It Can Happen Here: Memories from Columbine Part II – Sensory Overload
By definition, perspective is a sensory connotation. In my experience, sensory overload results in the mind having to develop new ways of storing information, so that the brain can function within the confines of reality. At least that seems to be the rational goal. No two people see a situation the same way; some seem to visualize events, while others seem to experience them. Looking back at the aftermath of April 20, 1999, I can see where fighting sensory overload, and trying to reorganize and redefine events and terms, became the focus for many of us.
We had barely walked through the door when someone turned on the television. That was the moment my daughter and I first got a look at what the world had been watching for the past five hours. We had been experiencing the scene on the ground, looking up at news and police helicopters, or face to face with cameras; but this perspective seemed almost surreal. Every local TV station and every news channel on cable was broadcasting this story. To say there was a lot of confusion was an understatement, and our brains had yet to sort out the early bits of information, and put it into perspective with everything we had just experienced.
My voice mail box was full of messages expressing concern. You could hear it not only in the words of each caller, but in their voices. It seems that when we weren’t on one of our phones, they were ringing. Being a part of an event like this means you usually hear information before it makes the news. Not only that, but speculation and even the absurd add to the mental confusion. It’s bad enough that your own mind is trying to put things together, but when fact becomes mingled with opinion and the imagination of others, it’s all you can do to keep your brain from blowing a fuse.
Dana was on her phone, and I was on mine. There were many calls to make, and a lot of conversations to be held, that is, if you could get through. Telephone trunk lines were jammed, making it extremely difficult to receive or place calls. My oldest daughter Joanna was on her way home from CU Boulder. We all needed answers. We all needed to be with each other and with friends.
News reports and interviews took on a new meaning for us. One by one, national and international media journalists and vehicles began to inundate the area. Quest and Xcel quickly accommodated the masses with new phone and power cables, along with a microwave relay station. One national news organization set up their main desk in front of our second vehicle, which my daughter had parked on Tuesday morning. Every time we tuned in to their broadcast, there was that reminder that Dana had parked the car when life was normal and routine. Now it sat, trimmed with police tape, as an homage to the destruction, terror, and utter sadness that pervaded our lives.
Light of the World Catholic Church welcomed all of the students to meet there that evening so that everyone could be together, discuss the events, receive counseling, pray, and grieve. My kids went, but I remained home, not wanting them to return to an empty house. I turned out the lights, lit candles, and sat in the dark, watching television and trying to make sense of something that would never make sense. I prayed and cried, and rarely stopped either for the next two weeks.
That night, after Dana and Joanna had returned home, they were upstairs getting ready for bed. As usual, I stood in the two-story foyer and turned off the downstairs lights. That’s when a voice cried out, MOM?! Is that you? I knew immediately what was going on. I quickly turned the lights back on, and responded that it was me, and that I was making my way upstairs. The hall overlooked the foyer, so my turning out the lights had caused Dana to panic. I learned that I had to announce my every move when she couldn’t see me. Strange noises by unidentified people were no longer the norm, nor were they mundane; they took on a menacing tone, and led to panic. As she lay in bed, I asked her about what happened that day. She was unable to recall anything. The next morning, she called me into her room, crying out, Mom! I remember! I remember! I don’t think it’s all that uncommon for people who experience such trauma to put memories on the back burner. There seems to be an element of safety in not facing the reality of these situations.
Normally, we would turn out the lights and the house would be quiet as we tucked in for the night; but not that night, nor nights after it for years to come. Joanna slept in Dana’s room, only I don’t know how much sleep they got, as the TV and lights were on all night. Cartoon Network became the go-to channel. It was safe.
The next day was spent gathering news, being with friends, and worst of all, getting confirmation of the names of those killed. Earlier, I had found out additional names, so when I broke the news of one particular person, Dana collapsed on the couch. She had French class with him the previous morning.
That evening, she and her friends gathered at the house of another of their friends. When the final list of those killed was released, I called and asked Dana if she wanted me to read them the names, and they all agreed they wanted to know. When I read a particular girl’s name, I heard the sound of grief and anguish that pierced my gut and gripped my heart. I had never heard anything so sad in all my life. It came from somewhere so deep that I wondered how this person would survive. The girl who was killed lived across the street from the house where the girls had gathered. The kids were in the house of the girl who cried out in anguish.
I won’t go into details about how we knew individuals who were murdered or wounded that day, but when you share neighborhoods, churches, businesses, and schools with these people, you know more than one person. We lost a neighbor. A young man from our church was among those killed in the library, as was a girl who went to Joanna’s church, and was active in the youth group. Dana had classes with these kids. Dave Sanders had been Joanna’s keyboarding teacher. I had served as a parent volunteer in the post grad counseling office, so I had seen and worked with many students there. It touched each of us in different ways, but affected us deeper than anything we had ever experienced or imagined before.
Wednesday night, the day after the shootings, my daughter’s good friend spent the night. They were up late, and fell asleep with the TV and lights on. The next morning, my phone rang. It was the mother of Dana’s friend, who had stayed over, asking if her daughter was okay. I told her I had just looked in on them, and that they were sound asleep. Then she asked me to do something that has stuck with me all these years. She asked if I would go back and really look at her daughter, then let her know if she was okay. Tears streamed down my face as I walked into the room and observed the girls sleeping, I assumed, peacefully. I described to my friend the details of the two sleeping teenagers, and she tearfully thanked me. Of course, she was welcome to come over; but she had another high school child at home, so she stayed with him.
At breakfast on Thursday, we were hungry for the first time since Tuesday morning. None of us had really eaten in all that time, so I made a huge bacon and egg breakfast. It’s funny, but that was the first normal thing we had done in two days. It sounds like something so average, but to us, it meant that normalcy wasn’t going to elude us forever.