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02 December 2015

April 13, 2014

I am a "survivor" of a "mass shooting."

I put "survivor" in quotes because, in hindsight, I was never in any real danger.

I put "mass shooting" in quotes because April 13, 2014 can't technically be categorized as a mass shooting, which is defined as "the murder of four or more people."

Only three people died on April 13.


I wrote this blog post over a year ago but never published it. Every time there is a shooting incident, I think about making it public. But then I don't. It feels opportunistic. Self-centered. Self-aggrandizing.

Nothing I did that day changed the outcome for anyone there. I couldn't stop it. I couldn't fix it.

But I did not die. And no one I am close to was killed or injured. So I suppose my story can be considered one of April 13th's happy endings.

"Happy endings."

There are no happy endings in mass shootings.

I'm making my story public today because we have to find a way to change things.

Have. To.

Had I been...

I wasn't in the lobby when the shots were fired. It was about 1pm on a cloudy Sunday afternoon. We were expecting a full house for our final performance of To Kill a Mockingbird. I was standing on a chair in the lobby, close to the exterior doors, wrestling with putting up the poster for our next show, when my house manager told me we were out of take-away study guides for Mockingbird. I hopped off the chair to go run some more copies and asked the house manager to put up the poster.

He climbed on the same chair I had been standing on and began to cajole the Spamalot poster into the uncooperative display. A few minutes later, bullets shattered the doors and flew over his head. He is about 3 inches shorter than I am. Had I been on that chair... There are other "had I beens," of course... My husband and son were supposed to come with me to see the show. We planned to arrive at 1pm but they were running late so I left earlier than we had planned and told them to come in time for curtain at 2pm. Had they been with me... Had we been on time... The copier jammed. I started the job and left the copy room to go back to the lobby and help the house manager with the poster but stopped by my mailbox first. I was standing there reading a report when a co-worker walked by to tell me the copier was displaying an error message. So I went back into the copy room to fix it. Had the copier not jammed... But the copier did jam. So I was looking for poorly-traveled paper when my house manager was ducking bullets. And my husband and my child were safe at home. I've heard that some people get stuck on the what-ifs. The "had-I-beens." I didn't. That part of the story was the happy ending, really. I didn't die putting up a Spamalot poster. I didn't die in the parking lot next to my husband and son. I didn't die. I survived. For me there is no trauma in the had-I-beens. Because they didn't happen. I survived. That's the happy ending.
But, on some days, my happy ending makes it all worse. I systematically invalidate everything I went through that day. Because I survived, after all. It could have been so much worse. But it could have been so much better, too. And it wasn't.

Flawed Memories My phone buzzed in my back pocket as I was searching all of the nooks and crannies of the copier for the misdirected paper. I looked at the screen and saw it was my assistant, who was in the Social Hall judging the auditions that were happening that day. The Social Hall has its own entrance and its own lobby. It’s on the opposite side of the building from the theater. The copy room is somewhere in between. I picked up my phone, thinking they needed a music stand or something, but I couldn't hear what she was saying. So I gave up on my copier jam and headed out to the Social Hall to check on her in person. I snuck in a back door to the hall and was surprised by what I found. The room was full of people. Not just the judges and one contestant. My assistant was in tears. They had been told that shots were fired in the parking lot. I gave her a hug, kissed her on the forehead, told her she was safe and to stay put. Then I headed out of the Social Hall to find out what was going on. I confess I thought it was nothing. A car backfiring. Fireworks. I left the Social Hall expecting to spend five minutes finding out what it was so I could return to reassure her. But of course, it wasn't nothing. It was so far from nothing. Memory is a funny thing. Some things I remember doing. Some things I don't remember doing at all. When I try to create an order, a timeline, I usually fail. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of my story. Which is crazy. Because I was there. I was there.

