AURORA, Colo. — It was one of life’s great moments. Wearing electric blue six-inch high heels, a loud halter dress, and an eccentric green hat better saved for Kentucky Derby party, I found myself riding a camel across a muffler repair shop’s parking lot adjacent to one of Denver’s most storied and struggling commercial corridors. Scores of immigrant kids took it all in, wondering what exactly this crazy white lady was up to. My own laughter freed them to giggle; pure heaven and a true luxury on the same day our community once again secured the national spotlight as host to a shocking mass murder.
This certainly wasn’t the way I envisioned the early hours of Friday morning unfolding. I hadn’t slept in 24 hours. Everything had changed at 2 a.m. as I broke away from preparation for a morning court appearance to the urgent soundtrack of helicopters and sirens outside, more than an hour after a theater just six miles away hosted a surreal shootout between a madman dressed in full riot gear and a sold-out crowd eagerly taking in the midnight premiere of the latest Batman extravaganza.
The Facebook messages and emails poured in almost instantly. One friend’s husband had learned that all eight of his employees lucky enough to score tickets that night had been shot, including one there to celebrate his birthday. Sadly, while only 58 of those shot would survive, this would be his last birthday. He was one of the 12 dead by sunrise.
Two other Facebook friends pleaded for help to find their teen children, including a Denver morning radio show host who somehow managed to fulfill his obligations before confirming a few hours later that his son had not been a casualty. I found myself in paranoid suspense as my own intern’s phone went straight to voice mail. He had attended the premiere, but fortunately had chosen a different theater. Over text message, he told me that a few of his friends had not been so lucky. Suddenly, through friends and colleagues, I found myself one degree from no less than 12 of those shot that night. It was at this point, I decided to stop counting.
Every generation faces a coming-of-age tragedy that defines their collective experience. Whether we are personally or vicariously impacted, we have become conditioned to envision ourselves or our loved ones as vulnerable to a similar fate in the future. We could be next. We ponder buying a gun or seeking therapy, sometimes even pondering whether we should avoid crowded public events altogether. Certainly, it’s appropriate to cancel school for the rest of the day or call in sick to work tomorrow. We show our respect to those lost through grieving these strangers now suddenly part of our own life fabric.
Reporting on Columbine
I was just 19 when I covered the Columbine High School shootings as a cub reporter; 22 when I stood outside an Indiana prison, absorbing everything I could in the hours before Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh would be executed. Two months later, I watched the Pentagon burning from my office window in Washington, D.C. A 2004 post-Christmas flight to Thailand coincided with a tsunami that left hundreds of thousands of people dead. Fast forward to just a month ago, where only hours after I packed my kids into the car and headed home from a wonderful day at our favorite park, a Denver police officer was gunned down in a gang battle just moments after a concert honoring a black civil rights leader had wrapped up. Mere days have passed since firefighters were able to finally contain a series of wildfires that left thousands homeless and consumed the resources of more than half of the nation’s firefighting units.
By the time Friday evening rolled around, maybe I was just too tired to let the sorrow invade again. There would be no jumping back into that old familiar role as a vicarious victim of an insane gunmen or Mother Nature’s fury.
I would resist my journalistic instincts that had taken me to the scene of so many prior tragedies. I wouldn’t wear a tribute ribbon on my lapel. I wouldn’t attend candle light vigils and I would stop obsessing over perceived connections to victims I’d never met. I would boycott my TV through the weekend.
A call from Dad
It would be a mistake to view my response as cold and selfish, or alternatively, as some moment of mature epiphany. It was more simple than this. I just didn’t have the emotional reserves required to engage in the narrative. By early Friday evening, I found myself once again looking up at the sky when my phone started ringing. It was my father. Once, then twice, and finally by the third time, I picked it up. What if something was wrong?
On the other end, my dad demanded that I jump in my car immediately and join him for a memory I wouldn’t soon forget. Just minutes later, in the shadows of the city’s skyline, I found myself climbing up a rusty platform, paying a stranger $5 and jumping onto a two humped camel for the most cathartic three-minute journey I could ever have hoped for. An experience that, on a day we had lost so much, helped a young child with a dreaded disease.
A camel has a unique way of making people laugh. It’s an absolutely ridiculous animal. Once the laughter started, I couldn’t stop. I proclaimed the camel’s name as PETA, in honor of America’s most devoted animal rights organization. My dad played paparazzi as I blew kisses and waved to my imaginary circus of admirers. After an entire day of muted conversations and solemn faces, the trek across asphalt replaced any guilt I felt with sheer exhilaration. I had taken back control from the horrors of this latest tragedy. Inappropriate to laugh? Perhaps, and most certainly in obvious disregard of the grieving ritual we have become accustomed to after the tragedies we now collectively identify by a single word: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, 9-11, etc.
