When you’re a child and you experience something painful, troubling, the ache often fades like a box of photos that ends up in the attic: remembered in its snapshot form, never lingering for too long, easily shifted to another, less-visited area of your memory. As an adult, however, when trauma occurs, that pain comes marching through the front door, finds a place to hang its hat and settles in for a while. No amount of distraction can completely dull the intensity, make you forget. That February, during my junior year in college, my world was invaded by a pain that came to stay.
I remember much of it very clearly: sounds, sights, smells. Sometimes when I close my eyes I’m transported back to that dreaded hall, that fateful day. If I’m feeling weak, I’ll quickly open my eyes in an effort to keep the pain at bay, but it relentlessly rushes in and the sensations tend to loiter. When I’m feeling strong, however, I’ll try to focus on the fuzzy particulars, those that haven’t found a place to settle yet. Too often, my recollection becomes hazy and threatens to roll away like a receding fog: slow, persistent, unable to grasp and hold onto. I’ve found my best vision is peripheral. I may try to focus my attention forward but I’m searching the details dancing at my side.
Over time, moments of strength and determination have allowed me to assemble most of the pertinent, heart-stopping, eerie details. College lecture hall, benign and ordinary in every way. In front of me is a large platform stage, semicircle protruding into the immense sea of theater chairs. Standing in the center of the stage, strong and silent, is a sturdy oak podium, empty though still demanding attention. It’s as though the knowledge and motivation emitted from that esteemed pedestal are stored in the aged wood rather than the mind of an apt professor at its helm.
The gathering crowd is restless, varying degrees of anxiousness manipulating their focus. Seasoned scholars have found seats and have settled in, impatient as they wait for the class to just get on with it. The newbies are milling about, trying to find a comfortable spot, concerned about recording all the day’s academic details. There is a noticeable hum in the air. Then a thickness, a heaviness, is added to our surroundings.
Simone processes Garrett’s threat immediately, her instincts are sharp. My understanding is sluggish, a few critical seconds late. His hateful glare. I can’t hear. Movement at my side. A seemingly simple shift as she takes a seat, but it’s disturbing, when it shouldn’t be. It catches my attention. Simone slumps like a tattered rag doll beside me. Her face as lovely as ever but her eyes are empty. A thin stream of smoke curls upward from behind her head where her hair is slightly disheveled. Funny, I didn’t notice her hair mussed up like that before. There are mere seconds of increased movement, panic. I don’t immediately recognize the chaos. And then I’m gone.
I didn’t feel anything. Even as I try to remember, borrowing details that belong to others, witnesses, I can’t get back that exact instant, the moment my life was forever altered. No matter how hard I try, every time I tug on those particulars, I lose. The rest of my story is pieced together through various accounts and rumors. It possesses a familiarity that sometimes resembles memory, but it always feels more like a movie I once saw or a book I’m pretty sure I’ve read.
Every handgun has a specific design and its functions have been refined to achieve the optimal shot. Its distinct traits can influence how successful a person is at discharging his weapon: how quickly the pistol fires, how exact the trajectory, how forgiving of the human element: the aim.
Garrett was using a 38-caliber Smith and Wesson Model 36 Chief’s Special revolver that he purchased at a Walmart in Plano, Texas while visiting his mom’s side of the family over Christmas. It cost $749.99 plus tax and included a box of ammunition. This lightweight, sleek, five-shot double action revolver unloads five bullets with a gentle depression of the trigger. The gun has a mechanism added that will cock the gun as the trigger is pulled. It’s a point and shoot, no delay. A stabilizer is built in to manage external vibrations. On that bleak Monday, five bullets were fired in a matter of 12 seconds. Four people were wounded, only one fatally: my beautiful, best friend Simone.
I was shot in the head and remained unconscious for almost a month. Directly after the shooting, friends and family members flooded our sad, coastal community making hospital visits and holding prayer sessions aiming for understanding, hope and recovery. It was a mass of open arms and houses welcoming sorrow and trying to warm away the pain. The stories that were slowly narrated to me after I woke up helped me piece together the days and weeks that passed before I was back amongst the living again.
The college offered grief counseling for a whole month. For the victims, even those with wounds of the psyche that bandages didn’t protect, a month was an insufficient amount of time…not even enough time to remember the regular routine of school. There was very little recovery after a mere month. Any subtle healing was barely noticeable.
But for the students on the fringe, it seemed excessive, an inconvenient reminder that interrupted their preferred state of oblivion. Those students, even some adjunct professors, were annoyed by the continued state of mourning. They longed to return back to some semblance of “normal.” No one could blame them. Like our broken town, I too yearned for a familiar ease that accompanied all things ordinary.
Only the select few can relate to the condition we found ourselves in. When life unearths a tragedy, the world around you keeps moving forward while you are rendered immobile, fastened to the pain by weighted tethers. It’s rather like careening through a dream. The movement is too fast, disorienting and most of all, unsettling. It provokes an anxiety that catches your breath. Coping is almost impossible. Empathy is really hard to find. Pain is everywhere.
Almost two weeks after the shooting, Simone’s family held an emotional memorial service at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, the church they had belonged to since she was eleven. She loved her church and she attended services frequently. Even throughout college, she'd often make the drive home to go to church with her parents. It remained a place of comfort and familiarity for her. I was raised Catholic, but upon declaring my major in Philosophy, I, like many soul-searching college students, considered myself on a path of enlightenment. I challenged my preconceived notions of the origins of religion and more so, my faith. That was all the justification I needed for my spiritual, Sunday-service hiatus.
I missed the funeral too. Simone’s parents tried to wait, to push out the cremation and the release of her ashes, but my recovery was uncertain and their rites of grieving could not be postponed any longer. There’s no etiquette book, no “Ask Martha” column that details how to plan funeral services for your child when her best friend is on the brink of death. The relationship that our parents had developed over the last three years didn’t ease the guilt and suffering for either family. Their pain was a mutual experience. My parents were heart-broken for Candice and Nigel, Simone’s cultured and warmhearted parents, and despite the immense grief drowning them, my mom and dad came up for air long enough to leave my hospital bedside, back to our home town to the church, and mourn with their friends.
It wasn’t until many months after I woke up that I began to catch glimpses of how far the suffering extended those early days, the days while I slept. Especially when I overheard edited details about the memorial service, I could feel the devastation. My parents did their best to shelter me but they couldn’t hide the fact that they felt somewhat out of place amongst the mourners. They sensed a level of blame directed at them by some of the other guests. Maybe it was imagined, or maybe it was self-imposed, after all, it was their daughter’s ex-boyfriend who took Simone’s precious, promising life. That heart-wrenching and cruel fact was never paired with equally painful words and uttered aloud though, and I was thankful for that. Etiquette book or not, you can’t blame an unconscious, dying girl, regardless of her guilt.