Each year, I post a reflection on April 16th at Virginia Tech. Each year, I have new revelation and steps towards healing. This year was no different.
Last year’s tenth anniversary was hard, weird, and as always, sacred. Ten years since I graduated from Virginia Tech, ten years-ish since I ended a significant relationship that radically changed the trajectory of my life, ten years that my friends and I have been spread all over the world – but always closely connected in the comfort that someone else “knows” my experience.
My life took an interesting turn last year. I left a really good job that unfortunately made me miserable personally. I gained fifty pounds. I ended up living with my parents while they sold their home of 28 years. I decided to FINALLY get my Pilates certification. I did Whole30 with a friend and realized that this entire year has been an emotional/spiritual Whole30. All the things I held as part of my identity – job, lifestyle, physique, and independence – are gone. It is really humbling to watch each layer be peeled off. It is also incredibly liberating to uncover the brave little person deep down underneath all the labels it got assigned. I feel like a flower someone planted and forgot to mark. I just have to wait to see what comes up and not decide in advance what it will be or let anyone else decide what it is without really “knowing”. In the mean time, I need to water, nurture, and protect that seed for it to burst forth in the magnificence that is springtime.
So, this year on April 16th, it was a Monday morning – just like in 2007. It was the same indecisive weather; sort of sunny, sort of cloudy, sort of rainy. Since I was already in Blacksburg, it wasn’t the big to-do like it usually is to find a Hokie in whatever city I’d been living to hang out or drive home. I was surrounded by people who “knew” and a lot of people who didn’t “know”, but knew that it was important to “know” as much as they could.
The library curated an exhibit, so I walked over. By each victim’s portrait, librarians curated books related to their fields of interest. It brought each person’s personality and passion to the present – you could imagine them reading these books, or doing the things in them. More photos from the day were displayed; it was like walking through that week all over again. It is funny the things that I need help remembering; it isn’t that I forgot, it is just that there so many things about that time, it all gets jumbled up. A quote from a favorite dance-theater work on Edgar Allan Poe, Red-eye to Havre de grace came to mind, “I (or we) must be remembering it differently.” There is dimension to our memories, and sometimes they take on a life of their own.
There were a few response boards, with prompts like: How would you present the story of April 16, 2007 for Virginia Tech’s 150th anniversary in 2022? How did this exhibit make you feel? I saw the words of others who “knew” even though we didn’t know each other. That is the weird, comforting part of this – thousands of people “know” and share my story, people I may never meet.
Spring semester in 2007 was purely piecemeal. Some were already done with finals, some had odds and ends to finish, some just couldn’t finish, and some found catharsis returning to a class room. One of my teachers asked those of us returning to class – she called me personally to ask how I was doing – to share creative reflections. One classmate wrote a poem about the killer. They were in the same major, and she spent the better part of a semester sitting next to him in class. In her reflection, she shared about the visceral nature of the tragedy. To the killer, the victims weren’t really people. They simply represented what he felt he deserved and hadn’t acquired. But to us, the victims were “flesh and blood.” And, as much as we resented this individual’s behavior, he was “flesh and blood” to us, too. We had class with him, we were his roommates and neighbors, we ate in the dining hall with him. With the media inundation, the semester became a tantalizing crime thriller. But for us, it was real. Flesh and blood.
As I navigated the exhibit, hot, fat tears welled up. Some people standing nearby quieted and slowed their movement, perhaps in realization that while this exhibit is merely a history lesson to them, it is real life for me. For a long time, one of the labels over my identity was not being able to show weakness or to admit pain, or to have feelings in general. Ever since April 16th, I could no longer control my tears like previously. Yet, on this day, I took comfort in what those tears meant. In that mess of April 2007, when faced with the darkest fear and deepest hurt of my life, I also came face to face with the deepest, most generous love of strangers and friends standing beside me. Those tears come from a place of “knowing” a love like none other; perhaps, it came from “knowing” a pain like no other, but either way I “know” the feeling of being supported and loved by people in the sweetest and gentlest ways, rarely experienced since then.
As I walked by the chapel on the drill field, I spotted confetti on the stairs. I love confetti. I love seeing it on the street. It’s a defiant, unapologetic act of joy and celebration. It marks the spot as a place something special and worth remembering happened, which is absolutely true.