It is May 7, 2019 – a Tuesday – and the four-year anniversary of my mother’s death. I start the day as I do every year since her passing, awoken by my own tumultuous sobbing, pangs of grief suffocating me as I relive every minute of that day; the reel displayed on the panorama of my mind from which I cannot turn away nor close my eyes, for they are already closed and yet, I see everything. The experience exhausts me to the point where I cannot rise from my bed for several hours. I’m empty, a shell, feeling and desiring nothing.
Knowing how this day always is for me, I am working from home, and as such, it is a pajama day. No bra or pants required. I wear a tattered tank top with boxer-like shorts that read, “Party at My Pad” on the front left leg and have a silk-screened frog across the backside. 39 years old and still crushing it. I can’t remember the last time I shaved my legs as it’s still not technically summer, and I pull on some wool socks. My hair is unwashed, I am generally unkempt, and that is how I like to spend this day of mourning. It is a sacred day on which I do not cater to anyone or anything but my grief. I honor my loss and my mother, nothing more or less.
My husband took the kids to school as he does every day and then headed to my dad’s house to assist him with some home improvement project they’d been tackling. The house is quiet when I drag myself downstairs to force fuel into my body. I must have mentioned trying to get to the cemetary that morning because I get a text from my husband around 10:30 a.m. saying my dad asked about joining me. I can’t entertain the idea of going out, so I say it’s too late for me to go now because I have to work soon. I fire up my laptop to attend to my job responsibilities.
At 2:07 p.m., my husband texts asking if I can pick up the boys from school because he is running late at the home improvement store. My kids’ dismissal time is 2:30 p.m, and I’m almost done working, so I say yes. I don’t have to change out of pajamas to go through the drive line. I do a couple more work things, and as I stand up to leave, at 2:21 p.m., my phone rings. It’s the automated messaging service for the school district. I swipe up, listening to the recording. All Highlands Ranch schools are on lockout.
It’s a true testament to my desensitization that a lockout notification produced little to no reaction out of me, but I hadn’t done a school pick up in awhile, so I call husband. “Lockout…that’s when I have to go in and sign them out, right?” He confirms as I thrust my head through the hole of a sweatshirt, grab my purse and slip on my mom’s old Merrells. They’re too big, but they were hers. I jump in the car and start the four-mile drive to my boys’ school.
2:25 p.m. – text received from a friend comes over my Bluetooth: Omg!!! Please tell me your boys are ok?!!!! I just saw the news!!!
I’m not even a mile from the house and I can’t text back, so I call her. “What’s going on? I know they’re on lockout, so I think they’re fine.”
“No, there’s an active shooter at the STEM School in Highlands Ranch.”
Time freezes in this moment, and I am suspended in air while the car drives itself.
But that’s their school. That’s their school…
Another call beeps. It’s my manager, I click over. She’s asking me if my kids are OK. I don’t know. I need to call my husband. I need to go, I have to call him…what is that loud drumming in my ears? I hang up on her. Another call is coming in, I ignore it. I have half a dozen text messages. I can’t concentrate. I come back down to Earth just in time to notice I am driving a moving vehicle that is now straddling two lanes.
“OK Google – call Husband.” It comes out as a desperate cry. The call rings and rings and rings forever, finally going to voicemail.
I crest the last hill, and as I descend toward the intersection, there is nothing but flashing lights. Ambulances, patrol cars, fire engines – roads are blocked off and I look around distraught. There is no way to get to them. My children. My babies. I cannot get to them.
“OK GOOGLE – CALL HUSBAND!” I raspingly scream into the air. Voicemail.
“ANSWER THE FUCKING PHONE!”
Home Depot. He was at Home Depot. It’s just up the road. I will go there to get myself together and find him and we will make a plan.
Husband calls back as I park, and I am frantic. I cannot put sentences together. I tell him what’s happened, where I am, and, of course this is not the same store where he was. He’s at my dad’s, he’s on his way to me, don’t move, he is coming. “This is my nightmare,” I whisper. “I know,” he stammers.
Another wave of realization settles on my body: My nephews. They are there, too. I call my sister. She answers, and before she can say anything, I bombard her. “Have you heard from your boys? Are they OK?” Yes, they called her and are OK, but what is going on? Why did they call her? Why am I calling her?
