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,