As I write this to you, it’s currently two in the morning. This is just one of many sleepless nights that I find myself fighting thoughts of loss and grief. Some of this pain is old, some new. And as I grow older, I often find myself thinking of pains that have yet to come.
I don’t think words can describe what it’s like to lose a part of yourself, and it’s a shared experience that, while I wish on no one, many who have experienced a mass shooting share.
On October 1st, 2015 I sat in my Thursday morning biology lab, already willing it to be over. I wish I had known to cherish those precious seconds, memorizing every part of myself and my life as it was before it all changed.
It was the fourth day of my Sophomore year. I had just spent a beautiful summer with my first boyfriend, Joshua, and I was looking forward to a fall filled with pumpkin patches and apple cider together. One of my good friends and I had just been cast as leads in the school's fall play, Blithe Spirit. Our first reading was supposed to be that evening.
That crisp October morning, our sleepy community college campus was interrupted by gunfire at 10:38am.
As I write this I realize that I’m just stating the facts of what happened. Words seem to fail me when I think about trying to describe the fear that 60 bodies shoved into a tight space radiates. The whispered prayers of some, the violent posturing of others. The false media reports as the body count rises. One shooter, maybe two. They’re in the next building over. Maybe yours is next? The pushing and shoving as everyone tries to get into a safer position even though we all know that if someone comes through that door with a gun it won’t matter.
Have you ever had a gun pointed at you? An assault rifle? I could see the windows in the doors from where I was seated in the supply closet. My group had been in the back of the biology lab, so we were some of the last few in, the few closest to the doors. It was the kind of window that was tall and slim and had those little metal wires running through it in a diagonal pattern.
I remember seeing camo and a large weapon pass by that window. I was glad I had already texted the people closest to me that I loved them. The door was kicked in and large men came rushing in, demanding we put our hands above our heads, weapons pointed at us.
We were lucky that it was a swat team evacuating us. We were ushered around the side of the building, past crime scene tape, ambulances, and a number of things I still can’t talk about. We were patted down, searched, and then herded onto buses. I waited as long as they’d let me for Joshua, who had yet to be evacuated.
I rode that big yellow school bus alone to the county fairgrounds where my parents and a horde of media were waiting. I’ll never forget the cardboard signs families had made with their loved ones' names on them, asking if anyone had seen them.
It was another hour until Joshua arrived on the last bus.
At the end of the day, nine people did not go home to their families. And so many more were injured.
Sarena, who came into the tutor center with her dog where Joshua and I worked almost every day.
Quinn, who took the same theatre classes as me in high school. He had the kindest heart and was so good at making others feel welcome.
Kim, the mom of one of our UCC theater crew members, and caretaker of the local vineyard where our high school held prom my senior year.
Lucas, kind-hearted quadruplet, and amazing soccer player.
All loved, valued members of our community. Gone.
I left that day physically unharmed, but the trauma and the PTSD that has stayed with me the past five years has impacted almost every aspect of my life. As we grow up, we realize certain truths about the world over time, unless trauma steps in and speeds up that process. 10:37 on October 1st was the last minute I spent without feeling the full weight of how evil some people in this world can be. And that haunts me.
While this unspeakable evil act still lingers over the campus, it is also a place that holds many beautiful things for myself and the community. It’s the place I found myself and the confidence to speak my mind. It’s also the place I met my first love. Ten months and nineteen days after the shooting, Joshua and I got married at UCC. Which to this day is still the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
Why am I telling you all of this? Because I don’t want you to be one of those parents waiting with a cardboard sign bearing your child’s name. I don’t want your life to be punctuated by the empty spot at your dinner table. Life is so so precious and so very fragile. We, as a country and community, need to do all we can to hold onto those we love and protect them. Our love is what defines who we are.
It seems like I should include some form of a call to action at the end of all this, but everything I can think of has been said over and over. So I’ll leave you with this. Hold your loved ones close, because you never know when may be the last time you see them. Love deeper and wider because you don’t know when the last day you get to love will be.
I hope this collection of letters encourages you to think. Makes you pause. And helps you love.
Because that’s what it has done for me.
All my love,