The Incident I left my assistant in tears in the Social Hall. The producer of the event for which auditions were being held was in the hall outside. She had just seen my house manager, who had run by to tell everyone that shots had been fired and we should lock down. She had corralled everyone in the Social Hall lobby into the Social Hall. What now? We looked at each other blankly. Then she said, "There's a dance class going on upstairs. We should bring them down." I stared at her, not knowing how I was going to get upstairs without going near the exterior doors where, if the gunman was truly in the parking lot, shots might be fired at any moment. She was thinking more clearly than I and pointed towards the back elevator, which hadn't even occurred to me. I said something trite like, "Brilliant," and ran to the back elevator to go upstairs to the dance studios. I remember navigating the corners before the children, trying to put my body between the kids and whatever might be around that corner. I remember putting half of the children and two adults into the elevator and telling the adults to make a barrier in front of the kids. I told one of the adults to keep his finger on the "Door Close" button, just in case. I remember telling the director of the dance program to take everyone to the Social Hall. I remember the relief when the elevator came back up empty and I had heard no shots. I put the rest of the kids and adults on the elevator, gave them the same instructions, and then ran down another back staircase to head to the theater lobby. I rounded the corner to a ghost town. No one was there. The glass in the exterior doors was shattered. As I stared, four old men came out of a conference room right by the exterior doors. I ran over to them and said we had an active shooter and they needed to come with me immediately. One of them, wearing a Korean Veterans hat, smiled at me and said, "We know. We watched it happen. I think you have a couple of dead bodies in the parking lot." Then he and his three friends genially followed me to the theater, talking about whether it was going to rain any more that day. I think of these men often. Did they know what they'd seen? Were they in shock? Were they war veterans who had seen so much worse that this seemed minor? Does what they saw stick with them? When I got to the theater doors, they were unlocked. Anyone could waltz right in to our lockdown. So after I ushered the men inside, I set about locking all the doors. I've done a door count since that day. There are 11 doors that lead into the theater. There is an all-purpose room with 2 doors that has a collapsible wall into the theater. There is a senior center with 2 main doors and 1 back kitchen door. There is also a board room with 2 doors. That's 18 doors that needed to be locked. None of them were doors that could be secured from inside the room. And I didn’t know where the shooter was. 18 doors. 18 is a special number in Judaism. The word for "Life" in Hebrew, Chai (חי), is spelled with the Hebrew letters het and yud. Each Hebrew character has a numerical value; het has a value of 8 and the yud has a value of 10. For many, the number 18 represents life. Good luck. Good omens. Good fortune. I locked 18 doors. To keep out a man with a gun. L'Chaim. In the end, I only needed to lock the theater doors because no one had taken refuge in the other spaces.  Well, actually, in the end, I didn't need to lock ANY of the doors. Because the shooter had already left the scene. But I didn't know that then. After I locked the doors, I headed back to the Social Hall to make sure those doors were locked and I saw one of the old men I'd locked down moments before come out of the theater. "Sir, please get back in the theater. We have an active shooter on campus."
"I think you're over-reacting, young lady. I want to go home."
"Yes, sir. I may be over-reacting. But better safe than sorry. Please, return to the theater. I'll come get you when we're sure it's safe." He rolled his eyes at me and sneered but, in the end, let me herd him back into the theater. After I locked the door behind him, I remembered that one of my voice students was supposed to be at auditions. I ran back towards the Social Hall lobby and caught her just as she was walking in from the parking lot. The police hadn't yet gotten the parking lot entrances blocked off and people were still arriving to audition. I grabbed my student, told her we'd had an incident and rushed her into the Social Hall. As I left the room, I asked the producer if she had locked all the doors (there are no fewer than 6). She said she had and then said, "We should put the fire door down," to which I tritely said, "Brilliant" again, because, well, it was. With the fire door down, and a couple of other doors locked. we could keep the theater side of the building separate from the Social Hall side of the building. We could keep the shooter isolated. Wherever he was. I ran to the security desk behind which our helpful security guard was still sitting. I told him to bring the fire door down and then ran to lock the other doors that needed to be locked to isolate the theater wing.  Several strides into my run back to the theater wing, I realized the security guard was behind me. "Where the hell are you going?" I yelled. "With you! To the fire door!" he replied. "WHAT?!?!” I yelped. “The fire door is back at the desk where you were sitting on your ass!" I had obviously lost my sense of diplomacy and politeness somewhere between my escapist senior and my incompetent security guard. I ran back to the security desk with him and helped him figure out how to put the fire door down. Then I ran off one more time to lock the doors that isolated the theater wing. And, lo and behold, there was my escapist senior. He was standing on the theater wing side of the fire door, scowling at it. "SIR! PLEASE STAY LOCKED DOWN IN THE THEATER!"
"Why? I'm sure it's safe. I want to go home.”
"Sir, no one is allowed to leave the building right now. Please come with me. NOW!" The hall from the fire door to the set of doors that could get him to into the theater without making him navigate any stairs is long. And it seemed to get longer as we walked down it at a glacial pace. I had my arm around his shoulders, trying to steer him. And keep him from escaping again. "How old are you, sir?"
"85. Plenty of life lived, sir." I said that last part silently, in my head, as I calmly decided to use him as a human shield should the gunman come around the corner. Clearly not one of my better moments as a compassionate human. But the gunman didn't come around the corner.  He was already gone. But I didn't know that then. With the escapist senior successfully returned to the theater and the isolation doors successfully locked, I went back to the theater lobby. Through the shattered doors I saw the youth baseball coach struggling with a woman in the parking lot and I ran out to help. He had her in a full-body bear hug. She was struggling but not flailing. When she saw me, she said, "Please. You have to help me!" Her voice was calm. Her eyes were turbulent. "Yes. I will help you. Please come inside with me." But she wouldn't come inside. She couldn't come inside. Our baseball coach was holding her because of where she wanted to go and what she wanted to do. She wanted three things. Cover her dad's body. Find her son's hat. Ride in the ambulance with her son.

