By Melanie Brooks
On a Sunday morning in June, when my sixteen-year-old son reported the news that a gunman had walked into a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, pointed his assault rifle at a festive crowd of people dancing to a Latin beat, and gunned down over one hundred of them, killing forty-nine, I felt it. An unseen hand reaching into my chest, grabbing my heart, and squeezing. Hard. Its fingernails punctured, leaving behind aching wounds.
The ache intensified with every new photograph or video of victims fleeing the horror of the scene, every interview with family members who learned their loved ones were among the dead, every narrative of a beautiful life taken, every media brief on the ongoing investigation that solidified the gunman’s motives of terror and hate.
There was an enticing drag to the hate that pulled at me in the days that followed, and my anger flared. Targets for my fury, the ones that crept into my social media feed or sought sound bites on the news, weren’t tough to find.
I raged at people still blind to the reality that the accessibility of guns in this country makes it easier to kill people. That accessibility to assault weapons like the AR-15 rifle makes it easier to kill a lot of people in seconds and ties directly to the forty-nine casualties in Orlando, to the seventeen deaths in San Bernardino, to the twelve dead in Aurora, and to the unfathomable heartbreak of twenty empty desks in a first grade classroom in Newtown.
I raged at vocal segments of our society that continue to deny the dignity, rights, and personhood of members of the LGBT community and wield religion as justification.
I raged at those who, because of their own unease, refused to name the victims of this particular act of violence for who they are: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and people of color.
I raged at the bigotry that seeps into conversations about all Muslims because of the actions of one.
I raged at the politicians who began exploiting this tragedy in the immediate aftermath, and used these wounds to further their quests to win the White House.
I wanted to keep raging because my anger was so much more tolerable than my grief.
But my grief landed anyway. I grieved for each one of those vibrant lives lost too soon. I grieved with each family who buried a beloved someone and have to live into the reality of their absence. I grieved with the families from other mass shootings who were now forced to relive their own losses. I grieved for the LGBT community that was specifically targeted and made to feel even more unsafe in a world that regularly threatens its security through policy and hatred and violence. I grieved for my two children who are growing up in an environment of uncertainty where scenes like Orlando are now the norm.
I felt this grief actively hunting. It was looking to me for a place to settle. It was trying to penetrate my flesh and extinguish what fragile hope remained. This grief knew I was clinging to a tenuous belief that things can get better. That even in the face of this terrible thing, in the face of so many other terrible things, there’s enough goodness left in the world to keep it from going completely to shit. This grief was cunning. Biding its time and understanding that with each new calamity, something fractures, my grip weakens, and my hope leaks from me like the air in my daughter’s basketball. I felt my insides beginning to collapse around the empty space it left behind.
This grief, dark and twisted, took me dangerously close to the edge of despair and threatened to yank me over with its snarled strands of fear and hopelessness. And sometimes I thought it might be easier to embrace the misery. Easier to let it settle over me like a weighted blanket and block my view.
Resisting was the hard part. I had to push back the heaviness and draw on every ounce of my courage to keep my eyes open to see past the stories that fueled my anger and look for the stories to spark my faith.
There were those kinds of stories in Orlando, like the one about a fast-acting young nursing student who pulled another man to safety and used what medical knowledge he had to staunch the bleeding from the man’s arms and back. Who then drove with this stranger to the hospital, lying on top of him to keep pressure on his wounds, and praying to help keep him calm.
Or the one about the veteran who served in Afghanistan, a Marine turned nightclub bouncer, who risked his own life to guide dozens of people through an alternate exit to safety.
Then there was the mother. The mother out dancing with her son, celebrating his life up until the moment she threw her body over his. A shield to take the bullets. Protecting fiercely to the end.
And what about the line of over a thousand people waiting for hours to donate blood for survivors of the shooting, and the outpouring of generosity that raised two million dollars of support in a single day?
Those faith-sparking kinds of stories could be found closer to home that week, too.
When the news came that one graduating senior’s terminally ill father would probably not live to attend the following weekend’s official graduation ceremonies, administrators, staff, and students at my son’s high school rallied together to hold a full commencement a week early, complete with all the pomp and circumstance. Just for her and her family. From his wheelchair, this father watched his youngest daughter receive her diploma six days before his death.
That same week, I met a resilient young woman, my husband’s student, who, six years ago, when she was eleven, endured and survived the catastrophe of a brutal home invasion that left her critically injured and her mother dead. Her story is one of remarkable courage coupled with the powerful love and support from her small New Hampshire community of friends and neighbors and teachers that sheltered and cared for her through middle and high school. She stood before me, confident and graceful, her eyes alight with excitement as she discussed with me her plans for her future, including leaving home for college.
I didn’t have to look further than the refrigerator in my kitchen to the smiling face of my three-year-old nephew nestled between his dads, my brother and brother-in-law, to see a story that stretches beyond the limits that many want to impose on the definition of family, a narrative that embodies the only thing that should ever matter: “love is love is love is love is love.”
These stories flickered in the dark and twisted grief and helped me breathe beneath its weight. They disrupted my anger. They summoned me back from the edge. They urged me to retighten my grip on hope; reminded me that it’s really there. All I have to do is be brave enough to keep looking.
Melanie Brooks is a writer and college professor from Nashua, New Hampshire. Her first book, Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma is forthcoming with Beacon Press on February 7, 2017. She has published a number of essays on specific topics of illness and grief, particularly in connection to the loss of her father to AIDS in 1995, the subject of her memoir-in-progress. Her work has appeared in a number of publications including, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post and Modern Loss. Most recently, She was awarded the Michael Steinberg Prize for Nonfiction in Solstice Literary Magazine’s annual contest.
A very powerful and thoughtful piece of writing Melanie. Thank you. I too often feel overwhelmed by the tragedies human beings suffer as a result of human behavior and am only saved when I remember what the power of love can accomplish. It does and it will.
Thank you, Nancy.