November 22 1963 fell on a Friday, like it did today. I remember because we were home from school and on Fridays, we had half-days off. I was playing ball in the backyard of the house we rented, with my new friends, Janet and Errol, brother and sister, grandchildren of the lady whose house we lived in.
I don’t remember who said it first – my mother or Miss Mag, the grandmother – or what their exact words were. Somehow, our young minds knew, we understood that something unprecedented, tragic, and horrifying, had happened.
The ball fell from my hands but instead of running to retrieve it we let it take its own path into the bushes somewhere. We were very competitive, Janet, Errol and I, we played hard. On any other day, the ball barely ever stayed on the ground as one of us would race to get it and throw it. That was our game. But on that Friday, the news punched the fun out of our play. We stood there, as if planted to our spots, listening to the adults. I’m not sure for how long.
Looking back now, I doubt I knew before that moment who John F. Kennedy was. I was only vaguely aware of this country called America. Before that moment, I don’t think I knew anything about guns, or that someone could fire one from a distance with such precision, and cause such devastation. Before that moment, I’d never heard of someone being killed by a gun.
Something shifted that Friday. It wasn’t like the day we heard that a family friend had died and my older cousin announced that everyone, including those we loved, would die. I cried when I imagined the faces of my parents, my grandmother, my Aunt Joyce, who was like my second mother, and her children who were sisters being absent from my life. God gave them to us, I remember thinking, why would He take them?
This was different. It was bigger, monumental. More than anything, I knew and understood real fear. I clung to my mother that night, afraid to sleep by myself. And for many days later, I wouldn’t play outside. I was terrified that someone was just beyond the fringes with a gun.
I’m not sure when I adjusted to my new normal, a normal that included words like high-powered rifle and assassination.
I would hear those words again when first Martin Luther King, Jr. then Robert Kennedy, the president’s brother, were killed five years later. My old fears returned like bad gas. For a long time, I never wanted to step foot in the States, where I was sure everyone carried a gun.
Kennedy’s death, for me, marked the first of several events that seemed to make the world contract in horror and grief – the killing of King and Robert, the tragic and stunning death of Princess Diana, and the mind-numbing disaster of 9/11. They’ve become milestone moments against which other memories are pegged. I remember exactly where I was when Diana died and what I was doing when I heard about the planes hitting the Twin Towers.
I’ll always remember where I was on November 22 1963. I was in my backyard in rural Jamaica on a sunny afternoon playing ball with Janet and Errol. It was a Friday, like today, but it wasn’t like any Friday before, or since. Everyone says America lost its innocence that day. But it wasn’t just America. The whole world fractured and, like Humpty Dumpty, we’ve never been able to put the pieces back again.
Do you remember where you were?