Flawed Memories
The most challenging memories I have are the ones from the parking lot. But not for the reasons you might think. I covered her dad's body. With a tarp. But later, several months later, I woke up in the middle of the night with one question screaming in my mind; "Where the hell did I get the tarp?" Because maybe I didn't cover the body. I remember covering the body. But did I? The dad was dead. But the son was still breathing. He had been removed from the car and three first responders, including my production manager, had worked to keep him alive until the ambulance came. By the time I got out into the parking lot, the ambulance had arrived. But I have a vivid memory of seeing my production manager and the other two first responders gathered around the boy's body. I didn't see that. I couldn't have seen that. The ambulance was already there when I went into the parking lot. But I have that memory. And it's vivid. I think I know where this false memory comes from. The week after the shooting, any staff member who had dealt with the family of the victims or the victims themselves had to talk to a lawyer, just in case a civil suit was filed. My production manager asked me to come sit with him when he told his story. I held his hand and listened while he told his story to the lawyer. I created the visual of him tending to the dying boy, melding it with images that were already in my head of what I saw in the parking lot that day; the rain, the blood, the shattered glass. And the visual I created is brighter and more vibrant than any of my memories. And if I'm so sure of one false memory, who's to say that the other memories from the parking lot are not the same? False. Creations of my imagination based on stories others told and images I saw later. Did I cover the body? Did I go around to the back of the victim's truck to see the hat, on its crown and spattered with blood? I know she asked me to do those things. But did I do them? I didn't talk about that part of it, the part in the parking lot, very much after the incident. My story was that I went out to bring her inside. But I didn't talk about the other things I did. And if they weren't part of my story right after the shooting, maybe they weren't part of my story at all. But I remember. I remember. So did I do them? It haunts me. But who do you ask? And why does it matter?

Months later, I was driving to work and the heel of my shoe came loose when I shifted gears. They were the same shoes I had been wearing that day. They were cheap shoes. The heel was a thin piece of rubber slotted into the chunky heel with three plastic pegs and glued down. The thin rubber had come unglued and bent back, pulling one of the pegs out of its slot.  I rolled my eyes, bemoaning the lack of quality craftsmanship, and finished driving to work. When I pulled into the parking lot, I took my shoe off. All I needed to do was flatten the rubber and pop the peg back into its hole. But there was something between the rubber and the chunky heel. Something brownish-red, thick in consistency. Spaghetti sauce? No. What IS that? I looked up from my shoe and my eyes fell on the parking space where the victims had been gunned down. Oh. It's blood. I have blood in my shoe. I limped through the parking lot to our Green Room, the offending shoe in my hand. I remember feeling calm but empty as I washed the redbrown thickness from between the rubber and the heel. As I filled the peg hole with water and tried to wash out the stain. I must have covered the body. And my heel must have come loose when I did it, just like it had in the car that morning. How else did that blood get lodged in such an out-of-way place? But I didn't have time to think about it that morning. I cleaned it up the best I could and slammed the heel back into place with the heel of my hand. I was late for a meeting. I wore the shoes for several more weeks. And then one day, without really even thinking about it, I took them off and threw them in the trash. But are the shoes proof of the reality of my memory? Was that actually blood? Did I do what I remember doing? I still don't know for sure. I don't think I'll ever know for sure. I've talked to the off-duty police officer who was working security for our show that day; he remembers me running across the parking lot towards the body. I've also discovered that the tarp came from the trunk of the first officer to arrive on scene; she haphazardly threw it over the body. She was not careful because her time was better spent elsewhere, on the victim who still had vital signs. So though she covered the body, it was not covered. So maybe I did do all of those things I "remember" doing in the parking lot. But does really it matter? To anyone but me?