It’s 2:35 p.m. She doesn’t know. I have to tell her. While I’m talking to her, a text from my friend saying the news said the pick up point is at a nearby elementary school. I relay this information to my sister and tell her I will find her there.
I call husband back and tell him I am heading to the pick up spot right now. We decide he should go home, just in case…in case he needs to go to the hospital…in case our children have been shot…in case our children are dead.
I can’t breathe.
The turn I was going to make is clogged with cars, I go straight. I know another way. I’ll be there soon.
I pull up to the school and am stopped by an administrator. The information we received is incorrect – we’re not supposed to go to Northridge Elementary. We’re to go to Northridge Rec Center. I turn around in the school parking lot and head toward the rec center. There are cars everywhere. Parents frustrated at the slowness of traffic pull off in the neighborhood and start running. They run directly into traffic, tears streaming down their faces, fear in their eyes. I see myself in them.
2:45 p.m. – another text from my friend letting me know the news reported the incorrect muster point. I thank her and let her know they’ve diverted us. I decide to stay in my car, crawling toward the rec center, fighting the urge to do as these parents are doing, abandoning my vehicle and just running. Running toward the unknown.
As I turn onto the main road, I’ve never seen so many flashing lights in my life. I am overwhelmed with terror as the reality of this sets in. I have 0.3 miles to travel to the rec center, and it stretches away from me. The officers have split the traffic. The left lane is through traffic; the middle lane is closed; the right lane is for parents and guardians going to the muster point. An officer gestures at me to roll down my window. “Are you a STEM parent?” I nod, unable to speak for fear of my sobs overtaking me. He motions for me to pull into the right lane.
The texts, calls, and social media notifications will not cease. I am stopped waiting to enter the rec center parking lot. I open Facebook and make a public post: I do not know if my children are OK. My phone is dying as I wait to find out. Please do not call or contact me. I will update as soon as I can.
I get into the parking lot, and there are cars and people everywhere. I park and grab my essentials: purse, keys, phone. I walk briskly to the entrance of the rec center. I was just here the night before playing volleyball as I do every Monday night. I don’t recognize it; it’s completely transformed into the epicenter of this tragedy. They ask us to gather in the gym, and we are guided by rec center staff and public servants from all over the region.
3:02 p.m. – I don’t go downstairs to the gym, opting instead to stand on the upstairs track that overlooks and encircles the gym. This gives me an unimpeded view of everyone coming in so I can watch for my sister. I can hardly look into the faces around me for their grief, panic, and fear so acutley mirrors mine. If I look at them, if I make eye contact, I will certainly crack.
Not long after I settle in my spot, my sister arrives. We embrace and I am so close to breaking down, I shudder. A member of the SWAT team then addresses us to let us know where things are in the process. They will give us regular updates. He encourages us to stay hydrated, stay calm, stay connected. Lean on each other. We are all in this together.
3:13 p.m. – the names of the first students to be released are read out by a member of SWAT. My children are not among them. It has been an hour since this nightmare began and it feels like a lifetime has passed. I try to remember my children that morning as they came to say goodbye to me. What were they wearing? Did I even notice through my numbness and grief? How could this sacred day be stolen from me like this? Marred by violence and terror, it will never be mine again.
We’re updated that the incident took place in the high school portion of the school. I’m only midly appeased. My elementary-aged children wouldn’t likely have a reason to be in that part of the building, but it isn’t impossible.
3:55 p.m. – text from husband: “I know they’re still busing kids, but any news there?” They are only releasing 10 kids at a time. There are over 1,000 children in the K-12 school. This is going to take hours. Hours of waiting, hours of not knowing. And he’s at home watching this all unfold on the news. He’s seeing aerial shots of the melee, the panicked interviews with parents. He is experiencing this alone.
4:13 p.m. – they’re changing tactics. They’ll begin releasing students to parents by grade, starting with Kindergarten. Each group of kids will be put in a separate part of the rec center and parents will go to that location to be reunited. Please have your ID ready – you’ll be required to fill out reunification forms.
The process is so smooth, it’s hearbreaking. How many schools before us have experienced this to allow for such a practiced and ready response. How many debriefs and lessons learned from previous shootings. What will the takeaways be from ours.
We’re told of the victims. Seven injured and one killed. A sob escapes my lips. All victims are 15 or older. I can’t breathe for the simultaneous relief and sadness. It wasn’t my baby, but it was someone’s baby.
Someone’s baby is dead.
