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A Day in America

I don't know what the answers are, but I do know that I am sad and I am angry, and that living in this gun crazed culture where a stray or intended bullet might find me or my children at any time sure doesn't feel like living.
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Handgun lying on American flag
Handgun lying on American flag

On Wednesday I woke up exhausted after a pain flare in the middle of the night that had me writhing for at least an hour.

I struggled to get moving and was grateful it was my day off. I made coffee and breakfast and sat down with my laptop. I was on Facebook seeing what all my friends were up to, when all of a sudden I started seeing lots of "BREAKING NEWS" updates: active shooter situation in San Bernardino.

My heart sank. Not again. Why? When will this stop? I posted one of the news stories with the caption "I seriously don't want to live here any more."

Gun violence has touched my life. My uncle was murdered via gunshot when I was just 5 years old. When I was 22 I was a passenger in a car that was shot at during a road rage incident. The driver of the car I was in had simply honked when the other driver cut him off. The back windshield was shot out and I felt my hair move as the bullet passed through just inches behind my head.

I live in Colorado; home to Columbine, the Aurora Theater massacre, and just a few days ago, an attack on Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs. When Columbine happened I was 19 and had become a mother six months before. My first gut instinct when I saw the live coverage on television was to frantically mutter, "Where's my baby?" even though my baby was literally a baby, not a teenager in high school, and safe with her grandma while I worked on my college coursework.

I heard all of the emergency vehicles the night the Aurora shooting happened. I lived three miles from the theater at the time. A friend was visiting from out of town and we were up late, hanging out on the front porch on a lovely summer's eve. After several minutes of nonstop sirens I knew that something was terribly wrong. The news was horrifying. I couldn't help but wonder why my state seems to have the worst mass shootings.

Because of that reality and the collective trauma of living in an infamous for shootings state, for years I have taken note of the location of exits and possible hiding spots when I'm at the bank, in the movie theater, in a college classroom, in a store, and eventually pretty much anywhere, since we all know that it happens everywhere. No place is sacred. Some mornings I feel ill putting my 10-year-old daughter on the school bus, and wonder if today will be the day her school gets shot up.

I have thought about the location of her classroom relative to the school's entrances and thought about how if she were in her homeroom and not a specials class she would probably be okay unless the shooter went systematically classroom to classroom and had a long time to do so. I have thought about how if she were to go through a school shooting and survive, the trauma would take years to work through and the grief would be with her always. And of course I've thought about losing her.

When I was a kid we didn't have these thoughts. The doors to our schools weren't permanently locked. We didn't know the terms "lockdown drill" and "active shooter." Several months ago my daughter told me, rather nonchalantly, about what they had to do in a lockdown drill, which was essentially "hide and don't make any noise so that if someone is shooting they won't find us," and my stomach sank as I listened. We had fire drills when I was a kid, and a rare tornado drill, but that was it.

Anyway, on Wednesday, I couldn't handle the news out of San Bernardino. I cried. I felt like vomiting, and it's because I know. I know what it is to get the call that your loved one has suddenly and tragically and violently died. My stepson died in a fiery car crash in August of 2014, and then I lost five more family members in the next nine months. To say that my family is incredibly traumatized is an understatement.

In fact, Wednesday was to be our first night of grief support therapy at Judi's House, a local nonprofit that helps children and their caregivers deal with grief. We were planning to leave when my youngest got home, which is generally via the school bus at 4:00 p.m.

At 4:07 p.m. I got a text from my teenager who had gone to meet the bus: The bus isn't here.

I told myself that the bus had been late before and there was no need to panic.

Another text came at 4:11 p.m.: Still not here.

I started to get worried.

At 4:17 p.m. I received another text, but this time from my adult stepdaughter: Are you guys okay??

I had no idea what she was talking about so I quickly got on a local news website. There had been an officer involved shooting a couple of blocks from the elementary school, which was placed on lockdown. I called the teenager and started to cry, asking her to please stay there in case the bus came. I called the school. No answer.

I quickly got in my car and went to the bus stop. The grandmother of a couple of other students was in the same boat I was. We had no idea what was going on or who to call for information. I decided to go to the school.

The entire school was surrounded by emergency vehicles, with all the roads blocked off, news crews setting up on corners and helicopters circling overhead. I was told by a police officer that I had to stay in my car and not proceed on foot, and he directed me past a blockade where I ended up stuck in a line of cars.

My cell phone rang and it was from an unknown caller. I answered and heard the fear in my sweet girl's voice. "Mommy?!"

She immediately started talking a mile a minute. "Mommy we had a lockdown. A real one. I'm in my classroom and I'm safe but I was scared Mommy. I'm calling you from my friend's phone. He let me use it. Are you coming, Mommy?"

I assured her that I was just outside and would get to her as soon as I possibly could. I followed the other parents around me and turned down an alleyway so we could park a few blocks away and proceed on foot despite being told not to.

When I got close to the school there was a line of parents snaked all the way down the block and I was at least 100th in that line. It was freezing. I felt like crying because I was so worried about my girl, who deals with anxiety even on normal days. A school staff member handed me a form to fill out with my name and my student's name.

As I stood there in the cold willing the line to move faster, I had thoughts about my daughter calling me from a friend's phone and decided that she would be taking her cell phone to school daily, regardless of school rules.

What an awful thought to have. I want my child to be able to call me if and when death is imminent, at least if she gets a chance to. I want to be able to tell her how much I love her and how special she is. I again felt like vomiting.

The school principal came outside to reassure parents that students were safe and that they would reunite everyone as quickly as possible. She asked if anyone had special circumstances and I told her that we were already 20 minutes late to grief support group. She kindly took me to the front of the line and personally went and retrieved my daughter.

The look on my daughter's face when she saw me, and the way she ran into my arms, makes me cry even now, just as it did in that moment.

We made it to group, albeit late, and when the facilitator pulled me aside at the end to check if I was okay after yet another traumatizing event, I burst into tears yet again.

No, I told her. I'm not okay.

Mass shootings literally everyday and thousands upon thousands of Americans dying annually by guns is NOT OKAY.

Yes, it was a nearby threat and not a madman stalking the halls of my child's school, but even nearby is too damn close.

I don't know what the answers are, but I do know that I am sad and I am angry, and that living in this gun crazed culture where a stray or intended bullet might find me or my children at any time sure doesn't feel like living.

It feels like waiting to die.