This past Monday marked the seven-year anniversary of what was probably the saddest day of my life. On that day in 2011, my hometown was struck by a horrible tragedy, a mass shooting that claimed the lives of 6 innocent people and injured 14 others. I watched the story unfold in horror, helplessly 3,000 miles away in NYC. Horror, in part, because this was happening to my hometown, but also because it struck much closer than that.
These were my former colleagues. This was an event I used to staff. My former boss, a public official who I idolized, was shot in the head. She lived, but never fully recovered. Two other former coworkers were also shot and, thankfully, lived. A third former coworker, a mentor and maybe the nicest person I’ve ever met, was shot and killed.
I learned the news in bits and pieces. First, it was reported that my former boss had been killed. Later, a correction revealed she was still alive. I knew there were fatalities, but no names were released for hours. I remember walking home from the subway after work, dumbfounded, vigorously searching the news on my Blackberry for more details. I stumbled across Gabe’s number in my phone, and briefly thought about calling him to see if he was okay. No, I concluded, he didn’t need to hear from a distant friend/former coworker right now. I was sure he was busy, overwhelmed, grieving, with his family.
Back at my apartment for the evening, it came out over the TV that a staffer was among those killed. Nauseated, I repeated to myself: “Please don’t be Gabe. Please don’t be Gabe.” A few minutes later, they released the name. It was Gabe.
I don’t know if I’ve ever cried harder in my life. My husband–boyfriend at the time–hugged me tightly as I sobbed into his chest. It hurt so bad. When I came up for air, I started turning my apartment over, searching violently for a special pen Gabe had given me as a going away present when I left the job for law school. I never found it. I was devastated.
What I did find was a home made going away card where Gabe and the other office members had written nice messages for me. I clung to it for dear life.
I tried going to work that Monday, but left halfway through the day after crying at my desk. I felt like such a drama queen. Was I allowed to be this sad? I knew this guy for a year and a half. He wasn’t family. I’m not even sure if he considered me his friend. We just worked together, respected each other, and liked each other enough.
I flew home for his funeral. It was healing to visit the memorials, to see old coworkers, to hug everyone in sight. To hear the eulogies and to learn things about Gabe that I never knew, things that made me like him even more.
Gabe’s brother got up and spoke at the funeral, and I felt like he was speaking directly to my wounded soul. He said that maybe some of us were wondering, did we mean as much to Gabe as he meant to us? And then his brother assured us that yes, we did mean as much to him. “How do I know?” he asked meaningfully. “Because he told me.” I needed to hear that more than anything.
I felt so much peace when I headed back to New York. And I was still sad. But the days, months, and years tumbled on. I would be lying if I said that I thought about Gabe and the other victims of the shooting every day. I don’t. Not even close.
And Monday was the seven year anniversary, and though I remembered, I felt … irritated. Irritated because I wanted to cry, to feel sad, to give the memory the respect it deserved. But the tears just didn’t come.
Instead, I spent Monday evening talking with my father. He was upset, confessing that he’d cried for the first time in years. That he was inexplicably sad, suddenly grieving things that he had suppressed since childhood. Grieving the loss of his mother for the first time, even though she died twenty years ago.
Grief is weird. Grief is unpredictable. Grief is frustrating. Grief is inconvenient. I can prepare for weeks, get myself all ready to cry on the anniversary of a tragic event, but no dice. Instead, the tears come during a meeting at work. Or when I finish a run on the treadmill at the gym. Or when I see a can of Diet Dr. Pepper.
So maybe my grief isn’t the beautiful, reverent, tragic thing that I want it to be. But it’s there. I do care. And I do remember.
I remember how Gabe used to drink Diet Dr. Pepper by the case.
I remember how he was the office problem solver. How we directed difficult cases his way. How he called back a constituent once after he overheard the constituent being rude to me on the phone.
I remember how I lied to him to get out of staffing an event. How I told him I was going apple picking with my family. And how he asked me about it the next day, and I continued to lie (badly) about all the apple picking we did. He knew. I could see it on his face. But he let it slide.
I remember making fun of him for being super old, even though he was only five years older than me.
I remember running in to him at a fundraising event. He was there with his dad, and he introduced him as his best friend.
He was a really special guy. He deserves to be remembered. And maybe I don’t always cry on the anniversary of his death, but I do remember.
Until next time,