Sunday, April 16, 2017

Examining a Decade of Emotions

After 10 years, you think the emotions wouldn't be raw, but they have a way of sneaking up on you when you least expect it. However, there are moments when it's important to take the time to reflect. That is what I do around this event every year. I already talked about how I reflected in past with the last post. This post is about the past few weeks I've spent reflecting on this anniversary

This year, for a number of reasons, I decided to participate in the run, but not the formal ceremonies. It was a quick trip, but it allowed me to pay my respects without wearing myself out. My wife was there to support me through it all, knowing when I needed the distance and when I needed her close by. 

It was the first time I had run a 5K in a number of years, but it felt great. Estimates are that about 16,000 ran or walked the route. For me, it was about pushing myself, reflecting on where I've been and continuing to process my emotions. However, it was also about being with other Hokies, seeing the campus and remembering what it feels like to be alive.

 In addition to the run, Mary and I went to see an exhibit with some of the items sent to the University after the event from all over the world. I remember in the weeks after, they were on display in Squires Student Center, some for us to take with us. A few items I have from that time are a magnet someone dropped off at my office the week after, a paper crane and a small bear from students at a school in Miami. The Washington Post wrote an article about objects of grief related to the tragedy, which resonated with me.

 It's not the physical objects that are important, but the significance they represent. My VT tattoo is my most important symbol. I have carried it with me through finishing my degrees, starting my first job, getting married, earning tenure and promotion as well as so many other events in between. Symbols help remind us of important values we can forget.

We hear much about those who died that day, but sometimes we need more than just a short biography to get a sense of who a person was while they were alive. One of the most intriguing and inspiring figures for me and many others was Liviu Librescu, who saved many students that day. His story provides a perspective on someone who was the best of us and we can all strive to embody those values each day.

The survivors of the Virginia Tech tragedy were always the most inspiring to me, helping me deal with my own emotions. This one about a few of the survivors was written five years ago. The section that reflected an important theme of resilience was key for me, “Every single one of them,” Poole said. “And every single one of them graduated.” They limped back to Blacksburg to continue their studies and to piece their lives back together among friends. They wanted to be in a community that understood."

Another story I've been inspired by is that of Kristina Anderson. One story by NPR focused on her Koshka Foundation. A second article by The Chronicle of Higher Education is more descriptive and stitches together her experience, her journey over the last decade as well as her foundation. Her perspective and response are important to understanding the community created around an event like this one.

One group that doesn't get covered as often is the uninjured survivors. Those without visible wounds can go without assistance for longer than they need to. Two stories from NPR covered this angle well this year. One focused on students and the other on a faculty member. I'm not sure which group I fall into, but I can relate to many of the emotions all of these people described.

Thank you Mary for capturing this moment.
The April 16th Memorial is an important place for me to visit every time I get a chance to go back to Blacksburg. On some occasions, I've gone out of my way to stop and pay my respects, but most of the time, it's just part of the plan. I have a routine, I go by and spend a moment thinking and praying for each person at their stone. Then, I kneel in front the plaques pictured here and say a prayer for all of those who survived as well as Hokies everywhere. This routine is important to my process.

The story behind the memorial stones embodies the Hokie Spirit that many reference when talking about how this community responded to the tragedy. It starts with a group called Hokies United, which was established to serve in times of crisis. Many don't realize it was not started in response to this crisis, but several years earlier. 

Ten years of processing the tragedy has been helpful. I appreciate all the love and support I've received from so people in that time. However, I need to thank the Hokie Nation for allowing me to be a lifetime member. I will leave you with Nikki Giovanni's poem that started our healing so many years ago and echo our thoughts to this day. 

We are the Hokies.
We will Prevail. 
We will Prevail. 
We will Prevail.
We are Virginia Tech.

10 Years

One decade, 10 years, 3,650 days, 87,600 hours, 5,256,000 sounds like an eternity, but in a second it all comes back to me. It was 10 years ago today when I was working in my office at Virginia Tech when my life changed in a flash. Bullets, blood, sirens, tears, media and my heart racing, those are the headlines for what I think of on April 16th.

"All you need is time."

"Next year will be easier."

"We are all Hokies today."

No phrase or comment can take away what we all went through on that day. No one can take the pain away. No one can bring back those people. No one can make me feel completely safe on a college campus again. Nothing will change how my life and the lives of so many others were changed. I reflected on that day on a blog I wrote during grad school. If you're interested, feel free to read my posts for the day of, day after and week following.

There is one shining glimmer of hope I take with me. Four years after that terrible day, a little girl was born (note: not my child, a good friend's). A little girl who is smart, funny and beautiful. So when I get too lost, too wrapped up in a moment, I like to think of her. Because no matter how my life changed that day, the moments after, the people who I call my friends and family are the ones who stood by me.

"Time does heal, but scars almost never fade. It's like a dull ache you feel at certain moments when the weather's changing. I feel the pain at times when I least expect it and even when I'm most prepared."

Every year I pause to remember, each year it's a little different. Here's how I've remembered the day each of the last 10 years:

2008 - I just said simply..."I wish I was with my Hokies today."

2009 - I decided to let my musical selections describe my feelings. My playlist was diverse, but music played a crucial role in helping me cope in the darkest moments.

2010 - This year was a rough one on me. My life was in turmoil at the time and so my remembrance was simple. I did share Coleman Collins' (VT basketball player) story. One quote from his story I can relate to "How could I explain that because I didn't know anyone who was killed that day, that everyone I know was killed that day?"

2011 - Just days after defending my dissertation, my sister Dana went with me to VT and even though it was officially canceled, we ran 3.2 miles and did 32 pushups with the Corps of Cadets...all in the rain but well worth it.

2012 - Five years...I ran the Run for Remembrance for real this time. I also brought my my significant other to visit Virginia Tech. Mary joined me for this trip after we had been dating for a just a few weeks. It was a fun adventure, but also gave me faith that someone could love me even with all of my scars. 

2013 - Here's what I wrote that day..."It is poignant that today is TOMS One Day Without Shoes because it truly reflects the Virginia Tech motto "Ut Prosim" (That I May Serve). I built a strong foundation of service in my time there. So today, I go without shoes, for a cause bigger than myself."

2014 - Tragedy seems to be a common theme during this time of year. This quote from a Boston Bombing victim on the year anniversary resonates with me...
"Let April 15 be a day that we all work together to make this world a better place. The biggest lesson I have learned is that something in your life, in anyone's life, can go horrifically wrong at any second. But it is up to us to make every second count, because believe me, they do." - Adrianne Haslet-Davis

2015 - I participated in Take Back the Night with the Crisis Line & Safe House in Macon.

2016 - Participated in the 32 Million Steps for 32 Challenge. Enlisted some of the family to participate. I believe the total was over 44 million steps.

I'll talk about this year in the next post...