Yesterday I woke up and stumbled into the kitchen to make coffee. Three boys swirled around me like a tornado of needs and wants – some welcome (hugs and snuggles) and some less welcome (a TV show I’m not nearly awake enough to deal with). My husband strolls into the kitchen, brushing his teeth, and hands me his phone. His finger taps on a headline as if to say “Can you believe this shit?”
50+ dead (revised to 59 later). 400+ injured (revised to 500+ later). A gunman has opened fire on an enormous country music festival crowd right on the Las Vegas strip.
My mind immediately goes to who I know in that area, who has traveled there recently, who might be there. I run to Facebook and begin to check. Ashley? Check. Geoff? No, he’s been in Chicago. Phew. Who else? I scroll and my empathic side begins that subtle buzz it always develops on days like these.
Back in 1999, when I got in my mom’s car after school (freshman year…what a doozy) and found her in tears, she explained what had just happened at Columbine High School and I handed her a poem I’d written in the library at lunch that day. I don’t have the poem anymore, and even if I did, I’d probably hate it (as most writers cringe at a lot of their past work). It was later that week as headlines flowed in from the early days of saturation coverage, pre-social media, pre-smartphone, that I discovered the worst carnage of Columbine had occurred right there in the school library.
Empathy is different than compassion. Compassion can be faked. Compassion can be canned and posted as a meme. Empathy cannot. It is an extremely misunderstood emotion by those who lack it, and an almost impossible to explain feeling for those who have it. It is to mentally and emotionally remove the victim from a situation and put yourself there – to consume the enormity of what happened not out of a choice, but out of an inability not to. Horror films and disturbing story lines are always difficult for me because I find myself emerging from a dark theater, silently thanking God for the daylight and reality I find is still intact. As if I am surprised. As if everything passed away in that moment when I couldn’t escape what was happening onscreen.
Columbine was small by comparison to the absolute massacre that took place in Las Vegas Sunday evening. But it feels now, 18 years later, like a beginning. A horrible, ugly beginning. Punctuated regularly by other horrible, disgusting, heart-wrenching events that only seem to serve as semicolons. This run-on sentence is never done. The story, never ending.
It is 7:30 am when Jonathan takes his phone back, shaking his head as he puts on his shoes. My mouth is still agape. I am now on my phone, trying to watch a live broadcast on NPR while my sons climb all over me thinking it’s a video for them to watch. I give up and put it down because I don’t want any of them to witness that. It’s time to say goodbye.
I cradle Russell’s precious face in my hands and look at his eyes. He is seven years old. He is in the first grade. He is the same age that many of the victims at Sandy Hook Elementary school were when that horrible thing happened in 2012. He is old enough that I can clearly see my baby boy has evaporated before my eyes into someone who is a small child. Not a baby, not a toddler, and only a few brief, precious years before he morphs yet again into a pre-teen. But the cheeks and pursed smile are still quite baby-ish. He is the age where I get glimpses of his babyhood, the present day, and the future all at once.
Do I tell him that there are awful, evil people in the world? I think he knows, but does he really understand? CAN he really understand, or will I just be wasting my ragged breath again? Do I tell him that if he ever hears what sounds like fireworks that he should run? Do I tell him when he is supposed to hide, when he is to run, and when he is to be completely silent (almost an impossibility at his age)? My husband and I joke while watching “The Walking Dead” sometimes that we’d be toast in the event of an actual zombie apocalpyse because we have three loud, crazy kids and the zombie would hear and see us from a mile away. But really…what the hell do I tell my seven year old? Do I tell him nothing at all?
“Hide behind a metal desk if you can?”
“Don’t make a single sound. Don’t even breath loud?”
“Run until you cannot hear the sound of gunfire anymore?”
I do not know what I can tell him, what I should tell him.
These are not actual questions for you, by the way. You don’t have the answer to them anymore than I do. You don’t hold anymore wisdom than I do about what the hell to tell a seven year old about how to survive and escape an active shooter in their school, in a store, at a music event. I know, because I’m his mother and I would bleed everywhere and die a horrific death for him, and believe me if there was a fail-safe answer I’d fucking have it right now. And so would every mother who lost a child yesterday. But that answer doesn’t exist. So do not come at me with your sage “wisdom.”
