Today is a significant day in my life. As I have contemplated the passing of the time I am overwhelmed at how life can change so dramatically in such a seemingly quick period. Life seems as if it passes by quickly when you look back on it, but in the moment it seems to move at a snail’s pace.
Five years ago today, my son was in the hospital after an attempted suicide. My daughter went to school as usual. She was a junior in high school and she had exams in a few weeks. Life had to continue on as normal.
Here is an excerpt from my novel:
“It was Tuesday, March 6, 2012. At 1:30 p.m., a text message came through on my phone from my daughter, Jessica. ‘Mom I’m scared, the school is on lock-down, and I have been on the floor in the library for almost an hour. Someone has been shot.’
My hands started to shake, tears blurred my vision, my heart pounded with such great force that it roared in my ears, and an unswallowable lump caught in my throat. What new kind of hell was I being subjected to? ‘Are you okay?’ I texted back, as I ran to the television to see if anything was reported.
Nothing showed up on the news, so I resorted to the Internet. Typing in Jessica’s school name and shooting on the computer revealed the story. The article said two people had allegedly been shot. Authorities didn’t know if the shooter was still at large or if the shooter was immobilized. A scream emanated from the back of my throat as tears spilled down my cheeks. I trembled as my brain tried to interpret the events.
Jessica said she was okay, but frightened. She told me she didn’t have any information.
I asked her if there were adults in the library with her, and she said ‘Yes.’
I texted my husband, Erik, and he immediately called me. I could barely speak; I was on the verge of hysteria. A vacuum of uncontrollable emotions threatened to engulf me. I had been under constant, extreme crisis with Matthew for so long that I didn’t think I could recover from another one. It was out of my control. I told Jessica I was coming to the school.
‘Please don’t, Mom; you could get hurt.’ She begged.
I felt like a caged animal. The waiting was almost too much to bear. I followed the story on the Internet while texting with Jessica, waiting for the moment when I could get her. She was safe for the time being, but nothing calmed my nerves.
By 2:30, the news stated that the police were letting parents in to collect their children. Two people were dead, including the shooter. The threat had come to an end.
I drove too fast, I couldn’t help myself; I wanted to see my daughter. I parked a few streets away from the school, and ran the rest of the way.
Many parents were there already. I found Jessica in the main common area of the campus with her best friend. I hugged them both and said, ‘Let’s go home.’
Rumors circulated, but the truth was that Jessica’s principal had been murdered in her office by a teacher she fired that morning. The shooter, Jessica’s Spanish teacher, then turned the gun on himself.
Once the girls and I were inside the car, the story unfolded. Jessica was sitting in a courtyard by the library with some friends after lunch. They heard a noise and the school security guard came running around the corner of a building yelling at everyone to go inside. Jessica grabbed her backpack and ran into the library. From there she lay on the floor, unaware of what was happening outside. About an hour and a half later, students were allowed to leave the library. Once outside and before I arrived, Jessica heard stories from other classmates.
In the classroom, where Jessica had chemistry earlier that day, students heard a loud banging sound repeated eight times, like someone slamming a locker door. The teacher grew irritated, wondering why someone was making noise. The door to his classroom burst open and the security guard hustled a student from the hallway into the room as a warning bell blared, indicating an emergency. The chemistry teacher locked the door and corralled his students to the floor behind the lab tables.
Many stories circulated. We heard full details on the local news when we arrived home. Jessica’s Spanish teacher was fired from his job Tuesday morning. His work at the school had become erratic. He was not teaching the curriculum.
Jessica said he wasn’t giving tests, he wasn’t assigning homework, and the previous week, he had taken her class on a ‘field trip’ around the school. In lieu of teaching Spanish, he was lecturing on Marxism and Fascism. Jessica had wondered why he had been acting odd.
After he was dismissed, he had returned at lunchtime with a guitar case. He entered the principal’s office, pulled an AK-47 assault rifle from his guitar case, and shot the principal seven times before turning the gun on himself. Those were the eight loud bangs the chemistry teacher and his students heard from their classroom near the principal’s office.
The shooter carried more than seventy rounds of ammunition in the guitar case. No one will ever know what he had planned to do with those seventy rounds. Obviously he was mentally ill; no one in his right mind would carry out something like that. He may have had plans to kill other people, but after killing one person, he was probably overwhelmed with guilt and killed himself instead. We will never know what went on inside his head.
Here was mental illness thrown in my face like acid and it burned like hell.
Later that day I arrived, in shock, at, my son, Matthew’s counselor for my scheduled appointment. I couldn’t believe what had happened.
How could this much occur at once? Matthew’s suicide attempt, his hospital stay, our decision to send him to his father’s, and then the shooting; it was unreal.
I did not sleep that night. The events of the previous day and of the day to come weighed heavily on my mind. I had not seen Matthew since we admitted him to the psychiatric unit Saturday.
Wednesday, March 7, we arrived at the facility. Matthew was ready to leave. I gave him a hug, handed him his cell phone, his shoes, and a few other belongings, and watched as the transport staff put him on a gurney, strapped him in for safety, and loaded him into an ambulance.
My heart broke. I was sending my child to live with the man I had divorced. I was overwhelmed with guilt and shame, but I could not deal with the strain anymore.
A statement, on a list for people dealing with loved ones with a mental illness, by The National Alliance on Mental Illness said, ‘If you don’t care for yourself, you can’t care for another.’ I needed to start caring for myself. I had managed adequately for several years, but Matthew had not lived with us the whole time. Maybe a year was all anyone could take. I shouldn’t have beaten myself up for not being able to handle the situation anymore. I had to forgive myself for needing space from my son.
I could hardly crawl out of bed the next day. I swallowed some Xanax to calm my nerves. I was worthless to anyone. Spring break was due to start the following week for Jessica, but school closed early and would remain closed through spring break week.
Friday March 9, a memorial service was held at Jessica’s school for her principal. We attended a beautiful service with 3,000 other people, remembering the principal’s life rather than her tragic death.
I was troubled by how the principal’s death would emotionally affect Jessica. She had been through a great deal of trauma with her brother, and now she faced this nightmare. With Matthew at his father’s, my next assignment was to find a way to help Jessica through the recent struggles.”
As I remember these tragic events I also have to dwell on the now.
My son is thriving. He is in college and working at a veterinary clinic. He is studying science and has dreams and goals for the future. His past is not forgotten, but a reminder of what he lived through. It has made him the person he is today; a strong, gentle, and understanding individual.
My daughter has a bold, generous, and adventurous spirit. She follows her own path and has many aspirations of her own. She too is in college and studying psychology and she has become a stronger person because of the trials and tribulations she faced in her short life. They were difficult times, but they have shaped her to be the amazing person she is today.
Difficult times in our lives, such as tragedy or mental illness, don’t have to determine what will become of us. We can endure many things and through these we can be more than we ever dreamed possible.