Don’t become a victim
In truth, it took more than camel to shake me from the tempting pull of vicarious victim status. In that parking lot, I also had a chance meeting with a Spanish-speaking mother of a seven-year-old boy named Angel. Her mission: to raise enough money to cover experimental treatments she believed could save Angel. Doctors have given him three to six months to live.
Speaking through a friend who interpreted for us, I handed her the crumpled cash remaining in my wallet and pledged to join her in this courageous campaign against her son’s brain cancer. Her eyes welled with tears. My heart, meanwhile, beamed with purpose and a sense of relevance. For the first time in too long, I felt something even more appealing than the connection to tragedies that struck without respect for everything we’d already been through. I felt the powerful rush that comes with supporting a cause so much greater than myself.
In America today, we crave nothing more than relevance, most meaningfully attained by drawing connections between our own lives and tragedies headlining the live reports of our national newscasts. By connecting ourselves to tragedy, we all become victims. In turn, this means we all have the opportunity to one day proclaim ourselves survivors, heroes and patriots. For most of us, the process is subconscious. In politics, we use these memories, albeit sometimes gracefully, to gain the upper hand in debates over various public policy issues. Other times we are less than eloquent. Don’t tell me about terrorism when you weren’t there on 9-11. You know nothing about gun control. I laid witness to Columbine and none of this would have happened if the school security guards had been armed!
A few years after the Columbine shootings, multiple universities felt the need to instruct applicants to refrain from any essay references to how Columbine had changed their lives. This, after T-shirts and hats bearing the phrase “We are all Columbine” jumped off the shelves like hot cakes. Even as I voluntarily injected myself into the scene, I still complained that too many people unconnected to the tragedy were exploiting it for their own gain. I mean, I was practically there. After all, one of my friends survived the attack by hiding in an office. Another lost her sister even before the shooters entered the school. Her name was Rachel, I would explain. She was shot in the head after answering affirmatively as to whether she believed in God. Columbine became part of my life’s story as I spent years wondering why it happened there and not at my own school. I wondered if I could have been nicer to people I passed in the halls without even a hello. I envisioned the victims as they would have aged. As I got married and had children, I never let myself forget them, sensing an obligation to keep their spirits alive. Guilt and fear were effective tools in this endeavor. And yet I had never personally interacted with a single person killed that day.
Hours after Friday’s attack, The Denver Post published an online report naming all of the celebrities who had tweeted their support for Colorado’s latest victims. Actress Eva Longoria was praying for us. President Obama would return to our state to grieve with us just a few weeks after he toured areas devastated by the fires.
Lest I attack those trying to express their sympathy, I fully concede that I posted no less than five online updates before 8 a.m. People retweeted my tweets and shared my Facebook posts. That old desire to feel relevant had once again resurfaced. A few hours later, I rushed in the door to court where I was immediately scolded for being late. Had I resisted the pull of the saga unfolding just down the road, I would have had time to finish copying exhibits before my home printer crashed. Had I gotten in the shower earlier, I could have found a babysitter more quickly after a good friend called with a profuse apology. She couldn’t take my kids to summer camp as she needed to go pay her respects to the family of a colleague who had died.
Taking back life on its own terms
By giving into the seduction of yet another tragedy, I had compromised my own interests, my reputation and the commitment my kids and my client deserved that morning. By turning off the TV and venturing onto a camel, as simple as it sounds, I took back life on my own terms. And ultimately, the process offered a chance encounter with a woman so committed to saving her child’s life that our paths only crossed because she was engaged in a much more courageous battle that included walking door to door and person to person in the hope that her struggling community could help her broker a miracle.
In the coming days and weeks, we can debate gun control. We can marvel at the stories of courage of victims and first responders. We can and we should. But not at the expense of being alive. Somewhere, in some American city, a desperate soul is taking notes in front of his TV, and perhaps for the first time, envisioning his own name in lights. Another evil joker so powerful that in the span of just a few minutes, he too could seal his fate through international notoriety. The President of the United States and Hollywood celebrities would suddenly know his name.
Never mind the blood-stained theater floor left behind. It’s merely a graveyard for those who deserved what they got because they hadn’t paid attention to him before he snapped. He’ll show us, he has now convinced himself.
Not if it’s up to me. I will not let this latest bastard control me for even a moment, rejecting the seductive allure of vicarious victim status. Instead, I will honor Friday’s real victims by helping a little boy I still haven’t met arm himself in what may be his final battle against a cancer cruelly indifferent to his innocence. Join me.