Wednesday, the 9th of April, is the stuff of which my nightmares are composed. Since I was eight years old, only two things run at the forefront of my mind as numbing: acts of violence against a student body and car crashes. Car crashes, though, are irrelevant here, in this space. This is for the other. Yet, you must understand why, first.
On Tuesday, the 20th of April 1999, Columbine High School, in Littleton, Colorado, was smeared across every major news outlet. Two boys had walked into the building and unleashed terror upon the inhabitants, who were their fellow students. In the end, they themselves were among the dead. I was there when it happened. I remember it clearly.
My family lived in Evergreen, about thirty-five minutes up C-470 and I-70 from Columbine, when it made international headlines. Just because we were a few dozen miles away did not separate our school district. Jefferson County went into lockdown. No one in. No one out. My mom remembers attempting to pick-up me up for a dentist appointment. The police officer at the front of the door said that she would have to go home and wait for me at the bus stop. I remember disembarking and asking my mom what was wrong. People were talking about something going on at the high school. I was in second grade. How do you explain what happened to a child?
My mom called some family friends that lived down that way. Their children went to the neighboring high school. Everyone we knew was accounted for, but that does not change the reality. I did not see a newspaper for over two weeks. Captain and my mom hid them from my little brother and me. There were pictures of the library running on the cover. Photographs, serving as immortal proofs of tragedy, stamped as headlines.
Years later, in high school, on the 16th of April 2007, Virginia Tech demolished Columbine's body count by over double. From what little I understand, that was the goal. I had fellow students at Franklin checking in with family and friends who attended all day. Sandy Hook, just two and a half years ago, reached extremes with the targeting of elementary school children. The final straw. The last piece in the Jenga tower before it all crumbles over. Are we finally desensitized? Are we no longer haunted?
The answer is no. Wednesday, April 9th, I rolled over at 8:36AM to find my cat next to me. I did not work until noon. I thought seriously about sleeping for another hour. My mom walked down the hall. I said good morning. She opened my door and said there had been an attack at the high school. I felt the initial tremor. She said it was all over. Had been for over an hour. A student had brought a knife. They were saying the number was twenty.
Next, you reach for your cell phone. I did. I graduated in 2009. I no longer knew anyone but faculty and staff at the senior high. My brother, a 2013 graduate and section leader in the band, would have better connections. Still, the text messages and phone calls start. I texted my bridal manager to make sure her little brother was safe. Then my friends to verify their sibling whereabouts. The home phone began ringing every few minutes and band moms my mother had served with and church moms began calling in with roll call and names of the wounded. We knew the name of the student responsible hours before the media. Or hours before the media shared it with everybody else.
That is how it feels. Do you see? The instant when your stomach cramps and that feeling you get when your chest tightens and you feel as if you are being pressed by giant stones. Tears sting and even though everyone you know is safe, that is your high school on the news with the local police at every entrance and the life flight helicopters in your football stadium. It is your high school that you work less than a mile from, where you had to take a detour to get to work to avoid potential road blocks. It is your high school everyone talks about all day. It is your alma mater that is the second most read story on BBC by one o'clock Eastern Standard Time. This discovery brings even more tears. And they do not stop.
It is your high school, when you leave the bridal salon at five o'clock that you will drive home past. It is the senior high that you bought midnight showing tickets to I Am Number Four to watch them blow up. It is the pavement you ran repeatedly when you picked up running. It is your school. Your panthers. And there, at the top of the complex, the senior high building sits cordoned off with yellow crime scene tape and uniforms to prevent media from crossing. It is the incline and the middle school parking lot and the east entrance by the elementary school that has local and national news crews lined up along the road, cameras staggered between vans, ready for the evening coverage. It makes you whisper, "Oh my God," repeatedly under your breath and cry some more and want to scream and curse at the men and women in their pressed suits, standing in the gravel adjacent to the tennis courts. It makes you mad. Or it should.
Are we not haunted enough? I lived there when Columbine occurred. I am twenty three, I have seen all the pictures now. I saw the coverage of Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook. My mom turned off the television because it provided continuous coverage and it hurt her heart. She could not turn it off when it was our high school though. I did. I had too. There was no new information, just speculation. Alex and his family. The students in the ICU. The emergency room selfie. All of it.
This is all that you need to know. On April 9th, the Devil went walking, in the words of Sally Gardner. He picked a new country, a new state, a new town, and a new high school. My high school. On April 9th, my nightmares materialized. I stopped dreaming the horrible scenario because it actually happened.
And this is how it felt after. I texted people I knew all over the country throughout my work day. Please pray. There is nothing else you can do but that and I will take it. We all with take it.
Tragedy reveals how well, and poorly, people respond. I had numerous friends tell me they would do just that. Some did not make the connection that it was my alma mater. One voiced a conspiracy theory and then sadness. Another remarked at the choice of weapon. The crucial outcome difference, I reminded, means I will take the miracles as they come.
It is amazing the comfort that people can offer or believe they offer and how little you can feel it.
You need to understand the void, the hollow, that is created. The place where it aches just thinking about it in passing. And the things that live in the void: the stories of the heroes, the witness accounts, the faculty testimonies, and the unforgettable devastation of a family that must reconcile what their son, brother, nephew, cousin, and everything Alex is to those who love him, what he has done. Alex will have to reconcile it too. It is not our job to do that for them. We can only offer them privacy, love, support, prayer, and when needed, flowers too, I think.
But you know the most amazing thing? The tears I cry now are most often realizing the love and support that Murrysville has from all over the Pittsburgh-metro area. T-shirts are being sold to fundraise for scholarships, which have their production sponsored by corporate donations. Every church in the area opened its doors and its pastoral and counseling staff availability. Businesses have personalized their signs. Blue and gold bows run the length of the chain link at the softball field, on mailboxes, pillars, and small business monikers. Banners with thousands of signatures are running the length of the hallways at the high school. Flowers, balloons, and tokens were all tied to the front step rails. Over one hundred people showed up to pray before school commenced on Wednesday for students in the same stadium and on the same turf that panic had washed over the week before. And not just FR students. Students from every district in the area.
I will never understand the allure of April. Maybe it is because April has been the setting of nightmares for me for fifteen years. I grew up those kids I worried about in the corners of my mind.
But beauty is in the break down. The Devil may have found a grand angle, but he did not win. How many times has it been said only good can come out of evil? So much good has come out of a tragic event and violent act.
And tomorrow is Easter. And the anniversary of Columbine.
But I am not afraid. For the Devil went walking, but he has been conquered.
He failed to fray the edges. We did not unravel.
He failed to drive the wedge. We have not turned against one another.
He has failed.
I am not sure he thinks that.
He will be displeased.
I do not care. You should not care.
Nothing short of sitting on the rock, at the water's edge of the Maroon Bells, during sunrise on the 4th of July, has convinced me of the immeasurable fortitude of our Father than the threads I have seen tightened since 7AM just ten days ago.
The funny thing about perceived loose ends? When you pull on them, you realize everything they are attached too and how, in fact, immovable they truly are.
We are immoveable. We are united. We are proud.
We are FR Strong.
The Devil can go pick on a cat his own size. Our Lion is fierce and up to the task.