It Can Happen Anywhere

I usually don't jump on current events.  I think the news media over plays every major story to death, to the point where Americans are either paranoid or apathetic.  However today I want to talk about the horrible movie theater shooting that happened in Aurora, Colorado. 

Just like everyone else, I am stuck between a mixture of "What-the-hell" disbelief and anger that it happened again.  Because it has happened before.  Maybe not this exact thing - in a movie theater - but terrible things like this.

More than the disbelief, I am feeling anger.  Anger that we can't even go about our own lives, take our children to a movie, without the fear of some psycho happening upon us.

And for me, it brings back some scary memories.

On December 5, 2007, I was setting out for the afternoon to finish my Christmas shopping.  Lil' C was eight weeks old, and I had a new babysitter, so he was coming with me.  I had been gone all morning for some reason, and Joey, who was just shy of his fourth birthday, insisted on coming with me.  I reluctantly relented, telling him in no uncertain terms that we weren't going to dilly-dally.  I was going to "get stuff done."

We went to Westroads Mall here in Omaha, and as I had a quick purchase to make at the Clinique counter, we entered through Von Maur, an upscale department store.

Joey asked if we could go to the third floor, where the children's department was located, because he knew a Thomas the Train play set resided there.  I thought about it for a split second, but said no, reminding him that I was going to get all my errands done.

We had just walked out to the mall, when we heard three distinct bangs.  They registered in my mind, but when Joey asked what it was, I dismissed it as construction in the mall.  We stepped into a shoe store directly outside Von Maur and began looking at shoes.

Suddenly, two women ran in, saying in panicked voices that someone was shooting a gun.

I have to admit, I rolled my eyes, and thought, this is Nebraska.  That doesn't happen here.

Just then, I heard about six or seven louder and more distinct bangs, and more people began running into the shoe store.  The young girl working the counter quickly closed the gate to the entrance of the store and ordered people into the stock room.

I can't believe it is happening here, I thought.  I pushed Joey toward the stream of people heading to the back room, "You go, Joey, you just go!  You follow those people!"  And I struggled to get the stroller turned around, almost tipping it over.

A group of terrified moms and children were crammed into a corner behind some boxes, and I tried to squeeze Joey and Lil' C back there, but there was no room.  I instructed Joey to stand behind a sock rack and stay put, feeling almost certain one of the gunmen (I feared there were multiple shooters) would burst through the door.

I loudly prayed several Hail Mary's and made phone calls to Hubby, my dad, and the babysitter, none of whom knew anything about what was going on and were confused by my calls.

We hid in the back room for what seemed like an eternity, not having any clue what was going on - I didn't even know at that point where the shooting had originated.

What we didn't know was that the shooter, a teenage boy, already lay dead by his own hand.

A member of the SWAT team finally retrieved us from the back room and told us they were relocating us to the JC Penney at the end of the mall.  I stayed glued to my spot, terrified to move.  Even though he said it was okay, how did they know there weren't more shooters waiting to pick us off as we walked like ducks down the mall corridor?

A woman who had been separated from her family offered to carry Joey for me, but I refused.  I cradled him tightly and wrapped my coat around him, as if it would render him invisible from attack.  The officer walked with the four of us, holding his rifle and scanning the hall.  Tears streamed down my face the whole walk.  I was shaking and I could barely breathe.

Thankfully, Lil' C slept the entire three hours of our ordeal.

Once inside Penney's, we were all lined up to be interview by a member of the Omaha Police Department.  Joey had to go potty, and the only person we could ask was a huge hulking SWAT team member with ammo strapped to his chest in an X like something out of a Rambo movie.  It was just too real, too scary, until he opened his mouth, and the sweetest teddy bear voice came out of it.

"I'll show you where the bathroom is, Buddy," and it put me at ease.  My reflection in the bathroom mirror revealed just what I had been through.  My face was pale with mascara streaks, and I was sweaty because I had left my winter coat on the whole time.

When it was my turn to be interviewed, the officer asked for my name, age, address and phone number and my location in the mall at the time of the shooting.  The he asked me if I had heard or seen anything other than people running and yelling.  I said no, and they let me go.

I later learned that anyone who said they heard gunshots was asked to stay and answer more questions.  I hadn't said I'd heard gunshots because I thought that was pretty obvious.

As I walked back to our car pushing the stroller and leading Joey by the hand, a reporter tried to take my picture.  "Please don't, " I said, and thankfully, he backed off.

That night at home, all I wanted to do was watch mindless t.v. (remember that short-lived show Dirty, Sexy Money?), but our local news stations kept playing the story over and over.

As details of that afternoon emerged, the timeline, the fact that the shooting occurred on the third floor, I thought how close we had come to being in the middle of it.  The time that Hawkins had entered Von Maur the first time was just two minutes ahead of when we had arrived.  What if he never left the building and had started shooting sooner?  What if I had said yes to Joey and gone to the third floor?  What if we were in the elevator with him at the same time?

And a chilling image haunts me to this day.  An image of a young man wearing military-style clothing who walked past us as we entered the store.  I believe it was Hawkins going back outside before re-entering the second time.  I think we walked right by him.

Almost five years later, I still get panic attacks every now and then.  I remember once having to leave the gym because my hair was standing on end, and I began to panic as I saw only one way out of the room that I was in.  When I walk by a kid at the mall wearing a long coat with his hands in his pockets, I get chills.  And even now, recalling this as I'm writing at the coffee house, I'm looking up every time someone walks in the door.

I've only been back to Von Maur maybe three times since that fateful day.  And each time I've stopped in front of the plaque that bears the names of the eight victims of that day.

Here in Omaha, when something bad happens - a shooting, carjacking, violent robbery - most people are not surprised when these events occur in "certain" neighborhoods.  But when they occur in other neighborhoods, people are shocked.

The truth is it can happen anywhere.  And it does.  Horrible, unspeakable violence can and does happen everywhere - in all neighborhoods, in every country, in any situation.

Inevitably, terrorism occurs in this world, cars crash, people get shot, cancer is incurable, and freak accidents happen.  But we can't be afraid to live our lives, and we certainly can't teach our children to live in fear.  That would be letting the psychos win. People flew on planes as soon as they could after 9/11 and shoppers finished their Christmas lists at Von Maur as soon as the store re-opened.

After the shooting, people decorated the doors of Von Maur with
handmade snowflakes bearing messages of love, support,
and hope.

I wish we lived in a world where everyone was happy and stable and understanding and loving.  But that's not ever to be.  All we can do is our best to spread love and happiness and hope, not only to our loved ones, but to strangers and those who need it the most.

My heart goes out to anyone who has ever been directly involved in a horrific tragedy, as my story pales in comparison to those.  And to those who have lost someone to violence or freak circumstance, my mama heart just breaks.  One of the things I feel thankful for about Joey's death is that at least I knew it was coming, and I knew how it would come.

I know I can't keep the ones I love from leaving me someday, but I pray with all I have, that this senseless violence will stop.

Have you ever experienced anything like this?  Do you ever fear freak accidents or violence?

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