There are no words left to say when these things happen. They've all been said before. They will all be said again when it happens the next time. And of course it will happen again.
When I was 14 years old, crouching beneath my desk in social studies, the school under lockdown as two boys killed 13 people at Columbine High School 30 minutes away, it felt like a terrible anomaly. A once-in-a-lifetime tragedy. Everyone treated it that way.
I remember the quality of the light that afternoon as my friend drove me home in his red Chevy pickup -- a little too stark for Spring, a little colder than it should have been for that April day. I remember listening to Elton John's "Candle in the Wind" play on the radio as we drove in silence.
These massacres have become too commonplace to sear my memory so deeply now.
Two and a half years ago, a man carrying a gun entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and killed nine people. Nine days later, then-President Obama stood before a crowd of people giving the eulogy for Reverend Pinckney. He stood at the podium. "Amazing grace." Pause. "Amazing grace."
And then, unaccompanied, broke into song, "ahhh-mazing grace, how sweet the sound..."
I remember watching the video of Obama singing for the first time. The hairs on my arms stood on end. My chest tightened. Listening to him sing, then listening again. My mind preserved that memory, that feeling.
At times of tragedy, it is so easy to deliver the same rote platitudes. What can be said? Words themselves are woefully inadequate balms for a battered soul.
It is not the words. Never has that been more evident that yesterday as we woke up to a rising death toll. "Warmest sympathies" were the first words from the President, issued over his Twitter feed to a nation feeling the full brunt of the punch for which we are now perpetually braced.
A platitude, and a painfully awkward one at that -- "warmest" usually being a word paired with "wishes" or "congratulations," one used for happy occasions: the births of babies, marriages, holidays. It belied something deeper: a man so ill-versed in empathy that even this most rote of phrases was mangled in his delivery.
"Amazing Grace" was written in 1779, three years after the United States declared its independence. Almost 240 years later, I've come across very few who don't know the words. It's part of the American identity, an acknowledgement of a deeply flawed existence always striving to find the better angels of our nature.
To sing "Amazing Grace" at a funeral is not a novel idea. It's done all the time. It's quite another to hear it sung by a President, impromptu and unaccompanied, reverberating out across a packed church and dozens of live broadcast channels to a nation thoroughly steeped in rote platitudes about the latest gun violence tragedy. In the midst of so many tepid, impotent responses, it was a sharp splash of ice water to the face.
On that day, at that funeral, the words of the song "Amazing Grace" were barely relevant. They paled in comparison to how they were voiced. President Obama imbued them with deep empathy for the families of the victims, with a nuanced recognition of the community that had been targeted. In two and a half minutes -- from the first bars of the hymn sung solo, to the great swell of voices rising to join the President, to the speaking of the nines names of the people who died that Wednesday in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church -- Obama did what so many carefully expressed sympathies had failed to do: he reawakened our national grief. He reminded us that this is not normal, that we cannot allow ourselves to go numb, that on these occasions the shutter of our mind should click, capturing the quality of the light, the glitter of so many neon signs against the darkness of a high desert.
Last night, after I put my daughter to bed, I pulled up Obama's rendition of "Amazing Grace" on YouTube and sat on the couch in the darkness of my living room.
"Amazing grace." Pause. "Amazing grace." Pause. "Ahhh-mazing grace, how sweet the sound..."
There are no words.
But with empathy and grace, there might still be hope.