My kids, Paisley and Charlie, and my surrogate kids Jesse and Natalie, and their friend Daniel, were all at the Route 91 Concert, in Las Vegas, last weekend. It’s been only a week since the people at that concert lost their lives, were wounded or lost their sense of peace within their hearts, minds and souls. Only a week but it’s also been the very longest week of my life.
People use inadequate words to describe what happen and what they’re feeling during a tragedy. I used to listen to people in tragedy and think I understood them. That I could cry and be sympathetic to their struggle. I’d want to know the details, to try and understand.
But the thing is the words are too inadequate. They simply aren’t big enough to explain it. Saying you’re scared or that it was horrific, can’t encompass the feelings. This week has been so incredibly hard on my family, videos, news, triggers, that haunt all of the kids. Hearing each of their stories and as a helpless parent or loved one, knowing the only real thing you can do is listen, hold them, pray for them. And it all seems so inadequate.
Jeff and I went to see “The Mountain Between Us,” last night, with Kate Winslet and Idris Elba. They crash in a small airplane, into a massive snowy mountain terrain and try to survive. Kate Winslet is badly injured and must rely on Idris Elba to do the bulk of work because she’s unable, she’s helpless.
Inside me something broke a little, that I wasn’t expecting. My eyes filled and my stomach grew queasy. My experience last Sunday night in Vegas wasn’t in harm’s way. I didn’t have bullets whizzing past my body, like the kids did. I didn’t see the horror that unfolded before disbelieving eyes but my kids did. I was trapped behind glass, a telephone and a police officer, in one of the Mandalay Bay towers, that wouldn’t let me leave my room. The fact that I couldn’t absorb and take away that experience from them truly haunts me. That feeling of helplessness in the movie, started to come close to it.
I wasn’t able to see my kids after the catastrophe was over. We wanted them out of Nevada, so got them on a plane back home, at 7:30 the next morning. They still wouldn’t let me out of the hotel, so I didn’t get to see them before they left. Jesse and Natalie were back in their home, just outside the strip but I couldn’t see them either. I could comfort no one. I told my husband to go ahead and fly out to an important business meeting in Denver. So, I only saw him the three or four minutes it took to give him his suitcase, so he could run catch his flight. A brief hug, a brief kiss and he was gone. They had finally let me leave the hotel around 9:30 am and I drove through town. It was my first look at the devastation, debris on the ground, hats, shoes, cell phones, everything representing a person. Not a political agenda on pros and cons of gun control or images to freeze for the masses but a person, people.
When I finally touched down at home, my best friend, Debbie picked me up. To me, she represented everything normal and what made sense. She was my first real and long connection with someone I loved, since 9:50 the night before. I watched kids, young kids come off that plane and reunite with parents. Those parents could only obtain the information of that night, from their televisions. I realized I did get the ability to guide my family, have some access to information and get my kids to my husband, that they wouldn’t have had otherwise and it was a small comfort.
Once home I tried to sleep, not having slept the night before, I could still only get a couple of hours in but decided it was enough to travel the four and a half hours to Cheney. I desperately wanted to see Paisley and Charlie, to touch them and tell them I loved them in person. I couldn’t get enough of looking at them and realized they had changed. They weren’t as innocent. I can no longer say there’s no monsters under the bed or Mama will protect you from anything because I couldn’t, I can’t.
It was one o’clock in the morning, the night after I got there and I was working on my new book, when I found myself bringing up a new document. I began to type out my experience because I couldn’t stand the words searing inside me. Because I have an easier time expressing myself through the written word, rather than the verbal one, I thought I share just a couple of things I wrote:
Paisley and Charlie left soon thereafter and I think now of that moment often. Just a casual moment, I’ll see you later. Have fun, be safe. I love you.
We always say that, whenever we finish a phone call, whenever we say goodbye, the last words are always I love you because you never know. I didn’t know that in a few short hours, those could’ve been the last words I spoke to both of my children. It sounds dramatic, it sounds like TV, surreal and faraway, something people say after a tragedy.
Then I heard something that will haunt me, truly haunt me for the rest of my life and it was my daughter, screaming the most guttural sound I’d ever heard.
“Mom, they’re shooting…People are dying, they’re dying. There’s blood, a lot of blood, on the street.”
“Where are you?”
“I don’t know, I, there’s people…and they’re dying.”
“Where’s Charlie? Where are you exactly.”
“He’s here, he’s here, we’re running to the hotel.”
I screamed, “No, no, stop, he’s here Paisley, the shooter’s here. Don’t come here, go hide.”
“But where, where are we supposed to go?”
And I knew I failed, there was nothing I could say to help my children. I couldn’t carry them, I couldn’t direct them, I couldn’t even lay my life down for theirs. I was nothing.
Paisley started screaming, those guttural screams as more pounding and pops happened. I could hear Charlie yelling something and the line went dead.
“Paisley!! Oh my God. Oh my sweet God.” And I began to sob. I violently hit her speed dial number and nothing. I tried Charlie and nothing.
