What makes a powerful story detail?  Please look at this photo.

February 14, 2019

I saw this photo out of Parkland, Florida, for the first time one year ago.  It depicts a group of terrified parents waiting to learn whether their children, high school students and victims of yet another mass shooting, are dead or alive.

It is a moment of agony, captured by AP photographer Joel Auerbach. The original cutline reads: “Parents wait for news of their loved ones after a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School at Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, 2018.”

Feb. 14, 2018, Valentines Day, a day we celebrate love, often in its most frivolous manifestations, with candy hearts and flowers. By a coincidence of the calendar, that day last year was also Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, the season of self-sacrifice for believers, leading up to the Holy Week of Good Friday and Easter.

In the Christian religion, Ash Wednesday is a liturgy of remembrance. When the holy palm fronds are burned, their ashes are placed on the foreheads of believers, a sign of the cross, with the words: “Thou are dust, and unto dust thou shall return.”

Valentines Day is a day of love, Ash Wednesday, a day of death.

I sensed that collision when I looked at that photo for the first time. The central character, the woman dressed in white with red flowers, is cradling the woman with red hair, who appears to be moaning with anxiety and grief.  It is a photographic Pieta, like Mary holding the body of Jesus after the crucifixion.

Please notice the cross of ash on the forehead of the woman with blond hair. Now look down at the pendant around her neck. A silver heart, perhaps something she wears all the time, more likely something she picked out for this special day when we are invited to express our love and affection to others.

The screen writer Robert McKee teaches his students that many stories begin with what he calls an “inciting incident.” He defines that as a moment that dramatically changes the nature of a day.  Your number comes in and you win the lottery.  You walk through the park and see a body in the bushes.  On Sept. 11, 2001, workers in the Twin Towers chat in the coffee shop, eating their morning bagel.  And then …

I think about all four of these people but mostly I think of the woman with blond hair. I imagine her getting up in the morning preparing for the day. I can see her sending her children off to school with a valentine tucked into their back packs. It will be a holy day and a fun day. She will dress and wear the heart around her neck, and, being a woman of faith, will head for church, even though it’s a Wednesday, to be reminded of her own mortality.  Then, mid-morning, something happens, something terrible, an event that will not just change their days, but their lives.

When I think of the events of one year ago, my memory carries me not to images of the killer, or to the student survivors who became national leaders, or to policy arguments about gun control, mental health, and whether teachers should bear arms.

Instead, I return to this image, again and again. The woman on the left, dressed in red for the holiday, with grief etched on her face, even though we cannot see her eyes. The color pallet for this image turns out to be red, white, and blue. The woman on the left and the man on the right both hold cell phones, the technology that is supposed to help us keep in touch with our children to make sure they are safe.

The contrasts in the middle is stunning. The taller woman’s right hand is held to comfort, but remains contorted.  Her mouth is held tight – she barely keeps control — as the woman she holds gives voice to her grief. I hope their children survived and that they can experience this anniversary with some feeling of healing.

There are lots of stories in journalism, but I wonder in the end if they don’t all boil down to two:  Life and Death. I see them both burning in this image. And one more, of course. Love.

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