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Irving Young's Mama Mia

Heroes, forgiveness, ragged hope

Reflections on tragedy near and far away

THE PHOTOS OF THOSE WHO DIED cover a portion of a wall at the Sikh temple where the shootings occurred. A biography of each victim accompanies their photos. A caring and hardworking man, one said. Worked odd jobs on weekends, said another. A third was planning to return to India this November to reunite with his son. The boy was only seven months old when the man left India for the United States. Now he's 16 and fatherless.

December 18, 2012 | 01:49 PM
This is a column of heroism, happenstance and hope, lost and found.

I'm talking with a friend over coffee when I realize I've missed the whole point.

We're talking about the school shooting in Connecticut last Friday.

My makeup is such that I process tragedy easier than she does. She's tearful, overcome at times. I'm more analytical.

As I write this, I'm thinking she's touching something I'm missing.

I don't know what it is, but it's worth searching for.

This story started off as one about two Lake Geneva children who saved lives by warning people as another madman attacked the Sikh temple in Oak Creek this year — a year littered with killing.

Starting with the "Batman" rampage in July and ending with the deaths of 20 innocent children and six adults in Connecticut.

I have no answers. I don't think anyone does.

So I search for hope and grace somewhere in the blood and chaos.

I'm writing now with no idea of where this will go.

The only place I can start is the place where I started before.

Aug. 5, 2012. Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

Two children playing outside the Sikh temple, a place of peace if I've ever seen one.

A boy, Abhay and his sister, Amanat Singh. His name means Fearless in the Sikh's native language, her's means Precious.

They live in Lake Geneva and attend St. Francis de Sales School. Their parents are Benny and Kanwal Singh.

Amanat is celebrating her ninth birthday that day. Abhay is 11 going on 12.

A birthday lunch is being prepared in the kitchen.

The smell of samosas and chapatis being cooked wafts through the temple.

Their parents leave to buy more paper plates.

They tell their children not to go outside.

But all that cooking has made it too hot, so Amanat and Abhay decide to go outside anyway.

A mild insubordination to be sure — and one that would prove providential.

They only step a few feet out the front door. They're still in the shadow of the temple's overhang.

"We were having some jokes," Abhay said later.

Amanat, the birthday girl, is dancing. Her brother laughs.

Directly in front of them they see a man exiting his car. They wonder if he might need directions. Then they see a gun in his hand.

The man walks as though on a mission, toward another car. He shoots and kills the first two men he sees. They're Sikhs.

In his small, crooked mind, he may think that all men who have beards and nonwestern dress are terrorists.

We'll never know for sure, because this man Wade Michael Page — will take his own life before the day is done.

Abhay feels like "time froze."

He and his sister run inside the temple and warn the others. Some hide in the basement. Others in bathrooms. Amanat and Abhay head toward a pantry.

They huddle with a dozen others.

Outside, they hear shooting. They hear bullets hitting metal and containers falling to the floor.

The shooter apparently doesn't see the pantry. It's partially hidden behind a cooler.

It has no lock, so there'd be nothing between the killer and them if he should find it.

Amanat borrows a cell phone and tries to text her mother to tell her to stay away. But she dials the wrong number.

It would be three hours before Benny and Kanwal know for sure that their children are safe.

It's hot and crowded in the pantry and Abhay feels faint. People cool him off by fanning him with paper plates.

Others make whispered 911 calls. Later, recordings of those calls are released to the public.

In one call, you can hear someone in the background gasp, "Oh, my God."

A different story is about to unfold outside. At some point, Page leaves the temple.

The first policeman on the scene spots him in the parking lot. Page opens fire. A bullet hits the policeman in the throat. He dives behind a parked car and Page comes at him, shooting. He shoots the officer 12 times; miraculously, the officer survives.

Another officer arrives. The department's best marksman. You can see it all unfold on recordings from the dashboard video. The officer yells a warning. Page shoots and hits the squad car.

"I'm just stepping out here when the windshield explodes," the officer recalled later. 'My thought was, 'If I can't shoot him, I'm gonna run him over, but he's not leaving this parking lot and he's not getting back inside the church. I confronted evil in the parking lot. And evil was not gonna leave there."

The officer fires back, hitting Page from 60 yards. A remarkable shot. Page drops out of view. Then there's another shot. Only this time it's from Page's gun. After taking six other lives, he takes his own.

Those in the temple are taken in police cars to a bowling alley across the street where police try to make sense of the chaos.

Abhay remembers stepping over bodies on the way out.

But there would have been more bodies had they not been outside that day. Their father can only call it "God's will."

Nearly as miraculous as two children being in the right place and the wounded officer surviving, was how the Sikh people responded to the shooting.

As the Oak Creek police chief said the day after:

"In 28 years of law enforcement, I have seen a lot of hate. I have seen a lot of revenge. I've seen a lot of anger. What I saw, particularly from the Sikh community this week was compassion, concern, support. What I didn't see was hate. I did not see revenge. I didn't see any of that. I want you all to understand how unique that is."

