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The 34th Stone

My father called me the morning of April 16, 2007. Sirens filled the background on his end of the line—he asked if I was okay.

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

“Twenty-three dead,” he said flatly. I stood in the living room of my apartment with the phone to my ear. The television set streamed a local news station. My three housemates sat curled into the plaid couch, their gazes fixed on my conversation.

I stuttered. “What?”

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

By the time I spoke to my father, everything had already happened. The doors to the building on the Virginia Tech campus had already been chained shut, over thirty people had already died, and the threat had already passed. Even though sirens would continue to blare and police would continue to shout across the school lawns, Norris Hall had fallen silent by the time they got there. It was all too late.

 

On April 16, 2007, at precisely 9:51 a.m., Seung-hui Cho shot himself in the head in Norris Hall, an engineering building on the Virginia Tech campus. His shooting spree lasted around eleven minutes; he invaded four classrooms, fired 174 rounds, and killed 32 people.

Colin Goddard survived this event. He was a junior at the time and a student in one of the classrooms Cho attacked with his .22-caliber and his Glock 19 handguns. Colin was shot a total of four times and was one of seventeen others who sustained injuries but lived.

I was a sophomore at the time of the shootings and nowhere near Norris Hall. In fact, I was approximately 1.7 miles away, in my rented brick townhouse off campus.

*

I met Colin Goddard for the first time in Washington, D.C. in 2014. I knew him as soon as he walked through the door of the coffee shop because I’d Googled him and seen his photograph linked to news articles and interviews. I’d traveled into the capital city on a Friday in June to get my own interview with him because I was working on my master’s thesis. The focus of my project was on trauma—the different forms it takes, how it affects people, and how they cope. I reached out to Colin specifically because he was accustomed to sharing his story through his gun control advocacy work.

In person, he was taller than expected but he shook my hand and smiled broadly. We sat down at a corner table beside the window. I set my phone to record and we began to talk.

 

In 2007, it was Colin’s phone that made the 911 call from one of the classrooms as Cho bombarded it. “When I was shot I just kind of threw the phone out of my hand because the woman’s voice sounded so loud that I didn’t want him to think I was alive and that I’d called the police. It was fortunately one of those old school flip [phones] so it didn’t close. It landed face up next to a girl named Emily Hass who was lying somewhat close to me. She heard the noise, realized what it was, and put it underneath all of her hair. She remained on the line with the police the entire time and was able to direct them to our classroom.”

My father was called to those same classrooms on April 16 because he was a local medical professional. At the time, he worked as a family physician the next county over, but often served as one of the area’s medical examiners. Because of the enormity of the event on campus, he and many others were asked to come help.

A week after the shootings, my dad told the Washington Post about his role as a medical examiner on the scene. “I’ve been pretending I was okay all week and then fell apart today,” he confessed. “I’ve investigated plane crashes and all sorts of fatalities, but never anything like this.”

*

Just a few months after the shootings, Colin traveled to Madagascar for a summer internship. He expressed how bizarre the experience was—how dissonant from his former life in Virginia. “I was in a place where no one knew what had happened,” he said. “I was just some guy with a cane. They had no clue. Here I was thinking [the shooting] was the biggest thing in the world, and it meant nothing to people there. It was a legitimate reality check.”

Another reality check for Colin occurred in 2009, on the day of the Binghamton, NY shootings.

“It was a Friday,” he told me, “and I was looking for jobs, sending resumes out, and happened to turn on the television literally just as the story broke.”

Binghamton was Colin’s first exposure to a mass shooting since Virginia Tech. “I just kept thinking: this is how the whole world saw what happened to me, and now I’m watching it happen to other people.”

It all came together for him then. “I thought: I have to do something. I want to do something now. I want to talk about this issue.”

So in May of 2009, Colin Goddard took an internship at the Brady Campaign in Washington, D.C. He worked there for three years before joining Mayors Against Illegal Guns as a Senior Policy Advocate, which later grew and changed its name in 2014 to Everytown for Gun Safety. Three years later, Colin still works for Everytown as a Senior Policy Advocate.

“People ask me if I feel like I have a responsibility to do this, and responsibility is not the right word,” Colin stated. “There are many people who survived and are continuing on the path that they had before this. I really admire that—that they didn’t let this horrible thing knock them off their path. For me, I didn’t have a path.”

*

In our corner of the D.C. coffee shop, I glanced down at my notebook in front of me during a brief lull in my conversation with Colin. A question scribbled in blue ink glared back at me as a Norah Jones song filtered through the speakers in the ceiling. The espresso machine hissed, the barista thumped metal to metal, and people filtered in through the front doors for their afternoon caffeine.

