Three days ago, a rabid man in a hockey mask stormed into the Clackamas Mall just 25 minutes from my home and began shooting at anyone he could see. Two shoppers were killed and one wounded before the man turned the gun on himself as police converged on the building. My younger sister had been planning to go Christmas shopping at the mall on that day with her friend and her friend’s mother. The mother rescheduled in the morning due to having too many other errands to run. I cannot even express how thankful I am for that commonplace, unsuspecting decision. My little sister could have been at the mall that day, but she wasn’t. She was lying on the top bunk in our bedroom when I arrived home from college yesterday. She groaned when I woke her up, and we spent the night in a kind of exhausted limbo, talking about Christmas gifts and the latest adorable antics of her kitten, Sheldon. We only mentioned the shooting once. Sometimes we didn’t speak at all; we just lay sprawled out on the bed, our limbs tangled up in blankets. Both of us were scheduled to get our wisdom teeth removed the next day, and we were nervous and hungry since we hadn’t been able to eat for several hours already. Still, I couldn’t stop thinking to myself; “Lauren is here. Lauren is here with me, and we can lie side by side on this bed and pet each other’s hair and talk about food and anesthesia and sleepiness and any other random thing we can think of, because she’s here and I’m here and we’re all right, we are unbroken.”
There was a meteor shower overhead that night, supposedly around a hundred shooting stars an hour. We couldn’t see any of them because the underside of our sky had been painted over with gray clouds, but we could still sense their presence somehow. It was as if we could feel the hum of sudden lights flaring overhead, dashing across the sky for a thin moment of time before vanishing into the darkened pool of clear atmosphere that cups its hands around our world, giving us what protection it can.
I had been afraid of getting my wisdom teeth pulled for a long time, mostly because of the anesthesia. I had never been chemically put under for surgery before, and I was scared of the pain and the possibility of something going wrong. My mom drove Lauren and I to the dentist’s office through the morning rush of traffic. They called her back first. When it was my turn, I couldn’t help connecting my eyes to dentist’s latex-coated hands as he attached heart monitors to my chest and pricked a needle into the vein on my arm. The oxygen tubes protruding into my nostrils felt strange, but I put up with them because I knew these were all pieces of equipment intent on keeping me alive. As the world started to wink out and I entrusted my fate to strangers in antiseptic blue smocks, I told myself that at least this was the worst thing that would happen today, and when I woke up it would all be over.
It’s disturbing just how wrong I can be sometimes. By the time I woke up again with a roll of bloody gauze stuffed between my remaining teeth, another gunman, even younger than the first, had walked into an elementary school in Connecticut and massacred 26 people, 20 of them children. No machine, no human, no elemental layer of atmosphere had been able to save them. My college roommate called me with the dark-voiced news as I was lying in bed at home, clutching my swollen lips. At first I couldn’t believe it; not because I was naïve or drugged on painkillers, but because I cannot think of schoolchildren without seeing the kids I work with in McMinnville. I recall the classrooms where they line up behind me, the playgrounds where they chase me across the bark chips, and the tender moments in between the days’ busyness when they wrap their little arms around my waist and become the nearest, most important things in the world. That someone would want, would desire, would allow himself to hurt them is inconceivable to me. It cannot happen, but it has happened. Now our world is missing 26 more lights. They have flared out across the sky and vanished. I’ve been crying ever since I took the call, sniffling over my laptop and sobbing over the minestrone soup and soft rolls which my mother made for dinner so we would have something easy to eat. The painkillers can do nothing for the aching in my heart. Lauren, who is more outspoken than I am, has slumped over beside me and filled her breaths with passionate curses for the shooter. My two even younger sisters returned home from school today with no idea what had happened. They didn’t understand why the whole family was grouped up waiting to hug them as soon as they bounced in the door. I love them so much; their browning hair, their fragile faces, their precious backs and shoulders and fingers I have tried to protect since they were born. They are all so much more beautiful than I am, and I love them for that too. These limited words fail to express my unspeakable gratitude for every light in my life that has not been struck out, as well as the measure of my sorrow for those whose loved ones will never again walk through an open doorway into waiting arms. I wish I could stop all their stars from falling, but I cannot. I can only reach for them over a tiny distance, tendering my insufficient hands toward the abyss.
This has happened too many times before, and the pessimistic side of my mind cannot help but think it will happen again. With lax gun control laws and an immense lack of funding in the mental health sector, the culture of random mass shootings is indisputably becoming entrenched in the American way of life. All one has to do is follow the news for a year or two before these horrors cease to astonish. Sometimes it seems like the world cannot stop screaming, like we move from tragedy to tragedy without time to catch our breath, stumbling down a dark corridor of disasters with no idea how we got here or if we will ever reach the exit. I can hear the screaming of the hearts of parents and siblings and children and friends and spouses tonight, and all I have to respond with are my ragged tears. But I cannot cover my ears against their cacophonic agony, no matter what. So, even though I cannot stop the hate from congealing in a murderer’s heart or redirect the rush of sudden death away from a beautiful child, I am listening to the violence and mortality of life. I am stopping my own life, looking into the newly clear sky, and praying to God with words that burn like shooting stars, sharpest of knives to slice open Heaven. I am in grief and in pain, in sympathy and in horror. And more than anything else, I am not alone.
I hope this pain and compassion will squeeze the hearts of everyone who hears the terrible news of this town, hard enough to move them toward action. We cannot love our families and our children well if we are not bothered by the deaths of strangers’. And although pain is something which humans naturally fear, we disconnect our hearts from our fellow human beings at the expense of our own lives. No one died more poorly today than did the hardened heart of the shooter, even though he managed to live longer than most of his victims ever will. Therefore, as we mourn these senseless deaths, let us also seek to arrange our precious lives so that no matter how we fall, we will fall as stars and not as stones. Let’s make sure we light up the sky, every one of us, before we fly out beyond the boundaries of this imperfect universe.