Continuing To Live In The Face Of Terror

by Rachel Hillestad
Originally Published: 
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I just dropped all four of my children off at a summer camp. As I left the auditorium, a thought stopped me in my tracks: What if someone comes in with a semi-automatic weapon and kills them all?

I had the added fun of imagining it all unfolding, my 4-year-old crying for me as she drew her last breaths. I imagined the years and years of regret over having sent my oldest that day, who that morning had said she didn’t really want to go. My future self would think:

Was it premonition?

Did she know something I didn’t?

Why didn’t I listen?

I sat in the parking lot and cried underneath the happy primary colors of the camp’s flags.

All of this is too much. I’m jealous of my children for not having any clue that anything other than our vacation two years ago happened in Orlando. I’m jealous of them for living in their world, a world where things are easily sorted out like the colors in a checkers game — bad guys go to jail, the good guys are always saved, nobody runs into a school and shoots little kids. I know their cozy and tenuous existence in this alternate reality of childhood will one day give way to the reality in which I live as their mother: Bad things happen. Horrible things happen. And as much as we think we’re in control, it’s an illusion.

Still, though, I don’t want to live in a world where every step I take is measured against risk.

Would this be a good place for a violent murderer to go crazy?

Let’s sit near the back of the restaurant; there’s an exit there, and the people in the front would probably get hit first.

Maybe we should just order in tonight. I know we all love going out, but I have an uneasy feeling and what if it’s right?

I have seen one movie since the Colorado movie theater shooting, and the entire time I spent on high-alert, just waiting for someone to come walking in with a gun. Honestly, I’m ashamed to tell you I don’t even remember what the movie was about. I don’t remember what we ate, and I adore food. I don’t remember what my kids thought of the movie. I was too ensconced in worry, consumed with angst, full of terror.

Terror. That’s exactly what the perpetrators of these events want to see in my eyes. It’s what they want to see in your eyes. I wasn’t there in Orlando in that nightclub at 2:30 in the morning, but by golly, with this 24 hour news cycle and constant coverage, that person who committed the act knows I will hear of the atrocity again and again and again. I will log onto my Facebook page and unwittingly bear witness to the video of a woman’s last moments in that nightclub. My terrified heart will shatter into a million pieces for that woman’s mother.

I will scour the internet for stories of how people died, why the shooter did what he did, where it all went wrong. I will grasp for the straws of reason, knowing in the back of my head that the grasping is futile.

We’ve all seen that famous Mr. Rogers quote about looking for the helpers. Want to know the truth? That statement scares the hell out of me. What “looking for the helpers” requires of me and of you is for us to stop looking for the perpetrators. Mr. Rogers knows we cannot look in two directions at once. Here’s the problem though: I’m not ready to look for the helpers just yet, Fred. You and your helpers quotes and red sweaters, over and over and over again the same thing. “Look for the helpers.” I can’t. I’m still scared. I’m still angry.

I’m still just so freaking sad.

I don’t have control over what happened in Orlando or in Rwanda or in North Korea, but I’m still faced with a question: Will I let the despair win, or will I look for the helpers? Will I stick solidly in my plan to continue to be horrified and afraid, or will I go boldly forward, doing those now risk-inherent things like going to Target and watching movies and going to concerts? Will I live? Will I point out to my children the dog in the truck of the next car over and tell everyone to wave at the driver as I would have done as a child, or will I wonder what that dog’s owner is capable of underneath their innocent facade? Will I set up the tent in the backyard so my children can sleep under the stars, or will I forego that adventure because we could be attacked by a stranger in the night?

No. I refuse to miss seeing the stars because I am too focused on the blackness around them.

The next day, maybe we’ll go to a movie despite all of my trepidation. Maybe I’ll march all of us right up to the movie theater ticket counter, encouraging my shy 11-year-old to complete the transaction. While I praise her for overcoming her own fear, we will walk into that theater despite the hundreds of thoughts racing through my head on why we should have just stayed home.

I’ll teach my kids the timeless art of finding the perfect movie theater seat, a time-honored tradition. We’ll count the rows up and down and then count the chairs right and left in order to choose the exact middle. The perfect target for a shooter? Possibly. More importantly, the perfect place for a fabulous movie-watching experience. We will settle in those chairs regardless of my feelings on the matter. We will focus on the joy in the day, and I will sigh a shaky-happy sigh as I pass the popcorn, glad we arrived early so we could sit right in the middle of it all.

After all, everybody knows that’s where the good seats are.

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