4:24 p.m. – 1st grade
4:28 p.m. – 2nd grade: text response from husband, “Going faster. Are the teachers with the students?” Yes, I say. All staff stayed with the students the whole time.
Every drill they ever practiced brought to life and not only did they have to manage their own fears, but they also had to manage their students’. How strong one must be to not crumble in the face of danger surrounded by eyes full of anxiety and fear.
4:35 p.m. – 3rd grade. It’s my time. My youngest, 8 years old, is in 3rd grade. I hug my sister goodbye and follow the stream of parents to the indoor pool area. We walk single file around the pool to the bleachers and as we pass the locker room, I see him. My boy. He’s sitting on a bench with two classmates who needed to use the restroom. I suppress the urge to cry out and seize him. “Keep moving!” someone yells, and all I can do is grab his hand as I shuffle by, sending our secret message by squeezing his hand twice. Squeeze squeeze
The wait on the bleachers seems interminable. A rec center employee passes out reunification forms. We are required to fill them out for each child. I ask for two. I dig a pen from my purse and shake as I try to fill it out, then share my pen with other parents who need it. We are all frightened and grateful.
4:55 p.m. – the third graders are brought into the area, holding hands creating a chain, and my heart breaks open. They are so small. So small and young to have experienced something so large.
My son is toward the end. He can’t see me in the back row of the farthest bleacher. He looks around. Everyone is yelling and waving and crying and I just want my son. Finally he sees me, and I cannot hold back the dam any longer. As I wrap my arms around him, I cry. I cry and I cry, and he cries, and I say over and over, “I’m so glad you are here. I love you so much.”
I take a selfie of us and send it to my husband. Our eyes are red-rimmed and I grimace more than smile. He texts, “There is no emoji for what I’m feeling”.
There’s no emoji because there is no one emotion. It is terror and sadness, pain and anxiety, relief and guilt, rage and gratitude.
5:07 p.m. – we are released from the pool and I ask where the 5th graders are. I have another child I must see, I must hold. I’m directed to the weight room where the 5th graders wait. There are glass walls separating us, and I scan the room looking for my mop-haired 10 year old. As I cross the threshhold and thank the teachers, I see him jump up. I run to him and put my arms around him. He’s embarrassed by my sobbing and show of affection, so I (reluctantly) pull away.
The line to exit is long as officers take our forms and check our ID’s before we leave. I have an arm around each of my children and I can’t stop staring at them, poring over every detail. The light in their eyes, the weight of them in my arms, the rythmic beat of their hearts. Needing to hold them close to me, feel the warmth of their skin constantly, I cannot and will not let them go, much to their annoyance.
5:17 p.m. – we are in the car preparing to go home. I take another picture of my older son and send it to my husband. He responds with 38 hearts. There are no more words, only love. The drive is short and long. The emergency vehicles and lights are everywhere, we have to go a different route home, and I can’t even think of anything to say to my children.
5:30 p.m. – Only three hours since I was last here, I pull into the garage that no longer looks like my garage, in the house that no longer looks like my house. In the past few hours – the longest three hours of my life – I stepped off the plane of existence I previously occupied and fell onto a completely different one. I do not recognize anything or anyone, least of all myself when I catch my reflection in the mirror.
I turn off the engine, and my children jump out. My husband appears in the door and pulls them to him, sobbing, shaking, and holding them so tight.
Our nightmare is over, but the trauma is just beginning.
As described by my sons, the alarm went off as they were winding down the last class of the day. “ATTENTION: LOCK DOWN. LOCKS. LIGHTS. OUT OF SIGHT.” Assuming it was a drill, they went through the protocol. The students got out of their seats to a part of the room away from the door and windows. The teacher locked the door and turned off the lights. And then they sat in silence waiting for the all clear. My younger son was in Chinese class at the time which had two doors. He positioned himself against the wall under a table. My older son was in his homeroom and tucked himself under a table as well, with his back up against a filing cabinet.
My older son said he knew it wasn’t a drill after the announcement and alarm didn’t stop after ten minutes. Over and over again, “ATTENTION: LOCK DOWN. LOCKS. LIGHTS. OUT OF SIGHT.” Here is the scenario described by one of his teachers:
Your children were phenomenal yesterday, and I am so proud of their behavior and strength. Please give them an extra hug from me today.
