Parents and teenagers are walking around this week awed by the violence that destroyed the Browning family in Cockeysville - one of those events that are so shocking we all look at each other and wait for someone to make some sense of it. But there is no sense to it, and the explanation might never come.
All you are allowed to assume, based on your experience as a human being, is that a 15-year-old boy had to be deeply troubled to do such a thing, and people seem so understanding of this, already speaking of forgiveness and "poor Nicholas."
We all tend to personalize things.
We look at this event - occurring in our midst, in a suburb where violence is largely fictional, the product of movies and computer games, and among a social class we presume insulated from dysfunction - and press it against the template of our own lives. Could this happen to us? It seems preposterous.
Those of us who feel "normal" and who have families that seem "normal" and households that generally function in a "normal" way - we can't imagine the circumstances that would ever lead to a tragedy of this nature and dimension.
But, for some of us, the Browning family tragedy stirs awake powerful memories of the long, dark teenage winter - that bleak stretch of time we thought would never end, when it was one thing after another, one humiliating, confusing and depressing fight with father after another, in a house that seemed to be in a constant state of scream.
As I say, this goes for some of us - not for all of us and probably not even for most of us.
That's something I learned over time. I went to college, then into the work force and met men and women who could document wonderful lives with their parents all through high school and beyond.
I learned that warring with the old man was not a rite of passage for every American male. Many, I discovered, lived in mostly happy, loving "normal" homes, with fathers who were supportive and rational. The boys in those households kept the chips on their shoulders from becoming too large, and they saw their fathers as friends, not enemies. The fathers in these households, I learned, were not in a perpetual state of anger, not easily provoked, not given to furious outbursts.
But that's what some of us knew - in those long teenage winters that seemed as though they would go on forever.
Some of us lived in homes where stressful emotional skirmishes occurred daily - and the fortunate among us lived through it and survived, perhaps only because there was no gun in the house, or because there was sanctuary in a neighbor's home or a relative's apartment, or good teachers and other men who took an interest in us, or maybe we had things to do at school long into the night.
These reflections suggest I know what occurred in the Browning household last weekend, and the week before that, and the year before that.
We don't know - and might never know - the Browning story, what went on between the father and the son now accused in his death and the deaths of his mother and two brothers.
"We don't and can't know what is going on behind the family facades of others," a friend of mine said. "I suspect that some of us often don't even realize what is going on behind our own family walls."
Maybe that's one of the reasons we're deeply moved and frightened by this story - that the best parents, busy making ends meet and keeping pace, can miss something important. We'd like to know the cause of such a violent act; certainly there must be some way to clinically dissect the potent dynamics between father and son in that long, teenage winter.
But all families have their secrets and idiosyncrasies, each person in a household a unique personality, each relationship a special chemistry. For those relationships that bump and grind - that turn horrible and unbearable - you wish a tonic were available, that love could be prescribed like a pill and that love could prevail.
"My own son is 18 now," a reader from
wrote in an e-mail this week. "Things are finally getting better, but we have three doors with cracks and holes from my son's angry fist. My wife and I were not overbearing parents. We didn't demand the highest grades, the standout sports accomplishments or demean or demoralize our son. Instead, his drug use and some undiagnosed depression caused his instability and frequent outbursts. It becomes a sad time for parents and child as they endure many arguments, sleepless nights and occasional hints of violence."
When I heard of the Browning tragedy, I thought back 35 years, to the worst times - when the anger between us would flare and the confrontations became physical - and realized how close we came, and I weep that things were not better but realize they could have been so much worse.
Some of us wish we had it to do all over again. But we can't. All we can do is remember, learn, push toward spring and work at having better relations with our sons than we had with our fathers. That's more precious than anything left in a will.