She told me there had been a shooting in Orlando, less than five miles from my front door. At first, I thought she was referring to the incident from the night before, when when a gunman shot singer Christina Grimmie at the Plaza Live. On Sunday morning, I woke up to my phone ringing. It was 7 a.m., and my mom was calling. It sounded like she had been crying. She frantically asked if I was OK and safe.
“No,” she clarified. “There’s at least 20 dead in a nightclub shooting.” I was stunned. I couldn’t believe it at first; there’s no way Orlando had suffered from a shooting attack twice in the same weekend. That just didn’t happen here. Half awake, I opened my laptop to see what had happened.
I’d been stressing the night before about a big interview I had coming up, beating myself up about the way I looked and my weight, just for good measure. Exhausted and obsessed with my own problems, I fell asleep around midnight after deciding to stay in and not take my friend up on her offer to go out dancing.
Pulse, a club I’d been to a few times, was more than a gay club; it was a place to celebrate who you were. It always had a positive, energetic vibe. It was the last place I thought there would be a massacre.
Within minutes of reading the headlines, the Facebook messages from friends and family started popping up: Are you OK? I heard there was a shooting.Please tell me if you’re safe.Did you go out last night? Where are you?
I quickly replied and marked myself as “safe” on Facebook. It’s an unreal feeling to see everyone you know start marking themselves as “safe.” I quickly scanned the safe list and thought of who might be missing. In Orlando, I’m an English professor at a local college — how many of my students, who are not my Facebook friends, could have been at Pulse? How many of their friends, brothers, and neighbors had been there? Pulse, a club I’d been to a few times, was more than a gay club; it was a place to celebrate who you were. It always had a positive, energetic vibe. It was the last place I thought there would be a massacre.
I have the ability to tell my friends and family that I love them. I get to work in a career that’s my passion and have meaningful relationships with others. And now, for no reason other than that these people said “yes” to going out dancing with their friends when I didn’t, they don’t.
As the safe check-ins poured in, I realized how often I take for granted that my friends are always around, the sense that they’re always a text message away. Their mortality became shockingly real as we all raced to nudge one another to check in as safe, only letting out our breath when they finally did so.
I hardly remember how long I stayed in bed, crying. I was crying for the tragedy, but I was also ashamed of my own lack of perspective the night before. I remembered all of the stress and anxiety I had gone to bed with. What was all that for? About some job interview next week and body image issues? Fifty people in my city just lost their lives, and I was stressing about my career? How selfish, I thought. I am a human, breathing and healthy, and I have the ability to tell my friends and family that I love them. I get to work in a career that’s my passion and have meaningful relationships with others. And now, for no reason other than that these people said “yes” to going out dancing with their friends when I didn’t, they don’t.
Like many of us in Orlando, I immediately went out to donate blood. En route, I kept up with friends who were at donation centers and buses around the city. Many centers were at capacity, and friends waited in long lines in scorching heat for blood buses that never showed up, but no one was angry. We understood. I was wowed and humbled by the incredible people who lived around me. They too must have felt the privilege of being fully alive on a morning like this, feeling so helpless from the attack that they too were eager to gain control and save as many lives as they could. It was a wave that moved through and united the entire city.
While today I am still stricken with grief for the families who lost loved ones and horrified by all the bloodshed so close to my home, I’m also proud to be in Orlando right now. I am blessed to experience the way a community can come together and unite. This weekend, in the midst of incredible tragedy, I saw the best in people, and I felt the incredible honor that is simply being alive.
Let’s be kind to one another, remember that we are stronger together, and that hate will never win over the incredible power of love. And, as I was reminded this weekend, that includes the incredible power of loving ourselves.
Images: Rachel Kolman