It comes up on our second date. We’re talking about what kind of books we read, and I’m trying to explain my love of trashy romance novels. “I started reading them back in college” I say, “when there was a big shooting on campus and I needed to read something that I knew had happy endings.” She starts to ask but I wave it away, and we get back to books.
I’m not sure when it happened, in the past 11 years -- when I got tired of establishing my credentials as a survivor. In strange ways it echoes disclosures about my sexuality: I’ve stopped coming out as a member of either community, and just started talking about it as part of my life. Instead of a grand statement of identity, I’d rather just tell you a story about my life and trust you’ll catch up. Less “I’m queer” and more “So when I was on a date with this woman, we…”
Less “I was a student at Virginia Tech when…” and more, well, conversations about why I started reading romance novels in college.
We’re not supposed to talk about trauma. It makes people uncomfortable to hear about the hard parts of our lives. But this event, that shattered the home of my university-student heart, shattered that boundary too. It grows easier with time, certainly, easier to reckon with violence as something that made me who I am. It grows easier, too, because this strange community of trauma survivors, survivors of this particular kind of violence, has grown and grown. It’s more common now, so who needs to come out as a member? It’s just something that happens.
Tucson is a city in a valley surrounded by mountains. The Catalinas, to the north, are my touchstone: as long as I can see them, I know which way I’m going and which way to turn. On days when the clouds hide them, I feel disoriented. It’s like I can’t locate my body in space, without that marker of North.
If the Catalinas orient my body, April 16th orients my sense of self. In most of the past decade, my year has turned around this point; the true New Year beginning on April 17. I’ve woken up in January or February sensing the April coming on, feeling the hurt washing out from that axis. This year the approach of this date has just been numbers on a calendar, without the anticipation of reliving this day in 2007. The passing of time changes the experience
Still I woke up today grieving, and everything feels hard and scary. The grief has been hiding in my bones. I’m living through April 16, 2018 waiting for the other shoe to drop, in an echo of that First April 16th eleven years ago.
It feels different with time but this date still pulls the needle of my compass.
“Today is the anniversary of the shooting at Tech,” I say to a friend on Skype, “so I’m just having a lot of feelings.”
A mentor of mine likes to say that “stories happen to people who tell them.” Sometimes, though, we get swept up in stories that are bigger than we are, stories we don’t want to tell but that are wrenched out of us. In this, at least we can choose the shape of the stories that we tell each year.
Now, let it be stories of the ways we cared for each other after our loss, rather than the violence of the loss itself. Let it be stories of the love we found and felt and shared, the ways we recovered, not the cavernous grief that knocked us down. Let it be the story of the letter posted in the student union from a kindergarten class in California, who wrote,
“We are sad.
We feel bad for you.
We are mad at the person who [hurt] you.”
We will not play with guns.”
Author, Alison Wood
queer, white, cisgender, U.S. passport-holding, Presbyterian, church-employed, challenged by faith, imagining something better.
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