I gulped and finally asked, “What do you think of him?”

Colin squared his shoulders and paused before he responded. He furrowed his brows and glanced off for a moment.

“It’s changed over time,” he began. “At first, I was very angry at him. I did not call him by his name. And then basically, as I learned more about him and his past, I now genuinely feel bad for him. I feel like this guy was someone who was trying to ask for help in so many ways and it just wasn’t acknowledged. He wasn’t engaged.”

*

Before Seung-hui Cho attacked Norris Hall on April 16th, he mailed a package to NBC News in New York, who received it two days later. In it, he had compiled video clips in which he addressed the camera and explained the reason for his actions.

“Do you know what it feels like to be spit on your face and have trash shoved down your throat? Do you know what it feels like to be humiliated and nailed upon a cross and have to bleed to death for your amusement? You have never felt a single ounce of pain in your whole life…When the time came, I did it. I had to.”

 

Before the university commissioned the construction of its official memorial of remembrance, a temporary memorial was laid out within the days following the shootings. Thirty-two stones were place on the Drillfield, the school’s main lawn at the center of campus. In 2007, a mysterious person added a 33rd stone alongside the others to commemorate the loss of Seung-hui Cho.

The addition of the 33rd stone to the memorial created a controversy on campus. It was mysteriously removed and then returned several times throughout the weeks following the tragedy. It was eventually revealed that Katelynn Johnson, a senior sociology-psychology major at the time, was the person responsible for the addition of the stone. In an interview, she explained, “My family did not raise me to do what is popular. They raised me to do what is morally right. We did not lose only 32 students and faculty members that day; we lost 33 lives.”

The death count still seems to be a tricky topic, even today. Most sources list the number of victims as 32. The university has been hosting a 3.2 mile ‘Run in Remembrance’ for years and every anniversary, members of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets stand guard for a total of 32 minutes. Aside from being eternally branded as a killer, Cho’s life seems to have been swept under the rug entirely.

“The more I hear about him, the more I feel like he was a victim,” Colin disclosed. “But at the same time, I don’t think that he should be put into the same category as the thirty-two other people who were killed. But he was a victim certainly.”

 

Years after the event, my younger sister posted a statement to her Facebook page on the anniversary of the tragedy:

“It was a day of trauma for hundreds—maybe thousands—not just 32. For two hours, I thought my sister was dead. I thought that my mom’s endless phone calls to reach her were hopeless. We couldn’t go home because, at that time, the shooter was thought to be loose in Blacksburg. I couldn’t lock myself in my room to emotionally prepare for the news I believed would be inevitable. For the weeks that followed, I couldn’t look into my father’s eyes without being reminded of the tragedy. My father, the medical examiner, saw something no person should ever see…not in real life.”

*

Colin’s parents walked the path of Seung-hui Cho in order to make more sense of the incident their son experienced—to see it in real life. They also listened to the taped recording of the 911 call that lives tucked away somewhere in the Virginia State Police Headquarters—the same call that came from their son’s phone that day.

When Colin explained this, he noted that he’s never felt the need to listen to the recording himself. “I have my memories, but they’ve obviously faded over seven years. And that’s fine. I’ve told the story so many times that I feel like it’s sort of separate from emotions. It’s just the same series of events—the same spiel.”

 

I have also used the same tired spiel about the shootings for nearly ten years now. “I wasn’t on campus when it happened,” I tell people. “I had a classmate who died. My dad was one of the medical examiners.”

A friend said to me once, “Whitney, you’ve got to start owning this event. It did happen to you too you know.”

*

Ross was in my American Literature class the spring semester of 2007, taught by Bob Canter. Ross A. Alameddine, the first name on the list of victims from the Virginia Tech shootings. The week following the tragedy, Professor Canter sent an e-mail to our class saying that we would try to carry on the rest of the course like normal. He ended with: That’s how Ross would have wanted it.

I entered the classroom hesitantly that first day back. No one spoke. No one chatted before class like usual, no one laughed or talked on their phone. The room was silent except for sniffs and loud breaths. I glanced quickly into the red eyes of my classmates and took my normal seat. The seat in front of Ross. The seat where Ross should have been sitting.

Bob Canter stood at the podium. He stood upright. He glared through his glasses into the space before him. I watched his face and tried to decipher his expression beneath the thick brown beard. I settled into the space, my body catching the sadness like a virus, my own eyes starting to redden and my own nose beginning to sniffle. I sat uncomfortably and waited.

