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.