I got her to go with me. She finally let me lead her away from the scene. Away from the parking lot. Through the shattered glass and into relative safety inside the theater. Whether she came with me because I had done what she asked me to do or not, she finally came with me. I hugged her tight around the shoulders with my left arm and crossed the front of her body with my right arm, grabbing her left hand with my right hand. Then I looked into her eyes and told her we were going to go somewhere safe. And then I watched her go into shock. It was like a door silently slammed shut. All of the turbulence, the fear, the desperation. All were replaced by a distance. A disconnect. She apologized for her behavior. Told me she wasn't usually like this. I don't remember exactly what I said to her but it was something like "Today is far from usual."

I took her into the theater. I should have taken her into my office, where she could have had some privacy. But I didn't. I took her into a theater full of people. I regret that decision. I sat her in the back row and took my left arm off of her shoulders, but she had a death grip on my right hand and arm, so I let her hang on and sat at her feet for a bit. She stared straight ahead, holding on to me as if by doing so she could find a way to get back to a moment when it was all ok. A moment before everything changed. I offered her water. She accepted, saying something like, "You are so kind to offer. That would be lovely." Manners automatic, even when her world was falling apart. So polite it was almost outrageous. But I couldn't get up to get her water. She wouldn't let me go. I looked around for help and an older woman, one of our volunteer ushers, came over and replaced me with herself. To the grieving woman, there was no difference. One set of warm arms is much like another. She attached to the usher and I ran back to the Green Room for water.

I regret not taking her into my office instead of into a public space. I regret that when her husband and surviving son finally arrived on campus, I refused to let them in the theater. Though the rest of the world knew by then that it had been a hate crime, I didn't. I thought it was domestic. I wasn't about to let this man in until I was sure of him. So I spread my feet, put my hands on my hips and stood my ground outside the theater door while he raised his voice in despair and begged me to let him in. I regret that. But it's not what I regret most. A volunteer usher, a talented man who also volunteers as on-stage talent for the community theater season, was there that day. I remember seeing him pacing at the back of the theater when I brought her in. I remember seeing him later, in the Green Room with the cast of Mockingbird. But I never stopped to ask him how he was. I never took a moment to check on him. And I so wish that I had. He had been shot at. He had just parked when the gunman stopped his car, got out and fired. Six or seven shots. Close range. Somehow all of them missed. The gunman got back in his car and drove off. The usher ran to the theater entrance--the entrance that had just been shattered by bullets--and ran inside. The off-duty police officer inside thought the usher was the gunman and yelled at him to drop his bag and put his hands up or he'd shoot. The usher stood there in shock for a moment before he finally dropped his bag. By then, the house manager recognized him and yelped, "He's one of us!" And if that all wasn't enough, an hour later, the usher had to go to the location where the shooter had given himself up; he had to identify the gunman. And I didn't know. I didn't know. I flew past the usher several times that day, being all self-important and wrapped up in whatever I was doing at the moment, and I said not one word to him. I didn't know. I didn't know his story until late in the day when I was organizing who was allowed to leave and who needed to stay to talk to the detectives and the FBI. I went into the Green Room to see who was left for them to talk to and my assistant was sitting with the usher. She told me later what he'd been through. I didn't know. And I regret that.

