On Wednesday, November 13th, I gathered with twenty to thirty Moms Demand Action volunteers to discuss my new book I co-edited with Loren Kleinman, If I Don’t Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings, which features stories written by 83 survivors of school shootings. I was thrilled to be joined by Jami Amo, a Columbine survivor and a fierce advocate for gun sense legislation and better support for survivors of gun violence. It was an intimate setting, an independent bookstore nestled away in Northeast Philadelphia, and as Jami and I shared the stories of her survival and the others collected in our book, a warmth seemed to surround us.
I find it comforting to be among fellow gun violence prevention advocates when discussing this project which consumed almost two years of my life. Of course, I welcome the occasional mind to change, but for the most part the material in our book is sacred, and my co-editor and I are intensely protective of the survivors’ stories we’ve been trusted to carry and share with the world.
After Jami and I discussed several stories from the book, including some narratives from Parkland and Sandy Hook, we mingled a bit with the crowd, signing books and welcoming hugs. As the crowd thinned and one by one slipped away into the crisp fall night, there were promises made to see one another again soon. Of course, with work of this kind, underneath those promises lies the unspoken fear that we will see one another again too soon out of necessity, as a response to the next inevitable school shooting. The next school shooting. We all knew it was coming. I just don’t think we realized it would be the next day.
I was visiting Benjamin Franklin’s historical homestead with my mother when my phone began to ping. Texts from friends near and far appeared on my phone as the familiar phrase: another school shooting. My heart sank. How can this happen again? I thought. We just solved all of this last night.
My mother and I rushed back to the hotel room where I turned on the breaking news coverage of the Santa Clarita shooting. There it was again: young people with trauma on their faces, overhead camera angles of students walking in ropes connected by shoulders. The numbers climbing.
I closed my eyes and thought of my girls, my twin daughters. It’s hard to care for a breaking heart when your heart is 200 miles away in a sixth grade classroom. Did they know? Are they safe? I was scheduled to present at another Moms Demand Action event that night in Haddonfield, New Jersey, so going home was not an option. I began to shake. Tears pulled at my cheeks. A panic rose in my chest. I texted my husband, Please love on our girls tonight. I’m heartbroken for those parents.
Each time I hug my girls or kiss their foreheads as they drift to sleep, I am always aware of those who cannot.
Since beginning this book in January of 2018, I have gotten to know many of those parents, those whose lives changed in an instant because of a gun. I know about the unreturned texts, the unfinished homework, the parking lots in which they waited, the morgues in which they detonated. I carry those stories with me every day. Each time I hug my girls or kiss their foreheads as they drift to sleep, I am always aware of those who cannot.
That day, as I prepared for that second book event of the weekend with a group of Moms Demand Action volunteers, I thought about these new parents, the families in Santa Clarita, who are now joining what survivors often refer to as the club no one wants to join. I grew angry. When will this end? I couldn’t let this sadness go. I thought about climbing in the shower and crying a loud, ugly cry, ridding myself of this grief, but there was no time. I honestly thought about cancelling, then I remembered the survivors who wrote for us, the parents, the siblings, those injured and recovered. They were counting on me. The show must go on.
The event in Haddonfield was held in a large, imposing church and I was surprised to see the 80 or so seats fill up pretty quickly. I knew a survivor was scheduled to join me. Jody McQuade had agreed to come to sign book and talk with people; her son, Sean, was shot at Virginia Tech and survived. He just earned his PhD, she proudly tells everyone. The minute I saw her, my heart sank. She knew exactly what those parents were going through. Are you okay? I asked her. I’ll be okay.
The start of my presentation was bumpy. I couldn’t remember what was on my slides, I felt a tickle growing in my throat, and a deafening silence filled the room. Then, their pictures lit the screen behind me. Emilie Parker, Daniel Barden, Nick Dworet, Nicole Hadley, Dave Sanders. Lives cut short. Lives I have been entrusted to honor in some way. They guided me the rest of the way.
To close out my presentation, I decided to read a piece I wrote about what it was like to work on this book, specifically with the community of Sandy Hook, whose shooting I consider the impetus for my involvement in gun violence prevention. Halfway through my reading, the tears I had been holding back for the majority of the day fell. Off to the side, someone scrambled for a tissue, and I heard the all-too familiar sobs from my mother sitting near the front row. Then, another sniffle, this one unrecognizable. Then, another. Soon, we were all crying. Grieving, in real time, for our brothers and sisters across the country whose lives changed forever in an instant.
Afterwards, the room erupted in hugs. The tears were replaced by a new sense of determination to end gun violence in this country. An older woman came up to me and handed me an embroidered handkerchief she made. I carry these with me in case anyone needs them, she told me. I’d like you to have one. I sat at a table next to Jody. Side by side, she and I signed dozens of books and talked with dozens of people. A group of nursing students attended with their professor. They are on the front lines of this trauma, she told me. They all bought a book.
At the end of every event I do, I leave people with this message: Buy this book, read these stories, and carry them with you into battle. They might be hard to hold at times, but their heft is equal to their power. That night, in Haddonfield, on the night of our latest school shooting, I saw a room of people ready to do that heavy lifting.
Afterwards, as our car glided back over the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, I realized that despite the difficulty and my anxiety, I was in exactly the right place that night.
Back at the hotel, I called my girls. “I love you” just didn’t seem like enough. I’m doing all of this for you. 200 miles felt like a universe between us.