Why I Don’t Watch the News

I played a sick game with myself in December of 2012 when my roommate told me the Sandy Hook news story.  I let my mouth drop and my eyes widen, but I did not sit with her in the small yellow living room and watch the television screen like she did.  She sat there in the brown leather and ate a bowl of homemade chili as news anchors rattled off repetitive phrases.  I sat in the next room because I could not feign the tired language of tragedy and respond to the story with her.  I came back later to check the death count and see the numbers plateau at twenty-eight.  Twenty-eight victims had lost their lives in that school, small children had died of gunshot wounds that also ripped their families apart, but I walked out of the room that night and thought to myself: they didn’t beat us.  Like it was a fucking competition.

            Afterwards, I refused to watch the coverage, too ashamed at my numbness.  I avoided every article and news story online, and I kept myself intentionally ignorant about the shooter’s very name for months.  I wanted nothing to do with Newtown, Connecticut.   

            The first time I ever looked at the mass shooting statistics for the United States, they filled me with equal parts shame and relief.  Even after Sandy Hook, the Virginia Tech Massacre still rested at the top, holding on to a total of thirty-three deaths.  The sense of competition plagued me as I skimmed the list, but maybe I was simply looking for affirmation.  Maybe I wanted to see in the numbers the proof that our tragedy impacted the entire nation as much as it did me.  I know now that I will never receive that proof.  Of course it didn’t.


            I heard once that when someone remembers something, they are really remembering the last time they remembered it.  If this holds true, then I have not remembered the phone call with my father on April 16, 2007 for many years.  I have, however, remembered the memory of that call, as well as the memory of that memory.  I have recalled so many memories of that brief moment that it’s possible I now have nothing left but an empty space in my mind where that recollection should go.  Perhaps there is nothing left but a cigarette burn there, or even a carved out hole with worn edges where my fingers have grazed the outline again and again.

            I stood in the very center of the small living room.  I stood before the television and the fireplace and the knees of my three housemates as they sat curled upon the plaid blue sofa.  We were all curled into ourselves and watching images of our school on national news stations when my cell phone rang.

            With the phone to my ear as I stood barefoot on worn carpet, I heard my father ask if I was okay.  Sirens filled the background on the other end.  There had been no “hello.”

            “Yes, I’m fine.  Where are you?  What’s going on?”

            “Twenty-three dead,” he said.  My housemates looked at me hesitantly, shifting their gaze between the phone on my ear and the television set.


            “I’m on my way to campus.  I’ve got to go.”


            My dad practiced family medicine thirty miles outside of Blacksburg.  He ran on the local rescue squad on and off throughout my childhood and because of this, I knew he had been called to campus that day for a reason.  I knew he was on his way to help.

I wouldn’t find out until later that everything had already happened.  The doors to the building on campus had already been chained shut, thirty-three people had already died, and the threat had already passed.  Amidst the voices of the local news crews reporting on the story for the nation, amidst the shouting of police officials and the sirens of the medics arriving, Norris Hall had fallen silent by the time my father reached me on his phone.  It was all too late. 

              I learned later that he arrived to campus and joined an investigative team.  He walked past the chains and into the silent, blood-streaked halls.  He entered the classrooms and heard the tiled floor vibrating with the cell phones of the dead.  He picked through the bodies.  He searched for identification.  He breathed in the metallic scent of tragedy and worked, side-by-side, with other medical professionals.  The team swept through the scene and performed their duties.  Later, my father would return home to his wife.  He would crawl into bed and sleep.  He would not discuss the incident for almost seven years.



            April is the hardest month.  Tragedy in this country began as early as 1865 when John Wilkes Booth killed President Lincoln.  Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, the bombings at Oklahoma City, the shootings at both Columbine High School and Virginia Tech, as well as the bombings of the Boston Marathon all occurred in the month of April.  Even the Titanic sank during this month, taking over 1,500 lives with it.  Maybe April’s showers are not weather-related after all.


Each April brings another anniversary.  Tally marks stain stone walls for each one of these tragic occurrences, gathering a fresh chalked line each year.  With every new calendar I own, I flip from March into the subsequent month and my eyes land in the center of the page and circle the day of April 16 over and over in imagined ink.  Maybe everyone feels this about a day, about a death.  Maybe everyone’s calendars brim with pain.

Before tragedy happened to me, I lived in ignorance.  I thought I was safe.  I never believed that a massacre could get close enough to see the whites of my eyes, to be entangled in my own history.  I never imagined I would be part of a national misfortune or that it could be so personal.

            Before it happened to me, I felt disconnected.  I only saw my own magnified version of the world.  I saw the world through American Lit papers and college parties and breakups and divorces.  I didn’t sense a bigger picture and did not understand community or the notion that a single day could haunt me for the rest of my life. 


            I have learned as the anniversaries tick by that a body can only filter so much.  A body can bear a certain amount of grief and heartache before it starts to harden.  Human hearts are only the size of a fist, they only weigh a pound at most, and they only hold a cup of blood at a time.

