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  • Writer's picturehlhowells

Guns, Grace, and Gratitude

I woke up normally on April, 16, 2019, and went to work normally. It was a Tuesday. I paused, in the treatment area of the veterinary hospital where I work, and volleyed at my co-workers what was usually a normal question for me to ask: “Hey – what’s today’s date?” Then it hit me. “Oh, never mind. I know exactly what date it is today.” Twelve years ago, on April 16, 2007, I was locked down in the basement of the veterinary school with all my first-year classmates as 32 people were shot to death – and many others were wounded – in a building only about a block away. Shortly thereafter, the shooter turned his gun on himself, claiming a 33rd victim in the Virginia Tech massacre.

I said this out loud to my co-workers, and the busy, cacophonous treatment area of the veterinary hospital fell silent for a beat. My caring co-workers then offered the perfect words, almost immediately – some with tears in their eyes – and we slowly took a breath, and started back to work. Of course we still pause. Of course these events are not forgotten. But regrettably, senseless mass murders executed by gun in our schools, our places of worship, and our social gatherings, are no longer surprising.

I was not in Colorado when the first such school shooting – the massacre at Columbine High School – took place on April 20th, 1999. But I was aware that this week in 2019 also marked the 20th anniversary of that event, too. It’s hard to think about all this as a parent. The fear of being randomly gunned down at school was not something, thankfully, that I grew up with.

It’s a fear that has to be instilled, by necessity, in my kindergartener. This past December, he came home and described to me in great detail the school’s first active-shooter drill he’d participated in that day. “LOCK DOWN! LIGHTS OUT! OUT OF SIGHT!” he recited. My blood ran cold, as he went on. “Mom, they said a bad guy can pretend to be a police officer and try to hurt us!”

Try to keep breathing, mom.

For the week and a half that followed, I heard other small bodies reciting similar words as I ferried my son to and from the school. I had to tell myself several times to just try to keep breathing and not let on how paralyzed I felt, fighting off the mental image of these bright, loved, cherished, inquisitive bodies being ripped apart by bullets. Frightened out of their minds. Wracked with pain and panic: bones shattered, lungs pierced, drowning in their own blood, fighting just to breathe. Coaxed out of hiding by a violent person pretending to be a police officer, using trust to foment terror. I sobbed at night when my son couldn’t hear me, and I continue to grieve the loss of my shattered belief that school would be safe for the two people on earth whose very breath matters more to me than my own.

I am scared. I am scared in a way for which there are no words. Nothing makes me feel more vulnerable than the thought of losing my children. But I am also angry, because it shouldn’t have to be this way. I have always refused to live in fear of coming to harm in a world where, statistically speaking, the vast majority of people we meet do not intend us any harm. I still believe the people of our world are overwhelmingly good, and that those who harm others are the exceptions. After all, I’m not pulling my kids out of public school. And the practical part of me just responds by inhaling sharply, holding my breath, and thinking about mental preparedness as our best defense.

Mental preparedness. This is the skill our children are learning in these drills. Although it took my breath away, I found myself grateful for the lessons of mental preparedness being imparted to my son and his classmates. And for their macabre rehearsals in the hallways and at home following the drill. “Please,” I breathe, may he and she who have practiced be saved by their own mental preparedness.

So, this past Tuesday on April 16th when I spent my work day remembering the past, I got an alert from my son’s school that made my blood run cold again. I was jolted back to the present in the blink of an eye. Jefferson County schools had been placed under lock-out. Lock-out, where business continues as usual inside the schools and entry is simply restricted for outsiders (usually due to police activity in the area), is different than lock-down, which is the state when our students hide under their desks, in silence, with the lights off, as they did in the drill. But it was poor timing for me, in my emotional state, to be hearing this message. I told myself to keep breathing, and I finished my work day, with no choice but to trust in my son’s school to keep him safe.

The next day schools were canceled due to a continued threat. I went to work. Breathe.

It turns out, they hadn’t just put one school on a lock-out due to routine neighborhood police activity. An 18-year-old high school senior from Florida had actually made a number of disturbing social media posts, fetishizing the Columbine school shooting. Then, she was reported missing by her parents. Breathe. She had bought herself a plane ticket, flown to Denver, purchased a semi-automatic shotgun, then made a credible threat against a Jefferson County school and disappeared into the foothills. Breathe.

On Wednesday, April 17th, untold numbers of police officers and FBI agents were combing the foothills to find her, ostensibly to bring her in alive for psychiatric evaluation. Over a half-million school children along the front range of Colorado had their schools closed that day – so they could remain safely at home until she was found. Breathe.

Finally, late that afternoon, it was announced that her body had been found; she had died of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound. Her name was Sol Pais. She was barely more than a child herself. What was she thinking? What was she feeling? Now, she is not breathing anymore. My heart shatters with the hearts of her parents who are missing her, grieving her. Sol. Their sunshine; their baby. How are they breathing now? I hold them in my heart. They can never again hold their baby, as I can hold mine. Surely, her parents are not breathing. I am sobbing as I write this. From one parent in this broken world to another, I breathe for them now.

School resumed on-schedule in Colorado the next morning. But nothing felt normal for the half a million parents whose children had missed school due to this threat. Work was missed. Parents were home; children were home. Questions were asked that were born of fear; the threat was made real for a half a million children who had practiced the drill. I talked to my kindergartener about mental preparedness. And that I was sad that Sol was dead. Businesses were short-staffed; wages were lost. I’m sure the staff and the teachers at the schools must have felt unsettled, afraid.

We as parents received apologetic notes from the schools, the superintendent, and the before- and after-school care programs our children attend. “We apologize for the inconvenience,” these communications read. “We know how frustrating it is to miss work and keep your children home, especially in this year when we have had an above-average number of snow days. . . . We appreciate your understanding.”


My understanding?


Excuse me just a minute here, while I remind myself to breathe. This was no run of the mill extra snow day. Missing work is a big deal, and it means a loss of critical income for many families. And I have to offer the disclaimer that I am one of the lucky ones, with a robust, deep bench of back-up child care available to me. I was able to drop my older son (the kindergartener) off along with my younger son at our trusted, in-home day-care, and go on to work. (Barely breathing.) But – inconvenience??? Oh, gosh . . . no. Just NO.

I would rather we miss a month of income and have to take our children to school until the middle of JULY, if it means that NOT ONE LIFE IS LOST to the terror of being shot at school. It’s only money. Even if it means going hungry. Even if it means lost work. What are lost wages, compared to lost children???

THANK YOU. I appreciate YOU. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, to every official who made a tough call to keep our children safe. To every law-enforcement worker who risked life and limb to find an armed-and-dangerous teenager, who was wild and unpredictable in her own suffering. To every parent who missed wages, missed work, even missed a meal due to having to stay home with their kids. So that ALL of our kids could be here and held today.

Your grace, like mine, comes from a place of deep gratitude. Today, I can hold my kids after they trip and fall, and breathe in the essence of their being and the smell of their hair, because of the grace of all who made the right call – the tough call – to keep them safe when the world wasn’t quite the place we wish that it could be. I thank you all, with every fiber of my being. With all that I am worth.

I took my kids to the park Wednesday evening, and let my kindergartner skip his homework, in favor of watching him and his brother run through tall grass, lit from behind by the setting sun. May we have this day, and every day, to watch them run. To live this life.

May we be grateful to have our breath halt when our children learn to be mentally prepared for an ever-more-likely emergency. May our own children never be found dead by the FBI after a 36-hour hunt. May we remember, always, how much we stand to lose. May we all be filled with love, gratitude, and grace when we are called on budge a little, to lose a little, in order to save what we love.


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