The elementary school was not involved in most of the activity yesterday, but I wanted to share with you what your children did experience so that you can help them process it. I think it will be important for them to talk about it and not bottle it up.
When we went into lockdown the kids were very appropriate, but it was obvious this lockdown was not a drill. The lockdown message that plays over the loudspeaker did not stop. We listened to it for about 45 minutes. We could hear sirens, and we could hear police activity running across the roof above us. When the police entered our classroom to release us and evacuate the room, they did so not knowing what they would find. This means four police/SWAT officers entered the classroom yelling and with rifles pointed at us. They were quickly able to ascertain we were not a threat, and students were told to quickly put their hands on their heads and exit the building. We exited the building and were awestruck at the amount of emergency vehicles since we could not see the activity while in the building.As you know, students were then bussed to Northridge where you were able to pick them.
Again, please hug your family tight and let the kids know that their teachers are thinking of them and sending love.
The Monday following the shooting, I drive to my volleyball game at the same rec center. It is the same but different. There are ribbons tied around the trees, signs of support from the community, and I vascilate between present and past. I can’t hold back my tears as I remember the state of mind I was in the last time I pulled into this parking lot. I walk in and thank every single staff member I see. When I arrive at the gym, I break again. This safe haven, my happy place, will never be the same. It will always maintain a duality – a place of respite and exertion playing the sport I love most in this world and the scene of horror and relief the day I lived my worst nightmare.
On a Tuesday night this past September, as I tuck my older son – now 11 – into bed, he asks me if we can move his dentist appointment (that is two weeks away) to the next day at 2:20 p.m. “What’s at 2:20?” I ask, full of certainty it is a test or an assignment he wants to avoid.
He covers himself in his blanket and begins to whimper. After some coaxing, he finally says, “We have a lockdown drill. I don’t want to go back into lockdown, Mom.”
He proceeds to have what I can only describe as a panic attack. He rocks back and forth, crying and breathing rapidily. He can no longer talk, so he draws me pictures.
First, a picture of other kids calling the drill a waste of time, while he is by himself, covering his ears trying to block out the loud, constant thud thud of his heartbeat.
Then a picture of a kid holding a gun while another lay bleeding on the floor. “This is what is in my head when I hear my heartbeat. I see Kendrick.”
November 1, my husband and I are at the Santa Fe Artwalk to celebrate El Día de Los Muertos. Local schools have made ofrendas honoring famous people who have passed on. I look at each of them, made with such tender care by middle school students. And then my breath is stolen from me and my vision swims. There is Kendrick. They have made an ofrenda for Kendrick. The placard reads, “He bravely gave his life to save countless lives in the Highlands Ranch STEM school shooting on May 7, 2019.” And in the middle of an art gallery, I fall into husband and sob.
The first thing people say when I share our experience is, “I cannot imagine what you are going through.” And if you find yourself thinking that right now, you’re right. You cannot imagine what it is like. I consider myself a very empathetic person, and even knowing victims or survivors in the Columbine shooting, in the Aurora shooting, in the Arapahoe shooting, in the Las Vegas shooting, nothing prepared me for this.
One cannot prepare for seeing their son on the main page of their local paper being escorted out of the building by armed officers.
One cannot prepare for seeing your child, their classmates, their teachers, your community on every news site and social media feed. Their image turned into a meme or the subject of a viral tweet.
Articles and interviews are done with the victims and their families, as they rightly should. But little attention is given to the families who have suffered a severe trauma without physical injury. There are thousands of students like my sons, families like ours, who are substantially changed because of these experiences. And one year later, we still deal with and work through our shared trauma. It does not and will not go away.
Every time a car backfires. Every time sirens blare. Every time a door slams. Every time fireworks go off. Every time there’s an unrecognizable sound. Every. Single. Time. My heart races, blood flow increases, adrenaline hurls through my cells, lighting me up, shortening my breath, synapses fire in rapid succession as my brain attempts to assess the danger. We are constantly scanning our surroundings; purposely positioning ourselves to see the entrances and exits of a room; imagining all scenarios should we need to protect ourselves or escape. No matter where we are, no matter what we’re doing, the trauma is now lodged deep within our psyche, and we adjust and adapt ourselves to accommodate it.
My children were not physically injured on that Tuesday in early May, but we are all permanently scarred. For the rest of their lives, my children will be “school shooting survivors”. This trauma has completely altered the telescope through which I view my life, and we carry it with us, always.