Finding the Funny
Depending on my audience, sometimes I just tell the funny parts of the story. Like when I called my husband minutes after the shooting and said only, "There's been a shooting. Don't come to the show," and then hung up. Like when my CEO made a knee-jerk decision to just let everyone who had been in lockdown leave and when I asked him if he had talked to the police and he said no, I spun around to the producer, said, "Don't let him do anything stupid," ran back to the theater lobby, stopped the first officer I could find, an older man in a flannel shirt with his badge on a lanyard around his neck, and said, "Please, officer. You have to help me. My CEO is being a dumbass," grabbed the officer by the arm and dragged him back to the Social Hall.  It was the chief of police. And, bless him, he patiently helped us come up with a logical plan for releasing everyone. Like when I saw my escapist senior, having snuck out of lockdown for the third time, sitting in the lobby area outside the Social Hall. "SIR!!! How the hell did you get here?!?!"
"I need to go home."
"Yes, sir. I know. We're about to let people go. We just have to do a couple of things first. Where did you park?"
"Outside the theater."
"In a handicap space?"
"Yes. Of course. Why does that matter?"
"Sir, I suspect that your car is in the crime scene. I worry that you won't be able to get to it for another several hours. Is there someone you can call for a ride?"
"No. You'll take me home."
"Sir. I can't. My car is in the crime scene, too."
"Well, call me a cab then."

I believe I then told him where he could go. To find a phone, that is. Like when we had been bemoaning the fact that we couldn't communicate all day because our cell phones don't work in the building when someone said, "Don't you have walkie-talkies?" Oh. Yes. Yes we do. Like when I went into the Social Hall to see if my student was safe because I had already forgotten that I helped her to safety not 20 minutes earlier. Like when I brought a case of water to the actors in the Green Room. Three times. Three different cases of water. They couldn't possibly have been that thirsty. Like when I assured a lady that she would get a refund because we'd cancelled the show. She thanked me but then said, "If you do the show later today after they get the bodies out of the parking lot I can come and won't need a refund. But I'm booked after 6, so it will have to be before that." Like when I tell my story about my possibly faulty memory and my husband jokes that if we looked at the video footage of the day, all we'd probably see is me running around, arms flailing in the air above my head, doing absolutely nothing useful. Sometimes it makes me feel better, though. To find the funny. Sometimes it makes me worry. How can anything that happened that day be funny?

All Action, No Thought

At some point, I went out the stage door and looked for a third body in the parking lot because our costume designer told me she'd seen someone go down after she heard the third round of shots. I called our marketing director to ask him to post on the website that the show had been cancelled. When the dead boy's uncle ran down the hall toward me shouting, I yelled at him to stop and put his hands where I could see them, like I was on some TV cop show. I rummaged through a costume closet to find shirts for our first responders who came back into the building covered in blood. I clumsily offered a box of Kleenex to the sobbing, grieving father. I honestly don't know why I did anything I did that day. Looking back, I did some really stupid things. Who goes looking for dead bodies? Who goes willingly into a parking lot minutes after a shooting to help with what looked like an altercation? Who bothers to think about updating a website when there might be a gunman loose? Who thinks Kleenex is really going to make anything better? But in situations like that, I'm all action and no thought. My husband likes to tell a story about how I ran out alone into a blizzard in rural Nebraska. I went out into the parking lot of a fast food restaurant off the highway in which we had taken shelter to use the pay phone. But as I was trying to dial, the blizzard cleared for a moment and I realized we were across the street from a hotel. So I ran across the street to see if they had rooms. My husband looked out the window one moment and I was at the pay phone. The next moment I was nowhere to be found, the handset dangling in the wind. All action. No thought. That wasn't the only time I charged into a situation with no thought to my safety. It used to kind of be my thing. They did have rooms, by the way. One room. And I got it. I even scored a six-pack of beer off a trucker while I was checking in. And found a really nice Nike baseball cap in the hotel parking lot. We stayed the night warm, comfortable and plied with Budweiser. And got a free hat out of it to boot. All action and no thought has worked out well for me in the past. But I wonder if that has changed. Will I still run toward trouble to try to stop it happening? Will I still try to fix what I see wrong? Or will I play it safe and not speak up and not try to make it better?

Six Word Epitaph
My husband is a high school English teacher. One of the assignments he considered giving to his students was to create an epitaph; how did they want to be remembered? And, in this era of sound bites, they would only be allowed six words. Boil down your life to six words. Go. When he told me about this idea, he asked me what my six word epitaph would be. I didn’t even have to think before I answered. "I tried to make it better." For me, that's what hurts most about April 13. I tried to make it better. And I continue to try to make it better. But you can't make something like that better. And that haunts me.

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