March 20, 2019 by The Citron Review
by Amye Archer
As part of a book I’ve been working on for the past year, I spend the first weekend of fall editing an essay from a mother whose college-aged daughter was murdered in a school shooting ten years ago. She identified her daughter’s body from a dental plate left in her mouth. I’ve learned to not say certain words: lost, survivor, lucky. I do not want to be a survivor, the mother writes, I didn’t want to survive my daughter.
Later, my husband and I take our 12-year-old twin daughters for a hike. The wind pins their chestnut hair against the grey sky. One wants to be an artist, the other a chef. Dead leaves crumble under their feet. I study their smiles for imperfections.
I am home with my daughters for the Columbus Day holiday. I lock myself in my 48 sq. ft. office and interview, by phone, a father whose son was murdered at Parkland. We talk for almost two hours. He is angry. His words are hot, forgiveness a million miles away. He walks through his son’s empty room as we speak. I hear the air change through the phone. I think he might cry. His voice cracks open like a canyon.
Fuck God, he says.
I nod, hold back tears. Yes. Fuck God.
We’ve interviewed over 80 survivors of school shootings for our book. Some write back. Some never answer. Some take weeks or months to decide.
An email I’ve been waiting for since May appears. Yes, I’m ready to talk about it. I’m at work when I get this, close my office door, brace myself against the straight black mesh of my swiveling chair, and dial the number. A mother from Newtown, Connecticut, gives my worst nightmare a voice, “my daughter was in that room,” she says, “the room . . . but she survived.”
We all know the room. I’ve been stuck in that room in some form since December, 2012. I think many mothers have.
She talks about her daughter being alive, lost, but saved again by the love of a good teacher. She cries. I cry. I shouldn’t be crying she says, my daughter lived. There are long pauses. Warm tears. An agreement to write her story. I hang up, hold my sobs in like they’re rigged to explode at any moment.
I walk into my coworker’s office, shut the door, and light the fuse.
A mother whose 14-year-old daughter was murdered at Santa Fe cannot write. She’s not ready. I wonder if I will ever be lost to the point where writing cannot bring me back. I imagine this is what it feels like. She has agreed to let me build a story from her public Twitter account. I spend days poring over five months of her social grief. A brown-haired girl, only two years older than my daughters, smiles back at me through Harry Potter costumes and a Girl Scout uniform.
I cannot find the arc. It’s all hurt. There is a clear beginning, but no end. I will have to keep looking.
My best friend has twin sons the same age as this woman’s dead daughter. The boys are in high school, the same grade even. As we speak later that day, I want to pour this pain from my belly into her arms, to let her take it from me, for just a few minutes. But she is happy today. The sun is shining. We talk about Married at First Sight.
My therapist, Jane, is also a mother. I dish my pain out to her by the teaspoon, careful not to bury her. I tell her about the angry father, I pause. I tell her about the dead daughter, I pause. I tell her about the first grader who sat still while her classmates were murdered around her.
I do not tell her about the FBI report, the gunshots over the intercom, the missed Christmas, the Harry Potter summer camp, the swim team scholarship, the parking lot where they waited, the classrooms in which they died. I keep all of that locked inside a jar marked pain.
I’m so sorry, I say over and over again through tears.
What are you sorry for? Jane asks, puzzled by my apologies.
My daughters are alive, I tell her. I shouldn’t feel this way. It’s selfish.
This is vicarious trauma, she tells me. You can’t hold all of that pain and not feel something.
Suddenly, everything fits together. I cry like a dam has broken inside of me, heaving with sobs for the next ten minutes.
At the end of my session, I hide in the bathroom, splash cold water on my swollen face, and walk back to work. Three students are waiting in my office.
My co-editor has arranged a phone conference with a first responder to the West Nickel Mines shooting. This man has served our country, has lived in war zones, yet the sight of eight little girls shot in their school dresses breaks him. I will never be the same, he says. He cannot tell his story, he’s not ready.
That night, I curl up with my daughters on the couch. A wool blanket covers the three of us, but just barely. We drink hot cocoa and watch The Notebook. My daughters cry at the end.
I do not.
My daughters beg me to let them go to the movies with a friend, by themselves. I drop them off at the theater with twenty dollars, their cell phones, and no idea what to do if a gunman enters the theater.
As I watch their chestnut ponytails bob away from me, through the glass doors, swallowed up by the fluorescent lights, I realize I have found the end of the Twitter story; the arc I’ve been looking for.
It’s a picture of the cross from the young girl’s grave with the words her mother has written: Remember this when you vote.
Amye Archer is the co-editor of the forthcoming If I Don’t Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings (Skyhorse, September 2019). Her memoir Fat Girl, Skinny was published in 2016. Follow her on Twitter @amyearcher