Hilary summed it up well.
We parents who have lost children have our own definition of ‘tragedy.’
It was Friday night and we were having our traditional martini— better known now as a ‘quarantini’—discussing the tumultuous events of the week. The crazy times unfolding in the wake of the ever-expanding COVID-19 outbreak. The human tragedy—loss of loved ones, jobs, security, faith and hope. Mounting closures of seemingly everything. Panic runs on stores. The stock market in free-fall. No March Madness. No baseball. No Masters—that hits yours truly particularly hard. California’s advisory for all those 65+ to self-quarantine. WTF?
We couldn’t help but think back to the fall of 2008.
Several years ago I wrote a post, CONDOLENCES. The inspiration was an incredible condolence card we received from one of my fraternity brothers several weeks after our 24-year-old son, Jimmy, was accidentally struck and killed by a car as he was walking home from a party. What made this card from Chris Cox stand out among the several hundreds was not only the depth and beauty of his sentiments, but the circumstances under which he wrote it.
It was the last weekend of September of 2008, and Hilary, our daughter Brittany and her husband of one-year, Ryan, and I were in Park City. It had been seven weeks since we lost Jimmy, and we hoped a few days away from San Diego—a change of scene, some brisk mountain walks—might clear our heads, soothe some of the pain. Besides, the rest of the world as we knew it was also coming to an end.
As we remember—although the current events no doubt squeeze out our memory—by the middle of September 2008 the housing bubble had burst, capital markets and the financial systems of this country and around the world were in full meltdown, and our economy and livelihoods were free-falling into the deepest recession—or worse—since the Great Depression.
As I ticked off in Condolences, these were a few of the key events of that time, with each day bringing another announcement of financial dread and woe more devastating and frightening than the day before:
September 7—Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are taken over by the federal government
September 14—Merrill Lynch fails and Bank of America steps in to buy-rescue it
September 15—Lehman Brothers files for bankruptcy
September 16—AIG is rescued from collapse by the feds
September 25—The FDIC seizes Washington Mutual (the largest bank failure of all time) and the Feds arrange its sale to J.P. Morgan
September 29—U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry “Hank” Paulson’s Hail Mary $1Billion bailout plan is rejected by the House.
Millions of jobs were being lost, home equity evaporated, 401K’s tanked and the fear, anxiety, anger and desperation of Americans were astronomic.
There was a handful of federal officials and top executives from the private financial sector tasked with grabbing hold of the reins of the runaway financial system and stopping the wagons—our economy as we knew it—from being dragged over the precipice of the fast approaching cliff and into complete and utter oblivion.
This small band didn’t have the luxury of weeks or months to figure it out—it was down to a few days—hours.
Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and New York Federal Reserve Chair Tim Geithner were among this group of warriors.
And so was our fraternity brother, Chris Cox. The nine-term Congressman from Orange County was at the time serving as Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
September 29, 2008
Hilary and I distinctly remembered lounging on a sofa in front of a cozy fire with Brittany and Ryan in Park City. It was Friday, September 29, and we were watching the evening news of the latest round of financial disasters.
Another Black Friday.
The U.S. stock market dropped 777 points that day; the largest one-day fall since the Dow Jones Industrial Average was first published in 1896. $1.2 Trillion of market value of American stocks had been erased in a single day.
I so clearly remember the four of us looking at one another and Hilary finally saying the very thing all of us were thinking:
Isn’t it amazing we really don’t care?
As bad as all this was for the economy and the country and its people, we had no room or place in our minds or hearts to agonize over it.
We were completely consumed by the loss of Jimmy. We’d already suffered the worst thing that could happen to us.
Nothing could come close—there was no worse pain or suffering—there was no bigger story.
There was no greater tragedy.
Chris Cox understood this.
His letter was in our mailbox when we got back home to Solana Beach. When I looked at the date, I scarcely could believe it.
He wrote his letter to us on September 28.
This father of three and cancer survivor—at the epicenter of one of the worst financial crises in our country’s history—with no sleep and billions if not trillions of dollars at stake—the day before the stock market suffered its biggest loss to date—under unimaginable stress and pressure to fix it—sat down at his desk and wrote us a letter.
Chris Cox stole some time he didn’t have and wrote us, in a steady hand, a letter that touched us more deeply than anything else we received.
Because he got “it.”
Making his way to the eye of his hurricane to write us enabled him to focus and put things in perspective. Yes, the financial crisis was pretty God-damned bad. Millions would lose their jobs, homes and safety-nets.
But eventually the crisis would end, and things would get better. Things would get fixed and put back together. We’d get over it. Beyond it.
We parents who have lost children know there’s no fixing the loss of a child, or a sibling’s loss of a brother or a sister.
There’s no ‘getting over it.’ You can’t put him or her back together again.
We eventually learn how to live with our loss—how to carry it—but that pain never goes away.
There are tragedies—and then there’s our tragedies.
Chris knew the difference.
Although he has not suffered the loss of a child, as a youngster he watched in horror as his father backed their car out of the garage and accidentally struck and killed his two-year old sister.
Chris gets it.
What can we parents do?
We parents can play a valuable role in today’s crisis-today’s new tragedy.
We can help bring some calm, some perspective, in the face of all the turmoil around us. I’m not suggesting we get megaphones and drive down the streets shouting:
‘I lost a child! What are you folks worried about?’
All we have to do is just show up and be around for our friends, fellow workers and other family members.
They know what we’ve suffered.
If we remain calm and strong, when they look into our eyes they’ll get the message.
There are tragedies—and then there’s our tragedies.
We certainly didn’t ask for this appointment, and like it or not, there is no getting around the fact
We are ambassadors of the supreme tragedy.