"That is the ethos of Sikhism," a Sikh elder said. "We absolutely believe that as we gather to pray for the souls of the innocents who died, it's equally important for us to pray that those tormented with hate (who) brought us all together, that they find peace as well."

Visiting the temple

I decide to visit the temple where it all started.

I walk from the parking lot, a camera slung around my shoulder. There are several Sikhs outside as well as a security man. I wonder if they're suspicious. I would be if the tables were turned. If they are, they don't show it.

I meet Benny and the kids at the front door. That door opens to reveal another opening door, the one to the worship area.

I get a glimpse inside. It's like opening a door to the sun. Sikh men and women in bright clothing. The room wrapped in spring-like hues.

Benny leaves me with Amanat and Abhay, who has since turned 12. They demonstrate what happened that day in August.

They walk those few steps out the front door and point to a car maybe 15 feet away.

"That's where his car was," Amanat says.

They describe how the man walked over to the other parked car and shot the two men dead.

Just then, an elder comes out to greet me and talks about how brave Amanat and Abhay had been, how they had saved so many lives. He calls them heroes.

I ask Amanat and Abhay if they can show me the pantry.

Back inside, I take off my shoes and cover my head with a bandana.

We pass through the kitchen, where women in colorful dresses are preparing a meal, just as they had been on the day of the shooting.

Abhay and Amanat show me the corner of the pantry where they hid. Amanat says she thought they might die that day.

It must seem eerie to revisit that place, but they freely smile for photos.

When I asked to visit, Benny had invited me to take part in the meal.

I take them up on their offer.

Everyone is seated cross-legged on cushions in an area the size of a gymnasium. I choose a spot where my back can lean against a wall.

A woman, sitting nearby, introduces herself.

While her parents are from India, she grew up in the United States so her English is impeccable.

She was not at the temple when the shooting occurred, but came shortly thereafter.

I ask her if she felt angry.

"Maybe some people felt anger. Everyone is their own person. For me, this was the act of a man who had been led astray. He had a mother and father, too."

As I leave the temple, I notice a wall with six photos nearby.

One of the men died trying to hold back the attacker. According to one report, his only weapon was a butter knife. He didn't stop Page but he took two bullets trying.

As he lay dying, he murmured prayers.

Police credited the man with slowing Page down and saving more lives. Another hero.

Starting with tragedy

When I started writing this story it was Tuesday, Dec. 11.

Bright morning sunlight was streaming through my living room window. I noted my neighbor's Christmas decorations. A glass reindeer and lights crisscrossing a porch.

I was sipping orange juice, waiting for the words to come, when I heard the news on the radio.

Two killed in Oregon shopping mall. Lone gunman. No apparent motive. Shooter takes his own life. Same old tragic story.

For some, that shooting and the one in Connecticut may just put the shooting in Oak Creek this August further behind them.

For me, they brought it closer.

I was going to end this story by saying how much I admired the Sikh's ability to forgive, their grace-filled ways.

But then I hear of the Connecticut shooting and my perspective changes.

I realized that if I lost a child like that, I could never let go of my anger.

Obviously, it's more complicated for Sikhs, too. As the woman said, "Everyone is their own person."

Still, it's nice to know that some people try to follow a path that forgives when so many of us do not.

There is idealism, even if we can't always live up to it. Even if it doesn't resonate in the short haul, it does in the long.

After the latest shooting a Sikh said: "How do you fight evil? With goodness."

I sent Benny a draft of the story. This is how he responded:

"We have been vacationing at Orlando. Our kids had been asking us for the past couple of years to show them Disney World and this past summer after the tragic incident at the temple we promised to show them Disney in December. Yesterday when we were visiting Universal Studio, our son Abhay happened to check the headlines on his iPad and broke the sad news about the shooting at (the) school in Connecticut. Within no seconds the happy moments turned into sadness.

"There was big question marks in our minds WHY those innocent little angels? Why and how such a sick human being can stoop down so low to take lives of innocent little kids and destroy thousands of families. Do we have answers for such kind of sick incidents?

"I wish I could answer my kids when they asked me this question. We all quietly prayed for those families who have lost their little princes and princesses. "

More gun laws? Maybe. But madmen have a resolve that overcomes such obstacles.

There is no assurance against evil.

It's something

Last Saturday, I pulled myself away from the computer to attend a funeral.

I must have read the time wrong because by the time I arrived, they were in the midst of a hymn. The main door was closed off for repair, so the only way to the chapel was from a side entrance and a walk in front of the congregation.

I wasn't sure what to do. Should I leave? I gathered my thoughts as the hymn came to an end.

Then my question was answered. I saw the daughter of the deceased approaching me. Walking with a cane. With a smile on her face.

"So nice of you to come," she said.

We hugged and my unease disappeared.

One small act of grace.

Maybe that's the answer, or at least the only part we can really control on a day-to day-basis. It won't eliminate the possibility of another massacre. And assertive, righteous action is in order, too.

But we can choose to live the days we have left in a way that does not scar others.

Small acts of grace.

Small rays of hope.

At least that's something.


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