Trigger warning: graphic violence
On a chilly December morning, many years ago, I was driving down a familiar main road between Bethel and Newtown Connecticut when the radio changed abruptly from the usual news and chit-chat to a disturbing announcement.
Gunshots had been reported at Sandy Hook Elementary. The sweet little school was located across the street from the first house I'd lived in after leaving my parents' home. I'd lived there for years, first with my sister, and later with my boyfriend - later to become my husband.
Sandy Hook was a friendly, quiet town with loads of trees and a pretty river running through the miniature downtown section. I had never been overly fond of Connecticut, but I genuinely enjoyed living in Sandy Hook. It is one of those places that manages to feel quaint and rural despite being just outside New York City.
Anyway, when I first heard the news I dismissed it. Bomb threats and supposed gun fire had been reported many times over my life in Connecticut, but had never amounted to anything. I figured some jerk was playing a prank.
But the news didn't drop the story, and as my car crept further into town I began to hear the sirens, and see the police cars and ambulances flying in from all directions. By the time I got onto I-84 (I was on my way to work in Oxford) the highway was swarmed with responders and emergency vehicles. It became clear that this threat was real, and I began to feel sick to my stomach, hoping that no-one would be hurt.
Shortly after arriving to the office, a business heavily staffed with folks from Newtown and the surrounding area, casualties had been confirmed. As we collectively attempted to process the idea that someone had been murdered at an elementary school we were bombarded with news that would change all of us - forever.
Kids had been killed. Lots of them. Innocent little children, children of people that we knew - our neighbors, our friends, had been murdered in cold blood, on a day that was just like any other day.
Rumors were spreading like wildfire that morning, and for one or two terrifying hours we believed that a second shooter was on route to Bethel, the town where my nephews and best friend's kids went to school. Roads were being barricaded in anticipation of attack.
Everyone seemed to be searching for their people, hoping against hope that their family and friends' kids were OK. All in all, my immediate people were fine, but several close friends were not so lucky.
Driving through the town a few days later was surreal. Getting on a plane and coming back to Austin to celebrate Christmas was surreal. I felt detached from reality in general, like I was living in a fog, walking in a dream that I would hopefully wake from eventually.
I couldn't speak about it. I couldn't hear about it. I couldn't handle being reminded that I lived in a world where something like that REALLY happened - where it happened to people I knew, in a place that I'd lived.
When the conspiracy theories started to come out I almost lost it all together. When someone we love dies, the first thing we do is try to honor their memory, right? I can't think of anything more cruel than suggesting that someone's lost child didn't even exist. That the great tragedy of their loss didn't ever happen.
I thought that I had lost faith in the world on December 14, but in hindsight, the day I saw that first Facebook post from Sandy Hook "Truthers" really did it. How can we hope to heal a country divided by such an extreme and horrific lack of empathy? How can something as tragic as the murder of children not change a single thing?
They say that every time you lose someone you lose everyone - all over again. Every time I wake up to news of another mass murder my heart goes right back to Sandy Hook. Suddenly I'm sitting on my front porch watching yellow school buses pull out of the driveway, and hearing the excited babbling of happy kids through open windows.
I'm standing on a train platform in Switzerland trying to decide whether to eat my chocolate croissant now or save it for the plane ride home. I'm looking up at the sound of screaming and squealing brakes. I'm staring down the track trying to figure out what's happening when my brain suddenly connects the dots, and recognizes the chunks of meat and tattered clothing as a human being.
I'm staring out the window of a bus in Beijing, breathless as we slowly pass an empty pair of shoes and a puddle of blood.
I'm in the passenger seat as we creep down the highway, past flaming cars and an ejected engine block - past a severed limb, laying bloody on the asphalt.
I'm at home, in my parent's house just an hour outside of NYC, waking to the sound of harried speech where there should be classic rock n roll. I'm blinking my eyes awake as I try to make sense of what I'm hearing. A plane crash. Manhattan. The Trade Center. My Mom calls down the stairs for me to please wake up. She's trying to find my Dad. It's going to be a very long day.
I'm hearing the news of a school friend whose parents are both dead - a murder suicide that she was forced to witness in her own bedroom.
I'm comforting yet another friend who has been raped, who has been beaten, who has been manipulated into thinking that something cruel and twisted was actually love.
I'm back in Bethel on December 14, listening to my sweet nephew tell me about the police officers who visited his school today. I'm taking him and his brother to the movies, like we'd planned, because no-one is ready to explain what happened to him yet. We sit in a dark movie theater and I'm scared to death the entire time that someone will be coming in to kill us.
I'm sick to my heart, holding a newborn in my arms and wondering how I will ever keep him safe in a world full of cruelty. I'm trying to remember the time before - when I lived in a world where this kind of thing was sad, but happened to other people - in other places.
The selfish part of me wishes I could go back there, but the rest is glad I can't. The rest of me is fed up. The rest of me wants to grab the people who still think they can ignore this problem and shake them silly. This is never going to stop if we don't make it stop.