Monday, April 16, 2012

Forever in our Hearts, Always on our Minds, neVer forgeT

It is with a heavy heart that I write today's post.  5 years ago, we were struck with an unimaginable tragedy. I send not a message of sorrow, but a message of hope.  It was a day where I was forced to grow up, much sooner than expected.  My 19 year-old self, along with many others, was given an incalculable task of bearing the burden of pain and loss.  Now at 24, it's still amazing to see where I am now, having seen where I have been, and how we have all grown and developed.

We all woke up on the morning of Monday April 16, 2007 doing our normal thing--I was doing laundry and checking my email, and catching up on my classes.  Mondays were a personal day for me, as I did not have any classes.  I read facebook statuses (which was a new feature way back when and I'm pretty sure twitter didn't exist) about how cold it was--snow and heavy winds in April? That's just Blacksburg.

Scrolling through my e-mail, I read one about a shooting incident in a dorm not far from mine.  I said a prayer, hoping those involved were ok.  I had to make a call to a doctor's office for an appointment and I was wondering why I had been put on hold for so long.  I checked my e-mail again while I was on hold, and read of another shooting incident across campus.  That was when I started to worry.  I called my mom to let her know I was ok, a long time before the lines got tied up.  I turned on my TV to see if there were any more news on the situation.  Nearby construction made me jump--what does a gun going off even sound like? My roommate came back from class early saying that everyone was told to go back to their dorms.  The SWAT team ran up and down our hallway, banging on our doors, making sure we were safe, as there had been reports of gunshots in my dorm.  Still, I was stone cold, with no emotion, not able to grasp what was going on.

I called in my hall mates to watch TV together.  If I were going to break down, I was not going to do it alone.  Local news soon turned to Special Reports on national news, and there I saw my beloved campus swarming with ambulances and police cars.  What could have happened that was so bad? Did we really need 50 ambulances all over campus? Then they said that there were 10 casualties. Casualties? Don't they mean people injured? The newscasters didn't believe it either and quickly corrected it to 10 people injured.  It climbed to 19...25...30...32. We soon learned that they did mean casualties...we lost 32 people, classmates, teachers, friends.  Many more were injured, having to live with the memory of that day with the scars left on their bodies.

My phone didn't ring all day.  No one could get a call through.  I e-mailed my sister to let her know everything was alright.  I had messages from people in high school and grade school asking me if my friends and I were safe--we were.  Everyone had the sound of panic in urgency in their voices.  I didn't get it--I guess it's easier to take a hold of the situation when you're not sitting in the middle of it, far away, and safe.  I then had the messages from people asking me if I had heard from certain people, as they had not been able to contact them.  Real lives have been lost and slowly those who knew and loved them started reeling in agony and loss.

Our school, place of learning, our home was struck with grief.  How could you ask some kids, who have left home only a few months ago, to deal with this kind of pain? How could we comprehend something that occurs in a place that we go to every day? We just wanted to go to school. 

It was hard to imagine how the day unfolded and how I woke up thinking it was just another ordinary day.  For students, alumni, friends, and family, it was a day that changed our lives.  I learned that minute details of every day life would be tied together.  Because of the cold and heavy winds, helicopters were not able to transport victims to nearby hospitals--could their lives have been spared if it were a normal April morning?  I was on hold with the doctor's office so long because all medical resources were called in to help and treat victims.

I went out to dinner at the dining hall that evening with some friends--sadness and silence filled the room.  What would we really say on a night like that? Were we even allowed to be happy in the slightest? I went to bed that night...but could not fall asleep.  I had no idea what today had meant.  How am I to go on living the rest of my life with this horrific event being apart of who I am?  For what seemed like an eternity, I laid in bed in silence, in shock, in a mess of confusion. 

I turned on the TV the next morning--or actually when an adequate number of hours have passed.  I tuned into the Today show (still a favorite morning ritual).  There they were, Matt Lauer was standing in front of my Chemistry building.  I changed the channel...I see our iconic Hokie Stone in the background again.  Every major news source was on our campus.  Had this really been THAT big of a deal? Who would ever want to spend time in Blacksburg, when they are from New York City? 

What started as an incredibly cruel reminder of our pain became a blessing to show what an amazing community Virginia Tech truly is.  As a nation, we were all moved by Nikki Giovanni's poem at the convocation the following day.  That evening, we were moved so much as to gather at a candlelight vigil, iconic of the Virginia Tech community.  We did not wear black in sorrow, but rather we proudly wore our school colors.  We no longer sat in silence and cried, but cheered each other on.  We stood proudly, side by side, and let the rest of the country know that we cannot fall easily, will not allow a tragedy to define us, and that we will not let those 32 lives be lost in vain.

What we received in return, from countless universities around the country, and around the world, was an incredible outpouring of love and support.  Words of encouragement sustained us minute by minute.  Everyone around the country, from our biggest rivals to elementary schools wore our colors with us, standing by us.  I was at an airport a few days after, where a stranger saw my VT hoodie and hugged me, said, "Go Hokies!" and went on to catch his flight.  It was moving to see people we have never met before support us so strongly.  Please know that your efforts and gestures did not go unnoticed.  Myself and others on campus took the time to look at everything that was sent to our school--proudly displayed in our student center.  It was with your love and support that held us up that we were able to stand strongly.  It was the random acts of kindness in the aftermath that gives me lasting faith and hope in humanity.

It's been 5 years since that day which has been painfully engrained in my memory.  In 2012, Monday April 16 is bright, sunny, and unseasonably warm.  I'm rushing around my apartment studying for an exam, with laundry that hasn't been done for several weeks.  I'm on a different campus, walking past sounds of heavy construction without flinching.  No doctor calls are to be made, perfect cell phone reception. 

Do I lay in bed at night thinking about that day? Of course I do, it is part of who I am.  Have I had outbursts where I cannot contain my feelings? Yes, embarrassingly enough, that happened during one of my grad school interviews and I am convinced that he looked at my alma mater and provoked me! Have I let it impair me in what I want to do and where I want to go? Absolutely not. Not one person who lost their lives would want that day to be a handicap.  If anything, I have learned to accept challenges in life and to overcome any fear I have.  I learned not to underestimate myself and my abilities--right now I am scrambling for rotations and applying for residencies.

Though this may sound like melodramatic ramblings of someone stuck in the past, I am a firm believer that, in order to know where you are going, you must know where you've been.  Our university has had a tremendous number of achievements since then--a surge in applications and admissions, success with our athletic teams, alma mater to US Olympians, Masters' golfers, decorated researches and military heroes.  So today, I proudly wear my Orange and Maroon, a better person than I was then, and forever living and loving for 32.

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