And then it was quiet, the deep quiet when nothing else matters, no noise is heard, except I could feel my heart pumping furiously inside my chest. I could actually hear it, throbbing in my head. In that moment, I prayed, on my knees, and cried so hard, I couldn’t make noise. I prayed for my family, I prayed for the kids and then things Paisley said began to play in my ears. Shots, people were dying. People, plural. What had they seen? What were they experiencing right now? My babies, were alone and hiding. I looked out the large window and saw police car, after police car, after police car. They were congregating about a block away. What the hell, why were they so far away?
The next morning, I was talking to Jess, he and Natalie had witnessed horrors of their own. He had written out his own experience because he was having to relay his story so much, that it was exhausting him. He asked if I would read it. I did and it was fantastic but reading it made his experience real to me and the level of fear for him only intensified more. He said it was extremely cathartic to write it out and suggested Paisley and Charlie do the same. Jesse was going to include their account with his but the kids weren’t ready to share their story. He was wonderful to include their safe return and their shared experience together and understood their reluctance to put their’s out there. Tuesday, we did write out their experience, everything they could remember about what they saw, heard, felt and processed. The decisions that were made, and the bravery they both had, to do what they needed to.
Jesse told us about a video that you could see the four of them split up. Jesse and Natalie going one direction, Paisley and Charlie going another. The video was both good and bad because it filled in gaps for the kids but they were terrifying gaps. It showed where they stood and how close they’d come to harm’s way. It amplified the sounds of the night and most terrifying for me, was I saw how long they stood there, before they and others around them realized what was happening. Probably much like other loved ones, when you know the timeline, you get to 10:08 pm and you’re find yourself screaming into the screen to run. From the time the first audible shot rang out, until my kids and the people around them realized they were unmoving targets was one minute and fifty-four seconds, that is a lifetime. For many it represented the end of their life.
When Jeff was finally able to reunite with the kids, he did so on live TV. I just happened to look up at that moment and saw a man in a Seahawks jersey, arms wide. I blinked at the image, thinking, wow, that looks like Jeff, then I saw Charlie and Paisley run into his arms and they hugged a long time. The relief and gratitude that image flooded into me was truly overwhelming. My legs went weak, knowing they were finally safe. I called down to them, Charlie’s phone was at 1% battery and we knew we were going to lose each other. I wasted almost the entire time bawling and we said we loved each other, over and over. Later they would be interviewed twice and for the first time I got to see their faces. Charlie’s eyes were huge and wild, Paisley just stared out, emotion bubbling out around her and both were so incredibly pale. I could tell they were in shock, smiles plastered on their faces, almost maniacal in their responses. They don’t remember those interviews, nor do they want to.
A week later we are trying to figure out how best to help the kids and realized we all needed to be together in one collective group again. Thankfully we’ll get to do that next weekend. Jesse, Natalie and Daniel will come to Cheney, as will Jeff and I, to be with the kids for the football game. There are scars there and like all scars they will mostly heal and we will do everything we can to give them what they need.
As for me, I have nightmares. They’re much like ones you’d think a mother would have. Dreams of being trapped behind glass, of reaching out to save them and not quite able to touch fingers, having no voice, being alone. Last night, my dream was calling my kids over and over again, making them frustrated and angry with me for not being there or for being too intrusive. As a writer, I’m a bit of an introvert at my core and for the first time in a long time, I don’t want to be alone as much. I want communication and knowledge. Up until last Wednesday, I’d seen very little of the images and news of last Sunday, not wanting to hear the details or coverage of an evil man. However, I wanted to see the victims, I wanted to know their stories and have fixated a little on the people of that arena. Wanting to put my hands on the faces of each one and say how sorry I am that they lost their innocence, their independence, their lives. I want to figure out a way to make them not hurt and not be scared. Then I read what my daughter wrote on her Facebook page.
“On October 1st at 10:08 pm a terrorist open fired on a crowd of 22,000 people at a country music festival, I was a part of that crowd. This coward destroyed countless lives in the span of ten minutes and gave many the most traumatic experience of their lives. This is the first and only time I will post about this experience and its horrific repercussions. My heart aches for the thousands of people that were affected and their family members.
Route 91 has given me so many amazing memories and I refuse to let that coward take them away from me, I am nowhere near okay after this event but I know that I will be. The love and support from all my friends, family and loved ones will get me through it and for that I am incredibly thankful.
This event taught me that there is never too many I love you’s or hugs in the world. That life can change in an instant and that you should live every single moment of every day to the absolute fullest. #VegasStrong”
Her words, are words I will try and live by as we navigate our new normal. Please hug the people you love more. Please let go of political hatred for one another. Please mend gulfs between those you once loved and want to again. It’s simply not worth it, all that anger, hatred, ugliness and selfishness. I know it sounds so cliché, I know it sounds maybe patronizing or predictable, fluffy words in a traumatic moment. However, when I woke up this morning I realized that I could have easily been mourning the death of both my kids this week. 58 families and friends of loved ones are. Over 500 are feeling the painful repercussions, as their bodies recover, from the actions of a disgusting individual. And over 22,000, well their lives and views are forever changed.
Mine is just a mother’s story. Mothers begin to protect their children from conception. I made promises to mine on the first night of their homecoming, rocking in a chair, that I’d do everything to protect them until the day I died. I couldn’t and that’s my new normal but I know this did change me and I will love them and others better than I did before.