For as long as I can remember, writing has brought me healing. As a child, I’d write letters to my dad who passed away when I was toddler. I’d make magazines for myself, because I couldn’t afford the ones on the shelf. I had a teacher in eighth grade who encouraged me to write, and I ignored her. Writing for a career, I scoffed, was a career for people who had trust funds to fall back on. Blogging was a low investment way for me to write stories, with little to lose. (And a lot to gain, I’d eventually learn) Writing stories on this platform has carried me through the difficult toddler years, isolating Indiana winters, cross country moves, debilitating anxiety, and here I return to pour my heart out as I share more about the most horrifying experience of my life. First, let me say, I’m not a detective or a journalist. I’m a traumatized mother sharing my experience and what I learned.
Our family had been looking so forward to attending the boys first tackle football jamboree yesterday. The boys had butterflies in their tummy, but they were so thrilled to get out on a beautiful Sunday afternoon with friends and well.. tackle each other. The day was wonderful, albeit hot, and the kids had just finished their first game. One of the coaches told the kids to go sit together in the shade and some kids went to the other side of the small building that was providing the shade to work on a new defensive play. One of those children was my eight year old son and the coach, my husband. I was sitting there giving our foster baby girl a bottle, feeding Sawyer a snack, and joking around with some of his little teammates. I heard what I first thought was a firecracker. I saw dirt flying in my peripheral and I jumped up. The people facing the opposite direction of me could see what was happening in the field behind the building and started screaming for everyone to “get down” “stay low” or “run.” The panicked expressions on the faces of the people running in our direction is so deeply engrained in my brain. I will never forget it. I mean, never. I remember mentally evaluating, “okay, there’s no road over there. It can’t be a drive by.” As I watched the people coming back from where my husband and son were. Seconds that felt like an eternity passed and I didn’t see them. I can hear myself screaming to the top of my lungs, “where is my family?!?” Since we were sitting largely with our team and some children who had been on the field, I knew they’d know who “my family” was and I heard people start calling out for Coach Paul and Liam. When more seconds passed and more gun shots passed, I became truly maniac. The adrenaline I was feeling, terror, anxiety. I can’t even explain it. I felt maniac with fear. I handed the baby to a teammate’s mom and knew Sawyer was on the ground surrounded by safe adults. I stayed up searching for my husband and son. I was truly prepared to run into the field if I didn’t see them. All logic was aside. I did a small turn scanning the perimeter for the only Asian man I’d seen all day, my husband and the numbers 3 and 3. My son’s jersey number 33. I was screaming 33. Liam. 33. Liam. Just over and over. I hear it my mind the way you hear a movie when you watch it. As I nearly completed my circle, I saw Paul’s face. I remember making eye contact and having a brief moment of relief and then registering Liam was not in his arms and I needed to see him safe. Paul assured he was on the ground, and we started to look for his uniform numbers. He was there. He was alive. I’ve heard the expression “knees buckled” but until that moment, I had never experienced the sensation. My legs just gave way, and I collapsed to the ground. Gun shots still sounded behind us, I had lost count by then. Due to the volume of people there, the openness of the park, my mind fell dark. This is what a mass shooting feels like. I expected at any minute for someone to come around the building and shoot us all. I used my body as best I could to shelter my children, but I trembled. I shook. I cried. My chest was tight beneath my shirt. Two more gun shots. Then seconds pass again. Nothing. No more. Quiet, while everyone examines their surroundings and weighs if we are safe. I was looking around the field. I saw open woods, could another shooter be there? Could we get to our cars? The mother who had been resourcefully putting as many small children under the one solitary bench is on the phone with 911. Two grown ups, tensions high, begin to argue. Children are screaming, terrified of football, terrified to speak, move, breath. Parents shake, tears fall. Everything around me feels like slow motion, because even though we feel it’s over. I don’t feel safe. I don’t feel like I can’t let my guard down even in the slightest. Fool me once, maybe, fool me twice though? Hell no. Eventually, people started to clear out. I was surprised at the number of people who seemed kind of chill. I was anything but. I was terrified to walk to the car. My legs were so wobbly. I didn’t even know if I’d make it. Yet, the promise of familiarity, air conditioner, and some protection from a bullet fueled us across the empty football field. In hindsight, the experience was brief. Yet, it feels so long as it replays in my memory. My senses were completely enhanced.
There are a few things I learned from the experience.
Look for the exit, but also consider a few places you’d hide in an emergency.
Park near an exit.
Snap a photo of what your kids are wearing, because sometimes you can’t remember in your panic.
Stay together when possible. I’m still frustrated with myself for letting my guard down.
When signing up for activities or teams or camps ask about their active shooter plan.
It might seem scary, but discuss this with your kids. Just like you’d talk about a fire drill, share what to do if they are involved in an active shooter situation. For me, I used to get so discouraged by the school drills. It broke my heart. But the kids remembered things they’d learn during those. It was surreal, but yet I was also thankful!
If it is safe to do so and you have your phone in hand, try to snap photos or make a video. Look. This probably sounds weird, I get that. However, I realized afterward the cops and media were calling out for helpful content. Once we were safely in our vehicles, I started filming on Instagram stories so people would know what was happening. At the last youth sporting event shooting, someone went live on social media as soon as the shots rang out. You could see exactly what was happening so there wasn’t as much guessing things out of context.
If you’re going to be on multiple fields or apart at the same park. Consider walkie talkies.
I’m sure as my emotional dusts settles I’ll have more suggestions to share. Hindsight is 20/20. Writing about it has been so good for me. Listening to my kids talk about it from their perspective was heartbreaking, as a parent, you hope you can always protect them and keep them safe. I’m grateful for the humanity and compassion I saw in those moments of such horror. People protecting each other’s children as if they were their own. I don’t feel thankful for the experience, I could have lived my entire life comfortably not experiencing that sort of raw vulnerability and helplessness. Yet, as I sit on my porch, I know I’m changed by it. I know I’ll think twice about start a dumb argument or pause and decide if I really need to say no to my kids again. I’ve experienced the very unfortunate blessing of getting a reminder of how quickly life can change or end. How precious time is, how fleeting moments are. In those moments, I wasn’t worried about being a perfect mom, I just wanted to be able to be present. To be together. To raise my kids in my own, no doubt imperfect way. Little things may never matter the same to me anymore. I want to live my life more fully.
On Monday morning, we had sunrise photos scheduled. The photographer offered to reschedule them, but I told her I was done putting things off. We did the shoot and went to breakfast. As we sat there waiting for a check that never came, the waitress finally revealed a man had covered our bill. This man had no idea what our family (and 100s other of people!) Had endured less than 24 hours before. His kindness felt like a tap on the shoulder from the Lord, encouraging me to keep my faith in good people. Most importantly, it meant the world to my two sons who got a first hand look at the mean people in this world. It took all the strength I had not to come undone in that cafe. I wanted to highlight this strangers kindness so that we ended on a note about good. And to remind us all that we never know what someone at the table beside us, or car behind us, or house across from us may be walking through.
Step out in kindness today.