At one point, I resolved to keep my heart supple and unhardened.  I created a habit of stopping myself from reading the news and hearing the tragedies that surface from all over the world.  I now force myself to turn away from stories, from the numbers.  If I only have the one, then I can still see hope.  If I only have the one, then I can still believe there is good in the world.  I can look up and into the showers of raindrops as they cover my face and I can believe they will eventually stop and that there will be sun again.  I can appreciate the rain, even if I didn’t want it—even if the cold hurts and the wetness of cloth on my skin feels uncomfortable—I can feel it and I can know it and I can move forward into cloudless days that I know are ahead. 


            We have to press forward—I, we, the pronouns the same.  I cannot continue to swim through memories and nostalgia because eventually my fingers will prune and my legs will tire and I will drown in exhaustion.  We have to move beyond the anniversaries, beyond the grief and the questions and the reminiscing.  We have to keep faith.

            I let myself grieve on April Sixteenth each year, but I let myself laugh the next day.  I move on into May.  I carry the hope in my small heart that people are good and I do not let life destroy this belief.  No, I do not let myself watch the news.




An Open Letter to Ross’ Mother

 Dear Ms. A,

You don’t know me and I don’t know you.  Truthfully, I didn’t really know your son either, but I sat in front of him in our American Lit class in 2007.  I knew his energy.

I didn’t really know anyone else in that class either because back then, I was quiet.  Back then, I rarely went out of my way to start conversations with strangers or try to make friends.  I used to think it didn’t matter, but now I wish I had known your son better.  Even if knowing him better would have made his tragic death that much more tragic, I wish I did anyway.  I wish I had chimed in on that first day of class when he started the conversation about the zombie apocalypse.  I wish I had hung out—even once—with him and the girl that sat behind him (it was clear that they were close friends).  They both wore cool shoes and carried themselves well.  They were both carefree and smiling every time I saw them in class.  They seemed adventurous too, and smart.  I bet they even had a coffee shop ritual and gathered with other friends at Bollo’s every Tuesday, passing books to one another and laughing.  I could tell they would have been great people to share company with—they would have been good friends.

I wonder if that girl still wears cool shoes and is still carefree.  I wonder if she still thinks about escape routes every time she walks into a new room—just in case the zombies arrive.  Chances are, her shoe style is very different now, as is her demeanor.  I bet she outgrew zombies and has the beginnings to a career now.  I bet today is one of the hardest days of the year for her.  I bet she thinks of your son every day of her life.

I can’t really imagine how these anniversaries affect you and your family and frankly, I won’t even attempt to understand or relate.  Nobody can depict that pain for you and I’m sure you wouldn’t want them to try because as Nicki Giovanni said, “No one deserves a tragedy.”  I don’t really understand tragedy at all and maybe the secret is that not a soul on this earth truly does.  Perhaps we are not meant to.

All I can say to you is that I wish words worked.  I wish when I tell you I’m sorry for your loss, that the phrase was effective—that it could comfort you.  I wish saying “I love you” to a person could erase pain.  I wish “You’re in my prayers” could mean that the hurt would be less.  I know that none of it does and that words are just positioned there for you in the aftermath—for when the dust settles and you look back in your memories and can understand the support you had.  Words are good in retrospect, but nothing fixes pain in the moments it appears.  Nothing.

This month is full of tragedy it seems and I’m sure that like me, your heart was breaking over and over again when you heard the news of the Boston explosions.  Maybe you were as bewildered as I was—as lost as I felt.  Maybe the news reminded you of your son’s tragedy that much sooner; for that, I am truly sorry.  Everyone’s mind is on grief lately and I’m struggling to wade through that.  I know I’m not the only one.

The only thing that makes sense to me in this moment is the picture frame hanging on my bedroom wall.  It is the handwritten line, One hundred thousand, eight hundred,” which is the number of times a person’s heart beats in a day.  I wrote it, framed it, and placed it beside my bed to remind me of this.  My thought was that if I could remember that number always, then I would work hard to not take a single one of those beats for granted—that I would remember to be alive.  And right now, all I know is that the only way to overcome these sorts of tragedies that we find ourselves surrounded by is to make absolutely sure that each one of those one-hundred thousand, eight-hundred heartbeats a day is pumping love.  I may be young but I’ve learned that there is no other answer.  If you don’t love, you won’t survive.

So today, even though we do not know one another, I want to be one more person reaching out to you with love.  I want to gift you with words that don’t work and hope that maybe tomorrow when the anniversary of your son’s death– of the tragedy itself– has passed, you can finally take comfort in them.  I want to tell you that sitting here on this day in Blacksburg for the first time in years, I can physically feel the prayers circulating.  I can feel the outpouring of compassion feeding into this town and I can also feel hearts sending love North to Boston.  I can’t bring your son back and I can’t rewind time and befriend him, but I can tell you that when hate arrives and takes away a group of people, it is met with thousands of loving hearts, fighting and lighting up the darkness.  I’ve seen it.

Please know that the entire Virginia Tech community is loving you and your entire family today and always.  I hope you are taking care and I hope your heart still pushes out one-hundred thousand, eight-hundred beats of love .  I didn’t know your son at all but I know that is how he would have wanted it– it’s how they all would have wanted it.

With more sympathy than words allow,