My friends, I owe you an apology.
I am deeply sorry for my reaction to this most recent shooting. Even more, I need to offer something else: not an excuse (I, too, am sick of excuses) but an explanation … if you’re willing to listen.
I am broken.
A coworker used to respond to frustrating people and situations with a silly retort. She would hold her hand in the shape of a gun, place it to her temple and pull the imaginary trigger.
“Somebody, shoot me in the head!” she would snarl with wide-eyed sarcasm.
I would then quietly retreat to my office, turn my back to the door, and try to keep it together. Sometimes I couldn’t, and I would lean on the desk to hold myself up while sobbing like an abused child.
Due to gun violence, I am forever wounded.
So, dear ones, I’m sorry.
I’m sorry for my response after every breaking story about another shooting. There’s a predictable sequence that I can’t seem to avoid:
- Media assaults us with news of another shooting.
- Something inside of me breaks.
- I create and share outraged, inflammatory posts on social media.
- I get muted/unfollowed/unfriended by strangers (that’s okay), and friends and family (that hurts).
- I try to rise above the chaos, return to the scene of the crime, and have some rational discussions with people who disagree.
- I delete my incendiary posts.
- I spend weeks in a darkness I can’t escape.
Every time this cycle is repeated, I hear the “Mental Health” refrain from the Holy Choir of the Second Amendment. Although the APA has spoken out against this notion, I have to agree with those people who simply love their guns.
Friends, you’re right.
This IS a mental health issue. And I’m sorry.
It was a crisp, spring morning and I was headed to work on a house that held many good memories for me. My aunt had moved away and I jumped at the chance to buy it. I’d convinced Laura it would be a good investment, but it had little to do with financial gain. I was really trying to buy back something that I knew was gone. The house needed a lot of work, but I was happy to do it, spending countless twelve-hour days updating the structure and trying to rewire ties to boyhood.
This particular morning, though, I couldn’t make it to the house. Police barricades blocked the road. I drove around to try another street. Blocked. Three more attempts. Same result every time. I finally spotted a policeman friend, so I pulled up and asked, “What’s going on?”
Darrell leaned in and whispered with a grim, unflinching jaw, “Quadruple homicide.”
Next door to my aunt’s home, four teens had been murdered, shot to death in a grisly execution scene. Living on the opposite side, a friend’s child had awakened in the middle of the night, hearing a young girl pleading for her own life before a bullet silenced her.
Two of the four lived next door to Aunt Jo’s house. I’d spoken with them several times. Usually just a quick, “Good morning,” and “How’s it going?”, but I knew their faces well enough to imagine expressions of terror and pain as life flowed out of them through bullet holes.
I wish I could tell you I became sick upon hearing Darrell’s words. However, those words don’t come close to what I felt.
Several months later … I’m herding my three kids into the house to escape the cold rain. As we enter, the kitchen phone is ringing.
“This is Cabell County 911. Do you own the property at —–?”
“There’s been a shooting. The officers believe the shooter is hiding in your building. Can you take them keys to search the premises?”
The room begins to spin with death mask memories of four teenagers. I look down at my own children and wipe away the unexpected tear that leaps from my eye and makes a frantic run down my left cheek.
“I need to find someone to watch my kids and I’ll be right there …”
I can’t keep myself from asking about the victim.
It’s a man I know. Always smiling a toothy grin. Loves his family and friends. Passionate about sports, especially baseball and softball. Father of two, the youngest just a baby.
“Is he okay?”
A silent pause, then, “He’s dead.”
I still see the rotating glow of police and ambulance lights cutting through the rain and fog on that starless night. I recall the yellow crime scene tape that kept the gathering crowd a safe distance from the reality of gun violence. And I remember the rain and blood soaked sheet hugging the contours of a lifeless body.
Friends, perhaps you haven’t considered what happens after a murder, so I’ll tell you. The police officers do their work. Pictures and measurements are taken. Evidence is collected. The body is removed. Eventually, the whole scene is abandoned. What remains is left behind for people like me.
The next day, I found myself crawling around the sidewalk, the rough concrete biting into my knees and palms as I scrubbed away all that was left of a young man who hadn’t deserved a bullet to the head. With my white, plastic, Libman brush I’d purchased at Walmart, I scrubbed like a frantic madman, hoping to protect this man’s family from the visual horror of what a bullet can do. In that awful place and time, my soul splintered and left behind jagged pieces of me.
Now, with every shooting in America, I’m sent back …
My thoughts turn to a smiling young man as I agitate his remains into a ruddy froth, my knuckles white, hidden beneath gloves meant for washing dirty cups, not cleaning up a murder scene. I toss the brush aside and dump the bucket of water over the sidewalk. The flood washes away tiny fragments, but parts of him hold protest in the crevices. Tears stream down my face. The muscles in my scouring arm burn. I’m going to vomit.
Friends, I’m sorry. But what happens inside of me is too dark and complex to define. This writer still can’t find the words.
So, my friends … once again … I’m sorry.
I’m sorry I can’t just get over it.
I’m sorry I fall apart while desperately praying to God, begging Him to hold me together and heal me. I think I’m getting better, but now in my second decade of this nightmare, I’ve come to accept the methodical patience of my Heavenly Father, convincing myself that He’ll use this pain for something good.
I’m sorry my mind still serves up bloody-faced images of people who haunt my soul.
I’m sorry I am trafficked back into the darkness and compelled to scrub away at a blood-soaked sidewalk littered with brain and bone and blood that turns a sick, frothy, ruddy pink when mixed with water and tears.
I’m sorry innocent antics like Sarah’s “Somebody, shoot me in the head!” sends me fleeing, that in my mind her finger is a gun barrel, and I am forced to watch as brains splatter across the wall.
I’m sorry I fall into a deep depression and lose touch with my wife and kids.
I’m sorry I can no longer numb the pain with alcohol and get on with life’s joyous song and dance.
I’m sorry for my selfishness, for my desire to keep these nightmare visions and emotions to myself, and for begging our elected leaders to act instead of doling out this same pain to thousands of other Americans.
And I’m sorry to disrupt your time on social media with what I keep calling America’s gun problem.
I’m sorry I am forced to agree with you.
For the victims, families, and growing numbers of people like me who exist on the fringes of gun violence, this truly has become a mental health problem.
I’m sorry I am forever broken.
And I’m sorry that so many of you, my own friends and family, simply don’t understand. I pray you never do.
Mostly, though, I’m sorry for the victims and their families. My pain is but a fraction of theirs.