20 years ago, Friday, a friend was murdered by a shooter on my college campus. a professor was also killed and four others were injured. and those of us, many of us, who were fortunate to have made it to the old age of 18, 17, 16 still wrapped in the cozy blanket of our innocence, tattered though it may have been in many cases, lost it that night as well. it was my junior year and i was living at home that semester, working to save money for my spring semester trip to study in Kenya, and i found out when boris called me in the middle of everything, told me what was happening, though he knew little himself in the confusion and fear. he had to keep the call short. it wasn't safe. i shivered in our silent house not knowing how many of my friends might be dead, not knowing if that was the last time i'd hear from boris, from any of them, and more aware of my powerlessness than I ever had been before or, honestly, ever have been since.
That was 20 years ago and I don't talk about it, really. I've never written about it, though I've tried and tried. In those sun-blasted months in Kenya, I practiced solitude. I arrived in Nairobi a manic, raw nerve. All beauty nauseated me. All grace made me weep. Kindness from others felt like cruelty. Five months later, when I arrived in London to visit Max and then in Berlin to visit Sylvia, I was living under the ocean. Numb; noise from the outside filtered through a mile of salt water. I wept the entire train ride from Brussells to Berlin, though I couldn't have told you why. I thought, when I got back, when I went to campus, when I had to see it all face-to-face...maybe then I could write about it, talk about it. Maybe then I'd start surfacing. I didn't, though. I grew detached that year. When I think about a lot of friendships from that time, it is with an uneasy feeling of regret. A feeling that i burned bridges, hurt feelings, was a lousy friend, without the ability to recall any particular bad behavior or falling out. Just a sense of having done wrong -- or at least having failed to do right -- by so many of my friends. At the same time, it took me ten years after that before I really started to make friends with anyone who wasn't a Rocker. If I felt distance between myself and my friends from school, the distance I felt between myself and anyone new who hadn't been through what we'd been through was unbridgeable.
With this distance of 20 years, and on the occasion of anniversary, I can begin to see some reasons, some sense in my behavior, in my retreat inward. The loss of innocence, yes. Yes, of course. But also the deep and abiding (it abides to this day, if I'm honest) sense of guilt for not being there on campus that night (my brain knows this is absurd, my heart still doesn't, not at all). And then the sense of shame for feeling that way, for feeling anything but grateful that I was spared that horror, while so many dear to me were not. And that my parents were spared that horror. And the feeling that the tragedy was both mine and so incredibly not mine. I was friends with Galen, yes, but he wasn't among my closest friends. I didn't know Nacunan, except in the way that you kind of know everyone on a campus of 300 people. I never feared for my life. I was uninjured. How dare I even cry? When for others, others so close to me, the losses were catastrophic? I felt these things and more and I still do feel them after all this time.
I woke up on Friday and lit a candle, as I do every December 14th. In the quiet moments before the baby woke up, I breathed and I promised myself that it would be a day of peace and appreciation. That I would tell people I loved them, that it would be a good day. I spent the whole day in a meeting and only got the devastating news of the world when I got in my car for the ride home. Sobbing on the highway, nauseated, angry: it was not a good day. It was not a day of peace.
How can any of us go on from grief? I don't know, I really don't. Perhaps the fact that, 20 years on, I still feel completely unequal to the task of trying to write something of my own small grief, is some evidence that we don't, not really. But yesterday, Saturday, I was tidying the living room, not doing much of anything and a song came on the stereo that got the baby dancing. I joined him and we danced around the living room until we'd collapsed in a great kissing pile of giggling, tears of joy streaming down my face. The pure, giddy bliss of life! Oh! Oh, it is so good to be alive! I don't understand, I really don't, why I got to grow up and my friend didn't. I don't understand why I get to hold my child in my safe in my arms, when others' children were killed. I don't understand why I get to move my strong, healthy body through space and feel the sweet joy of dancing, when others' bodies are gone, gone, gone. I don't understand it. I certainly don't deserve it. All I can do is feel this ineffable gratitude. And I know I can't write this gratitude, the only way I can hope to express it is through the living of it.
At Galen's memorial service a classmate, Jason Spiro, spoke of our responsibility to live our lives to the fullest. I knew that was true from the moment he said it but, at 18, I really had no idea what that meant. I still struggle with that question, the question of how to live, how to live fully, how to live in a way that isn't an insult to everyone who has lived and died. The only thing I really know is how fortunate I am, how ridiculously, unspeakably fortunate. I am grateful every day for this beautiful life.