I have no patience for people so arrogant that they believe they can outsmart death; I have no understanding for people who believe they actually can control everything around them.
And so I say nothing except “I love you so much, buddy.” I do nothing, except to stare at my sweet eldest boy for a little longer than I normally would, hold his face a little longer, kiss him extra, and then send him off to school.
I am no gun expert. I did not serve in the military. I do not truck around with a sticker that proudly declares “Moaone Aabe.” But I have been around guns most all my life.
Growing up, I walked by the same four rifles on my way out the sliding glass door just about every single morning. I didn’t really know how to load or shoot them at the time, but I knew that they weren’t for me to touch – and so for whatever reason, I just never did. I knew the bullets were in the cabinet right below the guns. It never even occurred to me that the guns might or might not be loaded. I legitimately have no idea, to this day, if they were.
Watching video of what happened in Las Vegas, how it all unfolded, I heard a familiar sound. I remember that beating drum in my chest. In my life, there have been several instances where I have been in the midst of gunfire. I don’t really know how much danger I was *technically* in, but then again I guess it’s hard to tell when you can’t see the shooter and you don’t get shot. I’m sure there’s some asshole “expert” who could go back and systematically designate for me how much danger I was in. Oh, you experts…I’m thankful for you in a way, but also intensely irritated. I find everyone is an expert these days. I’m fine saying I am not.
One instance occurred practically in my front yard when I was maybe 7 or 8 years old. Some sort of beef taking place between two parties out on the street in front of our house – maybe drugs or something, I never found out. I just remember getting down behind furniture, shots ringing out. The second instance occurred when I was 17 years old in Pawley’s Island at the site of Alice Flagg’s grave. Probably a cantankerous neighbor who didn’t like teenagers regularly showing up in the graveyard next door to spin around the burial site of a local legend. He may have been firing in the air, for all I know. He may have been a she, for all I know. It was a really shitty time to not have keyless entry, I do know that. Unlocking a car manually while being maybe-possibly shot at is challenging to say the least. The third instance occurred when I lived with my friend in college. We had a third-floor apartment in a complex near the college. Probably just another beef between two parties, several shots fired, not a huge thing. I don’t even think anyone was injured. I army-crawled over to the window to look out (like an idiot, obviously) and see what was going on and it was already over. Cars peeling out and away, no explanation.
I was unscathed mentally, emotionally, and physically. These were all pretty forgettable circumstances.
Mostly, I remember the first and only time in my life that I’ve heard an actual automatic rifle. Not a semi-automatic. An actual, fully automatic something-or-other (I don’t the name because I don’t effing care). I was at a gun range here in town that has them for people who want to “experience” what it’s like to shoot them. I guess that’s on some peoples’ bucket lists, which is their business.
What I will never forget is the excitement everyone seemed to have about it. The air in the room grew heavier. I felt perplexed in a way. Everyone seemed to stand back. We knew it would be loud. I’ll never forget that thumping in my chest. Like a drum, beating over and over. Why was this such a big thing? Was it because it was taboo, the subject of contentious debate? Were we supposed to feel more American now? Was it because it was inherently thrilling in a way to be that close to something so instantly lethal? I do not have the answer to that, either.
But the sound stays with you. It will stay with every person who witnessed what happened in Las Vegas. It will ring in my ears the next time I go to a large concert venue and look around for the closest exits and escape routes, the closest barricade that I can run behind if I ever need to. The sound will erupt in the background of Eagles of Death Metal’s cover of “Save a Prayer” everytime it pops up on my Spotify playlist. Jason Aldean will never be able to sing that particular line of that particular song again and not hear that sound.
And we will fight. Oh, the battle that will rage on. The quotations and conveniences that will be pulled out of our collective pockets in the moment and then shoved away for the next semicolon.
And so I wait. For the videos to stop playing. for the next semi-colon in this run on sentence, as we all do. And it will come. And we will not be any closer to having the answers than we are now.