Friday, February 14, 2014

Six Years Later: Forward, Together Forward.

Six years ago today, I was a sophomore in college.  Nineteen, almost twenty--only a few weeks shy.  I had just started delving into the classes for my English major and was trying to figure out what my minor would be.  I was beginning my second semester of working at Founders Memorial Library, a job I found I loved, and I lived in a dorm that was located right in the middle of campus.  I had a boyfriend who went to school in the city and I loved spending weekends with him, either in Chicago or in DeKalb, the farming and college town on the edge of the suburbs.  Life was good.

In fact, six years ago today, it was a Thursday and I was working at the library all day.  I was planning on leaving right after work to go out to the city; I had a night class, and two classes the next day, but I knew I could get away with skipping them (they were classes where attendance was not counted in the grade) and running away to celebrate Valentine's Day with my love seemed like the perfect excuse, the perfect getaway.  I remember sitting in the IDS office, working but not really working because we were all too busy eating sweet treats and celebrating the holiday of love.  

Around 3:00, I had an hour and a half of work left to go--the day wasn't moving fast enough.  I was laughing with one of my coworkers, joking about something or another.  Another one of our coworkers had just left for the day... and had only been gone for a few minutes before, all of the sudden, she was back.  It was a few minutes past 3:05.  I'll never forget the look on her face, or the words that escaped her lips only seconds later:

"Don't laugh," I remember her saying as she tried to catch her breath.  "There was a shooting."

Six years later, I wish so very badly that she had been kidding.  But we watched it unfold right there from the office, watched the students running around the MLK Commons, the police cars racing through a pedestrian-only area, the confusion and terror.  Confusion and terror that only grew as the afternoon went on.  Complete shock, complete disbelief.  It had happened in Cole Hall, right on the other side of the parking lot from where I was working at the library, slacking off and texting my boyfriend.  While we were laughing and celebrating, the most horrific event I have ever experienced in my life started and ended just as quickly... but the aftershocks were only just beginning.

In the end, five students lost their life and many others were injured.

It has been six years and when I think about that day, my heart races and my palms get sweaty.  I remember the exact color of the sky as I left the library, escorted out by police officers with rifles, grateful to have somehow connected with a few girls I knew from high school (I am still forever grateful that we found one another, and I always will be).  I remember the lights and sirens of emergency response vehicles that had come from all over the area.  Trying to make calls out to my parents, my boyfriend, my friends, both nearby and far away.  Waiting in the car, waiting for news, waiting until we would be allowed back onto campus.  I remember feeling so incredibly dumbfounded and so sad and so scared and so angry.  I remember finally making it back to my dorm room, seeing NIU--the very sidewalks I traversed every day--on CNN and every other news network, and collapsing to my knees.  I remember driving to Chicago that night in a complete daze... the man and woman at the DeKalb Oasis who pleaded with the clerk at the counter for directions to Kishwaukee Hospital, and knowing exactly the reason why... listening to Wilco, sobbing on and off, calling my mom, finally making it there and breaking down in his arms.  I remember living the next week, and many of the ones that followed, in a complete haze.

The NIU community came together in the weeks and months after the shooting happened, and it was a show of unity and togetherness unlike anything I have ever seen.  This tenacity persisted throughout my remaining time at the university, and I am so, so proud to be an alum of such a strong school.  Cole Hall has been transformed since that day, and the permanent memorial on campus is an incredibly beautiful tribute to those five lost souls.

Somehow, someway, it has been six years.  Some years are easier than others.  This is one of those "others"...  today, I am sad for the students that lost their lives, for their families and loved ones.  They had so much life ahead of them, so much good left to do in the world.  They never got the chance to get their degrees, to move from college into the world of adulthood, to get jobs and get married and start families.  It's so goddamn unfair.

So today, I will think of them, and I will live my life to the fullest in their honor.  It's the least I can do.

Forward, together forward.

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