I don't typically scour the internet at 4 a.m., perhaps there were a few times during my college finals week, but never on a Saturday morning. However, on June 11th I could not stop googling.
The passing of Voice star Christina Grimmie was viral and I was sick to my stomach. A headline with the word "shooting" is never something you want to see, but it's particularly harrowing if you're on your way to vacation where the incident took place. I felt awful for her loved ones and immediate hatred toward the shooter, but tried to stay positive. I was taking my girlfriend to stay in Disney World for the first time and determined to make it special.
We reached the airport, shuffled through security and boarded our sleepy flight to Orlando at 6 a.m. I said my pre-takeoff prayer for safety and strived to regain excitement. 5 days in the place where dreams come true.
Our first day was spent lounging by our hotel's luscious pool, an attempt to rinse off the tragic news and slip into sunnier times. Then that night the quota of horrible news multiplied exponentially and lurked until we woke up. It was June 12th, my birthday, and the world once again shook with terror. By now, you probably don't need me to recount the atrocious activity that transpired at Pulse Nightclub. It was pure evil.
The plan was for us to spend the day in Epcot, but I didn't feel like it was right. How are we supposed to enjoy ourselves? My girlfriend - God bless her - beckoned us onward. She was adamant about giving me a happy birthday and urged the importance of not living in fear. So we went.
"Step this way, please," a friendly security guard said. I stared at the smiling Mickey badge on her uniform. "You've been selected for a random screening." I was led through a metal detector that had been rolled out in front of Epcot's main gate. Memories of Disney World trips floated to the surface of my mind - not once did walking through a metal detector occur on a past visit. The theme park, which celebrates the countries of the world, was on "high alert."
It's almost impossible not to feel happy as you enter a Disney park, but behind our smiles that day existed a catastrophic confusion. Before us was a place showcasing the possibility of the world's coexistence. Epcot seamlessly illustrates how we can celebrate our cultural differences, while embracing our connection as human beings. And yet, the day after one of America's deadliest massacres, the theme park's mission seemed as fantastical as Mickey himself. Even the "happiest place on earth" was sad.
From France to Morocco, I noted an excess of security guards on the grounds. That should have been comforting, but it made me nervous. The wind carried whispers of the tragic events with each gust and supported the profuse amount of helicopters surveying the area. While attractions thundered by and parade anthems pounded the air, those of us visiting the park remained on edge. A place of fun had been infiltrated with an overwhelming sense of fear.
The only true happiness found that day was in the little ones. Visiting children burst with excitement that was so electric it actually brought the adults back up for moments. These uplifting instances are where the true magic lies. It made me realize that no matter what happens I have to stay strong for the ones who remain blissfully unaware of universal demons.
And then two days later the world lost a little more magic. On the Disney grounds, the same sprawling campus that the devil behind the Pulse shooting scouted, a 2-year-old boy was killed during an alligator attack. We were enjoying Disney's show Fantasmic! while it happened mere minutes away. Another night. Another horror.
All of the terror around us made it hard to sleep. Why were all these young bright lives taken? What's going to happen next? If everything happens for a reason, then what are these reasons? Hello? We're waiting.
Our only option was to hold each other tight and be thankful for our current safety. We can't live in fear, we repeated.
Looking back on the plane ride home, I found it ironic that we could be safer in a man-made flying machine (which has had its own battles with terrorists) 36,000 feet in the air than a singer was at her own concert or than people trying to enjoy themselves at a high end club or than a toddler with his family at Disney World. But we were.
What I takeaway from this tragic week, if anything can be taken, is the clear message to appreciate every moment. Don't waste time with loved ones staring at a phone screen or fighting over something petty. Try not to get caught up in life's minuscule frustrations. Instead, this has highlighted the need to focus on a path that brings happiness. Chase your dreams like Christina and embrace who you are like the Pulse Nightclub victims did. Simply put, live. Live for yourself.
Live for Christina Grimmie.
Live for all 49 victims of the shooting (please read about each of them here).
Live for 2-year-old Lane Graves.
Because we truly never know.
I'm sending my thoughts and prayers to everyone affected. I hope that we stay united during this difficult time of grieving, and more importantly, that we can find ways to grow stronger because of it.