I have said in various ways at various times that one of the things I remember most right after the shootings was an intense desire to talk to someone else who’d been through it—someone from Jonesboro or West Paducah, one of those places no one remembers now because somehow we became the synonym for a school shooting, and those that came before got lost to those not in the club. I wanted to talk to someone ahead of me on the path in the hopes that they could help me believe that I would live, smile, go two minutes without thinking about what happened.
Less than a week after the shootings, I did talk to some folks from Jonesboro on a T.V. show, but they didn’t seem to have any answers. It had been a year for them. I know now how silly it was to think they would have answers yet. I know now how little healing happens in a year.
This is where I am, 17 years later, for what it’s worth. I have since met, face-to-face and online, many others forced on this journey, and I know they appreciate the occasional look at what’s up ahead.
I am always acutely aware of April, from the first to the thirtieth. I am grateful that April is one of those months that hath only thirty days. I don’t dread it anymore. I don’t even remember the last time I did dread it. I don’t feel each day peel away toward the 20th like layers of skin, hardly noticeable at first until spring air starts to scald like acid. That, too, is a long time gone. I just wake up every day knowing it’s April.
I notice when the weather is like that day. It doesn’t hurt. I feel no anxiety. If I go for a walk around the outside of the school during my planning period (which I do all year when the weather’s nice), I walk out the doors I walked out of that day, past the park where we climbed the fence to get away, and I remember all of these things the way one remembers anything, really. Like “Yeah, those are things that happened.” I never walk out in April without remembering them, though.
I’m an avoider. It’s been years since I have been in the building on the anniversary. I take the 20th off. I might be able to teach again, but I cannot sit in that building so quiet waiting for 11:20 to come and go, listening to Frank read the names over the intercom or even just knowing he’s in the library reading them. I think of Rachel, Dan, and Isaiah every single day—not just in April—every day. I’m not necessarily sad; that’s not it. I just remember them. I remember them alive and smiling. I choose not to sit at school and remember how they died. I’m OK with my choice, just as I’m OK with people choosing to be there. You gotta do what you gotta do.
Tomorrow’s a bit of a crap shoot. Some anniversaries are harder than others, but if I keep busy, I do just fine. Really, I do. I get together with people or take on a big cleaning project. I did both last year. Tomorrow I’m having lunch with my stepmom; timed it so I’d be on the highway at 11:20. I’ll be thinking about traffic, not watching the clock.
It’s a long, long way from the first anniversary, when I just wanted to sleep through it—drug myself senseless, go to sleep on April 19 and wake up on the 21st. A long way from the fifth anniversary when I was drunk by 11:30 in the morning. A long way even from the 10th anniversary, when we invited the kids who’d been at school that day to come back: I braced myself for tears and trauma and reopened wounds only to find a commons area full of babies—babies—and smiles and laughter and catching up with “kids” well into their 20’s with careers and families and beautiful beloved faces.
Oh, yes, companions on this path, there can be joy even on that most dreaded day.
You may already be figuring it out. If you’re not there yet, if the anniversary of whatever you went through still devastates you, well, go back at look at the introductory phrase at the beginning of this sentence. You’re just not there yet. You’ll get there.
You’ll get here. It’s not a bad place to be. Ask me again in another 17 years.