As I was walking this morning, as I do most mornings, my thoughts began to wander as they so often do. We’ve all had these moments; a time when our brain is searching for something to think about. Before my mind had time to settle on a topic, a police cruiser zoomed by, racing south on the highway; its sirens jolting me back to the here and now, thus causing me to cringe until I remember that my friend is no longer teaching down the bayou. But, for that moment before the present sinks in, the piercing sound almost brings me to my knees as I fight the urge to cower and cover my ears. As they tend to do, the painful memories that have been suppressed come screaming back to the present. The memories of that day, one year ago this month, never fail to make me catch my breath when I think of how close I came to losing my closest and dearest friend.
I realize these two words are synonymous, but I must use both in describing the special relationship I have with this young woman. She is my best friend, my confidant, my mentor, my daughter, and without her, the void that would exist in my life and my heart is too vast to put into words.
That fateful morning in late May of 2009, which started off as any other morning, turned into one of the most horrific days of my life, and I know, hers as well. It was the 9/11 day in our lives just as the people in New York that fateful day had their world shattered by terrorists; our world was shattered by a lone gunman.
I woke up, made the bed, fed the dog, and began my walk. Sirens blaring as police cruisers speed up and down the highway are a normal part of the day, and this particular sunny day seemed to hold nothing unusual in its midst. A cruiser went by with lights and siren on; then, a second unit, followed by a third. I only thought that whatever was going on must involve a fellow police officer. I didn’t give it much more thought than that. Only a couple of minutes had passed before more sirens could be heard in the distance, and, as chills ran up my spine, I turned in my tracks to watch as Louisiana State Trooper units went racing by with lights and sirens blaring at speeds I had not witnessed before on our narrow two lane highway. A special force tactical unit soon followed then additional Lafourche Parish Sheriff Police cruisers as well as other unmarked units and ambulances. The air took on the eerie atmosphere of a haunted swamp.
Still, I only thought that whatever was happening surely involved a Lafourche Parish Deputy or a Louisiana State Trooper, more the former than the latter; history just repeating itself. You see, true excitement rarely happens in our community and they are all known for loving a good chase. I also remember being grateful that my husband had retired from the state police two years earlier, and just to put my mind at ease I phoned him to make sure he was okay. I also wanted to give him a heads up that something ominous was happening. At this point, neither of us had any inkling how this day would unfold.
As time has passed and as one would expect, some of the details have been forgotten, much like the scrawling in the sand as the water washes up and splashes onto shore to fill the crevices; and I cannot recall exactly how I found out about the shooting at one of the schools down the highway from our house. I remember making phone calls, calling first my brother, who worked with an ambulance service, and then a close friend on the police force. Both began their own inquiries, and eventually I received word that it was the middle school. I then heard from a neighbor that shots had been fired at a teacher but the teacher’s identity was yet unknown. One source reported a gym teacher had been the target, and I remember breathing a sigh of relief because the gym was located at the opposite end of the hall from my friend Jessica’s classroom.
There are events in our lives that we are destined to remember. We are able to recall down to the last detail where we were, what we were doing, how sound around us ceased to exist, how the world stood still. This is one of those times that will be forever ingrained in the recesses of my mind. I remember exactly where I was standing on the driveway when I found out that the classroom the gunman had entered was indeed Jessica’s. Then, the realization penetrated my denial that Jessica had been the gunman’s target. We have all felt this way at one time or another. Everything around us goes still, our body folding unto itself, blackness surrounding our perimeter vision, things happening in slow motion, the deafening silence. This was one of those moments; the moment that marks someone else’s life, not our own.
Full-blown panic set in. My first thought was to call my husband. I remember thinking that he can fix anything. He can find out about her for me. I thought, “I need to get to school” but because I am not a blood relative, I knew that my chances of getting anywhere near enough to see or speak to Jessica were less than zero, and I was positive there would be utter and complete chaos. All my thoughts were jumbled together. I remember thinking I’ve lost so much in my life; I can’t lose another person so dear to me. I thought that after all Jessica had been through in her short life and survived, that it wasn’t fair for her to be taken from us; not by a gunman, not like this. I thought of her young children. All I could think was no, No, NO! God you can’t take her; she’s too special. No!
As additional information became available, I was able to find out that Jessica was unharmed, at least physically. It was a relief, but I knew that I would be filled with anxiety until I could look at her and touch her and speak to her.
I had so many things on my to do list that day, but all I accomplished was turning around in circles. My mind could not focus. The minutes turned into hours, going by one by one. I remember thinking I have to go to the market to get bread and cold cuts for my husband’s work crew but I couldn’t concentrate enough to gather my things and go. My thoughts were consumed with Jessica. Was she alright? How was she coping? Did she need me?
During the afternoon I was able to speak with her husband. Only then could I feel my breathing begin to stabilize. Minimal focusing became possible. I made the decision to go to the market so I could focus on something where I felt some semblance of control. I do not remember getting into the car and backing out of the garage, but as I rounded the drive, I saw Jessica’s car coming down her driveway, which runs parallel to mine. I vaguely remember stopping the car and getting out and going through the gate. But I do remember the look she gave me when she exited her car and turned towards me, it was the same look mirrored on my own face. Neither one of us is an outwardly huggy type person other than with our children, but we walked toward each other with our arms outstretched and then just held on to each other as though the other were an anchor keeping us grounded to the earth. I had no words to describe what I was feeling at that moment.
I sometimes think of my own mortality, but before that day, I never thought of Jessica’s. The memories of that day will always be in the back of my mind; and they tend to surface at inopportune times. It was months before I could think of that day without breaking down and crying, and still longer before I could do anything other than listen to Jessica speak about it. I am still overwhelmed with emotion at times. I eventually worked up the courage to ask, but not without fighting my tears and emotions, if my fear about that day was true. And, it may sound strange to some, but before I could put the nightmare to rest, I needed to know the truth.
The statement issued by the sheriff’s office led one to believe that the shot had been fired randomly above Jessica’s head. Having had experience with shooting a gun, I knew that a person, especially a young person, would be caught off guard when the gun was fired and the aim would not be accurate. What I believed to be the truth was the student had intended to kill her but due to his lack of experience with a gun, was unprepared for the kickback that in the end spared her life. This was indeed what happened.
My days are peaceful now, but I still worry about Jessica. She has her good days and she has her bad days. She is still caught off guard at times and is overwhelmed with memories and the bad dreams still invade her sleep. I am hopeful as new days dawn and her children fill her life with laughter, her good memories will always far outnumber the bad. As for me, I receive such joy from watching the three of them together that sometimes it’s easy to forget that day. And, as Jessica has told me on different occassions, you want to forget but if you do, then chances are, nothing will be learned from this horrible experience.
Donna also blogs at http://mylife-in-stories.blogspot.com