When the cry broke through the room, it sounded inhuman—almost like the high-pitched squeal of a pig. This is how the noise resonated in my mind as it reverberated inside the classroom walls. I looked up again to see Bob’s body collapsed over the podium, his back convulsing with sobs, the dark hair covering his head shaking to and fro. He wept loudly, openly. I had never seen a man so broken. I had never heard grief so clearly.

Everyone else in the classroom began to seize with sobs and we sat in a torrent of sadness. We sat waiting for something—for our anguish to alight maybe, or to burn out. We waited to know what to do.

In some ways, maybe I’m still waiting.

*

Somewhere during our conversation, Colin mentioned that he still found himself being introduced as “Colin Goddard, victim of Virginia Tech.”

“[I’m waiting] until the day when I am associated with a major change in this country. And hopefully, when that goal is achieved, I will be ‘Colin Goddard the advocate’—I’ll be associated not with the event that happened outside of my control, but with what I did with it.”

Accomplishments over circumstances, I conjectured. He nodded.

“I’ve said things like I don’t want to let it define me,” he continued. “But you know what? It is.”

 

For years, I didn’t want the Virginia Tech tragedy to belong to me—it didn’t feel right to claim it as my own. I wasn’t injured or even present, and I didn’t lose a loved one or close friend. I lost a young man I barely knew. What would it mean to the true victims and their families if I too owned this tragedy? What would that say about their own grief?

I wrote about the shootings for the first time in 2010 and published it to my blog. The relief of the words leaving my body and existing in a public space felt so liberating and therapeutic that I made it a tradition to publish a post each anniversary.

Eventually the posts were shared outside my own friend circle. I received comments like: “You don’t know me, and I don’t know you… but we are Hokies together. Thank you for giving words to things I still haven’t been able to say!”

 

In 2013 I published an open letter to Ross’ mother, expressing my sympathies and my regret at not having known her son better. I sent the post to Professor Bob Canter, who responded with: “I don’t know how Ross’s mom, or any of the parents, get through a minute, much less the days and years.  Your message to Ross’s mom is beautifully noble, and the best a human being can do.  I guess that’s all we can do, though, of course, it can’t undo the pain.”

 

Like Colin, I didn’t want the Virginia Tech shootings to define me either, but only because it didn’t feel like my tale to tell. But our stories do belong to us—no matter what role we played within them. Maybe I wasn’t a victim or an emergency responder, but the event will always resonate with me. It will resonate in different ways than Colin’s experience or Ross’ mother’s experience—different from my dad’s, and even my sister’s. But all of these stories are true and valid. “You can’t rank trauma,” a friend told me once. “It’s not helpful to create a hierarchy of grief.”

*

When Colin and I finished our interview, I turned off my phone recording and thanked him. “This has been wonderful,” I said.

We walked out of the coffee shop and chatted like old classmates.

“If there’s anyone else you want to talk to, let me know and I’ll put you in touch,” he offered. “Especially now that I’ve vetted you and can say you’re not crazy.”

I laughed and nodded. He told me he had to get back so we shook hands at the stoplight and continued in two separate directions—he, back to the offices for Everytown, and me across the intersection, back into the thrumming D.C. streets. I could not have known in those moments what the interview would finally look like on the page. I did not foresee how the piece would shift and change, or how Colin’s story would somehow give me the permission I needed to tell my own.

 

There are events in a person’s life that serve as threshold—a point of entry from one life into another. These events are distinctive and often as tangible as a strip of wood at the base of a doorway.

One of these events was the same for both Colin Goddard and myself. We were each one type of person before April 16, 2007, and another after it. And we certainly weren’t the only ones.

 

It’s now been two years since I spoke to Colin, and ten years since the shootings. Just last September, I began correspondence with Ross’ mother, Lynnette Alameddine. She told me that September 14, 2016 would have been Ross’ thirtieth birthday. This August, I turn 30 myself. She asks me for my memories of him—talks about her own work in gun control advocacy. We share book recommendations and talk on the phone for over an hour one day. She tells me it’s hard for her to read about Cho—hard to forgive the administration. We send each other late night messages, and I can’t help but find something beautiful about these exchanges—this unexpected connection. I wish desperately I had something other than words and a couple memories to offer her.

 

Ten years ago, I was 1.7 miles away from one of the deadliest mass shootings in United States history. So many other people I know can also pinpoint where they were during those handful of minutes. It’s a story we’ve branded into our memories. We live with these stories—our stories—most of them swept under the rug. Most of them not memorialized. We live in spite of these stories.

Perhaps this is the best a human being can do.

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.

            “Huh?”

            “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.

 

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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,

Whitney

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