Since I am a writer, whenever things happen people always tell me to write about them. But there are some things that are impossible for me to write. Things that defy words. This happened to me a few years ago, when my family asked me to write my grandfather’s eulogy. I wasn’t able to attend his funeral (which happened quickly, across the country, and I had a two-month old at the time). So everyone in my family implored me to write something instead for someone to read. I did. It took me an entire day to come up with two paragraphs. What I wrote was awful. I’m certain. There were no words to really express what I felt or thought or missed, already.
I’ve been reminded of that feeling these past few weeks, in the aftermath of the shooting that happened in Tucson. My city. My home. I’ve had the feeling that I should have something to say, that writing something would somehow make things. . . better. Or at least, that it would somehow make me make more sense of them. Writing is, after all, my way of understanding the world. But the truth is, I have written nothing in the past few weeks, not about this, or anything else. I just haven’t been able to.
I was in the shopping center where the shooting happened, when it happened. I was having coffee, with a friend, a new friend who I’d met in person for the first time only ten minutes earlier, a friend who I feel I will now forever be connected to. We were talking preschools and our children, and I could see, out the floor to ceiling windows behind her, the front of the Safeway. I had no idea Gabrielle Giffords was having an event outside. (Thank goodness, several people have remarked to me in the past few weeks, or I may have been curious to stop by and meet her. Would I have? I’m not sure.) Though we were probably only about fifty feet away, it was loud enough inside the bakery so that we did not hear the gunshots. We didn’t see them either, since the cars in the Safeway parking lot blocked our view. My first cue that something wasn’t right was when I saw one police car pull into the shopping center, lights flashing, followed a few minutes later by four or five others. I watched as the police officers jumped from their cars, running and pulling things from their trunks. “What do you think is going on behind you?” I asked my friend.
She turned around. We made nervous guesses. Was there a traffic stop? A robbery in the bank in the front of Safeway? Were those more sirens in the distance?
Then a man dressed in bike-riding gear ran inside the bakery. “There’s a shooter in the Safeway,” he yelled.
We looked at each other. I suggested that we leave. I felt the urge to not just leave but run. If there was a shooter, anywhere in the shopping center, I wanted to get the hell out of there. Fast. We debated it for a minute. Was it safer to leave or stay? My car was right out front. Hers was in the Safeway parking lot. So we decided to both run to my car, and we got in quickly. We had no idea what was going on, but we figured it couldn’t actually be serious, that we were probably silly to leave in such in rush. But we’re both moms and writers, with vivid imaginations.
We noticed police starting to tape off the exits, and she wondered if she maybe she should get her car. I drove her to it, on the edge of the Safeway lot. We still had no idea what was going on, but the decision to run felt like the right one, then. We decided to meet at another coffee shop a few blocks up the road. “If I don’t make it there. Come back and look for me,” she joked.
“This is going in one of our next books,” I quipped back.
Ten minutes later we were sipping coffee in another quiet shopping center. It felt very far away from the police cars, sirens, the rumor of a shooter. It was probably just something silly, we decided. Though, I still felt shaky, and even now I have very little memory of what we talked about in those few moments until a woman ran in and told everyone what had happened. We stared at each other, gripped with shock. Disbelief. Then we couldn’t drink coffee anymore. We left. When I got home, my hands were still shaking; my brain was numb. My children ate lunch and gave me hugs, as if nothing had happened, but suddenly they looked different to me.
We’d been so close. And so far away.
Unbelievably, this had happened to me once before, nearly 15 years ago. When I was a freshman in college, a mentally deranged woman hid in the bushes on the lawn of my college’s student union, with a rifle. She sat there, early in the morning, in the rain, watching students walk by. On the way back from my 8 AM Spanish class, I was one of them. Shortly after I passed her, she started shooting, and she killed one student and injured another. As a new college freshman, I was struck by how easy it was to die, senselessly, just like that. It is a feeling I’ve never completely gotten over. The kind of thing that every so often, when I remember it, it still makes me uneasy.
And when I got home on January 8th, from what was supposed to be an innocent coffee with a new friend, my husband (who was my boyfriend at the time of the college shooting) looked at me, and said (only half-kidding, I’m sure), “How did you manage to do this twice? You’re never leaving the house again.”
Looking at my children, something about that didn’t even sound that ridiculous.
I did, of course. Leave the house. And nearly every time I did in the first few days that followed this shooting, I talked to someone who knew one of the killed or injured, somehow. Then I watched these victims on national news, with the knowledge of which of my friends and family knew them, and how. These people were heroes, and also, my neighbors.
The first week our local newspaper was overstuffed with triple-sized headlines and articles. Every morning I read them and found myself crying. (I am not, by the way, usually a crier.) But everything felt so personal and sad to me, the way I know it did to so many other people, and not just because I’d drunk coffee nearby or because I live so close (though these things, I’m sure, made everything feel even worse) but because I am a mom, a woman, a human being.
Why don’t you write something about it? Countless people have suggested this to me in the past few weeks. But I think I’ve been afraid to put this into words, to relive it, to make it real. In the past 15 years, I have never once even tried to write something about that shooting at my college. I’ve thought about it. But words have never felt adequate.
Maybe it’s because when I write, I have something to say. And about this, about any of this, I don’t. I have no answers, no way to understand this, no words to make sense of any of it.
In writing all of this down, I know I haven’t said anything new or interesting or even important. But I am a writer. So I wrote it anyway.