Live for Those… 7 Years Later

It’s been 7 years since the worst day in my life. As I had to get ready for my Tuesday classes, I took my shower as usual, sat down in my desk chair as usual, started to blow dry my hair as usual, and then checked my email as usual.

9:26 AM I saw we got an email about a shooting on campus. It scared me. Something didn’t feel right. I didn’t want to go onto campus, but I continued to get ready. I delayed as long as I could. I had to leave by 9:45 to get there on time. Delay, delay, delay…

9:50 AM Another email telling us that a gunman is loose on campus and to stay put. No punctuation. I was scared. Tim was on campus in class. He was about to get out and go to his next class in Norris on the 2nd floor (I didn’t know the connection at that time). Internet service was spotty at best in the classrooms. I had to call him and tell him to stay where he was. I started calling, hoping his class would get out early.

I called and called and called and called. Finally, I got through at about 10 AM. He was just leaving and I was able to get him and he was able to get everyone back into his classroom, where they closed the door and waited. I turned on the TV and started refreshing my email every few seconds for updates.

10:16 AM Another email telling us that classes are canceled and to stay put. I need to get to Tim. I need to hold him. I need him to hold me. I’m scared.

I finally got a call at about 10:45 telling me that the police were evacuating his building and he was going to be on Main Street (he had to make it through a maze of buildings before they let them be outside). I found him walking along Main Street with his things. We went back to his apartment, sat on his bed, and started watching TV.

The numbers started coming in. A couple fatalities. Then more. Then more. Fatalities? They MUST mean casualties. Not that many dead! At some point we had collapsed on the bed, him just holding me. The tears came until they couldn’t come any more. We were numb. In shock. Sick. Terrified. Scared. Sad. Worried.

Thank goodness for AIM (AOL Instant Messenger). We started trying to connect to all of our friends. Every single Brother of our fraternity (Alpha Phi Omega) accounted for. Our close friends? All safe.

Still, we were glued to our TV.

When the video came on that was from outside Norris, and it showed the sounds of the gun going off, I wanted to vomit. I knew what each of those bullets meant.

When the numbers kept climbing, I wanted to scream.

Then the pictures came on that showed the huge mass of media trucks. We had to get out of there. We stayed that night, so we could get to memorial on the football field the next morning. We would leave after that. We had to get away.

I remember the news conference when Katie Couric came in and started pointing fingers right away. How DARE she?! She comes in to OUR campus and accuse US during OUR moment of unbelievable grief and horror?!!? We didn’t need that now. There would be time for that later. We needed to be together as a community before the media (aka Katie Couric) would be able to up their ratings.

I still refuse to watch anything having to do with Katie Couric today. We don’t even mention her name in our house.

When we left the next day, the names of those lives lost had started to come back. Most I didn’t know. Some I did.

The student who had just gotten accepted into the College Ambassadors program (which I was a part of). I feel so horrible I can’t remember his name now. Was it Daniel Perez Cueva?

Henry Lee – the actual brother of one of our female fraternity “brothers.”

Mary Read  – the girl that was in my Children’s Literature class the very next hour. She sat diagonal to me (her in the front row, me in the second). She was always first to raise her hand and always with a smile.

Leslie Sherman – the girl that helped Hurricane Katrina victims with me for hours the year before. We sat in a mildewy room, playing Jenga with a little boy who was displaced and had moved to Virginia with his family. We were strangers when we entered that room and shared a bond I always remembered. I drove her home that day (she didn’t have a car while I did), and I saw her almost every day for the next year and a half on campus at our class changes. We always locked eyes. Never saying anything, but I always remembered us bringing joy to that little boy. Hers is the death that haunts me the most.

I tried to sleep in my own bed in my childhood room. My mom even went out and got a brand new amazing soft bed for me, knowing the horror that we had been through. I had horrible night terrors. I woke up screaming. I needed Tim. He drove the 10 minutes from his parents’ house to mine, and we held each other all night long. I didn’t sleep separated from him for the next few months. I couldn’t bear to be alone during the dark night. It was too terrifying.

We got back to campus a few days later. We started the “healing process,” although there really wasn’t any process about it. We walked around in a daze. The news crews that were still there were more genuine, kinder, gentler. There were hugs all around campus between strangers. When someone broke out into tears on the Drillfield, a stranger would approach him and help console him. We were a family. We were grieving together. Classes were counseling sessions. On the first day back at Children’s Literature, we took flowers to the make-shift memorial to say some words about Mary. Something I thought but never said: On our first class, our professor told us that we would never read a book that had a character die. She would not do that to us. How horrific that it had to be a classmate dying instead. If only we could all read about 1000s of fictional characters dying to take away this pain.

As we “finished” the semester (sleep-walking through the steps of “life”), we faced graduation. Graduation wasn’t a happy occasion. It was another memorial. It needed to be done that way, but it was hard as well. I felt selfish to want a happy memory to end my time at Virginia Tech. I had just started to learn how to hold myself together. Unleash the waterworks.

Within weeks, Tim and I had moved to our new apartment in Richmond. Within months, we were engaged. We had happy times ahead, mixed with the sad (among those, my grandmother Audrey passed away after a short illness).

As I started graduate school at UVA in the fall, I was really apprehensive to step into a classroom again. I jumped at every loud noise and started shaking if I couldn’t see two exits to a room. One of my professors actually made some off-hand remark about the shooting, and it was everything I could do not to run out of the room. I emailed her and told her that I was at Tech during the shooting and that I was really sensitive to anything of that nature. She was very apologetic. On the first anniversary, I couldn’t be in a classroom, so I told my professors I would not be there, and I stayed home. My mom and I watched the memorials on our computer, crying as if it had happened just yesterday.

Years went by. It became easier. Easier, not easy. On the second anniversary, I was a teacher in my own classroom. I had just gotten married and come back from my honeymoon. No excuses. I had to be in the classroom. I planned extra-fun things that day. I needed a distraction.

The shooting and the pain will never go away. Trauma really never does. We live with it, deal with it, manage it. It becomes a part of us, a part of our being. At some point, we stop defining ourselves as “the girl that was at Tech during the shooting,” but that girl will still come out every time that we go through a safety drill at the start of the school year or someone brings up the shooting or gun violence. They don’t realize that I am the right age to have been there. To have lost so much.

To have gained so much. That sounds weird typing that, but it’s true. I wish it had never happened. I wish I could be naive and carefree as before. I wish I could worry less and feel more free. But with that pain comes a realization of the special nature of life. A friend posted this, and I “stole” it from her, because it is exactly how I feel today.

Live for Those