, and many, many people are losing in that unexpected game change.
Yet, life for the rest of us goes on. We are relatively unscathed—as soon as we can tear ourselves away from the news broadcasts, or shut our eyes to the trending Twitter feed on #theatershooting. Considering all three hundred twelve million of us in the United States, there is, really, only a miniscule percentage of us who actually knows anyone suffering in this aftermath.
But we still hurt, anyway.
There is something collective about our nature. Something that allows us to mirror in our faces the pain we see in a friend’s face. Something that we can’t help responding to that cringes when we hear about certain injuries, or makes us follow the glance of the person we’re talking to, when that gaze suddenly averts over our shoulders. One scream, and we’re all on alert. We are all connected that way—connected to each other’s well-being.
Connected: that’s a word that takes on a different connotation for those whose passion is family history research. Sometimes I wonder, when I devote so much energy to genealogy work, whether it would be better for me to come back from “the dead”—spending so many hours poring over the facts regarding people long gone—to that land of the living where thriving, breathing souls actually talk to each other rather than leaving cryptic clues about themselves intended for no one to discover for, oh, maybe a couple centuries. And yet, those stories from years past have a way of connecting, too.
“Did you hear the news” must have been a recurring theme in life for my ancestors in those more recent centuries, as I'm discovering as I delve into their lives' histories. I spend hours researching the stories of men and women who bear children—lots of them, in multiples of numbers above the family sizes of today—only to see those children die in near-like multiples of numbers, succumbing to diseases, famine, injuries or other challenges we no longer face.
Sometimes I wonder how those people from prior ages bore the pain of those types of suffering—like our family’s distant Tully relatives who saw five of their eight children die before reaching their mid-twenties, and only one of them marry and go on to have children of her own.
The pain is in the loss of a relationship. The relationships are what give life its meaning.
Perhaps, though the relatives I study are now only remembered on paper—or now, digitized in archival records—it is the relationship I pursue rather than the mere conquest of discovering that that connection is one hundred, two hundred, three hundred years old.
It’s the realization of connection that compels me to continue searching. But it’s the discover of the relationships—through uncovering the stories of those lives—that breathes life into the connection and draws me closer to the person.
Ancestor whose story beguiles me from a distance of a safe century away, or friend whose story doubles me over in the agony of prayer today: each is calling out to be remembered, to be cared for, to be important for each other.
It’s that essence that makes me care about those two-hundred-year-old stories that also enables me to care about and carry the burdens of those I know in the painful and all-too-frightening challenge of the here-and-now. It’s what permits me to blend the stories of the remote ancestor and the near acquaintance. It’s what makes me yearn to enable others to care about the people whose stories—whose lives—I’ve loved.
The connections, the relationships: I want to pass them on.