This post will not be about gun control or mental illness although I do have strong feelings on both I refuse to politicize my experience this past weekend as something to express my views. I, more or less, just feel the need to discuss this with a community of people and I'm using this platform as a tool to express my experience. In short, I'm feeling the need for a little therapeutic emotional dump.
Friday was my 41st birthday. I can honestly say that I've never had a birthday where I cried more or feel more overwhelming waves of anger. I wanted to just hold my kids tightly into the night but alas my wife Erika and I usually make plans right around my birthday to spend a couple of nights alone away from the kids. It's one of the great benefits of living near family and knowing that your children are being cared for by people who love them dearly. Erika's parents are awesome about not only caring for our kids but spoiling them rotten like grandparents should (I really am looking forward to that part of life if I can make it that far!). Trips to McDonald's, carousels, train rides and very late bedtimes are a regular part of the Abuelitos stays. It helps us with the guilt of leaving and it makes it even harder for Maya and Alex to go back to restrictive, boundaries-are-everywhere parental living that is their normal day-to-day existence.
So yeah, this year was especially hard to go away but we'd already paid for our hotel in Laguna Beach and I'm not really one into throwing money away. My wife and I go away alone maybe twice a year and this was one of them. And it wasn't like the experience had happened to us even though we have a daughter who is the same age as most of the children gunned down and we have family who live in Connecticut. It just touched us the same way it touched the majority of Americans, as parents of small children who couldn't conceive of someone doing such a thing.
We get to the hotel and alternate between tears and shock and anger for the rest of the day. We head out to see a movie at one of those theaters that serves you food at your seat. It's the first time I've experienced something like this and it's a lot of fun. We see Silver Linings Playbook and while the main issue tackled in the movie is mental illness, it's a refreshing and hopeful take on the topic.
By the time the movie ends, the mall that surrounds the theater is pretty much closed. We decide to come back to the mall on Saturday to finish some Christmas shopping. As we're pulling into the mall I ask my wife where she wants to park. She tells me, go to the right and park by Macy's, I want to start there. This is approximately 4 or so in the afternoon.
We head into Macy's and purchase a pair of socks she needs to go with her boots she's wearing to my birthday dinner at my favorite restaurant. I try on a few jackets because we're trying to find a replacement for my only nice jacket that she bought me when I was about 45 pounds heavier and it a bit roomy now. We can't really find anything so we head to the front of the store to the Mac counter where she asks about getting her makeup done. "Can't take you today we're all booked up, sorry!" the lady says. My wife is visibly disappointed. We walk out of Macy's without really a particular place to go and we spot a Victoria's Secret so we decide to pop in quickly (although being able to browse leisurely without running after a very curious 2-year-old is one of the great benefits of getting time alone). We spend a few minutes looking, get a couple of items and we're in the process of paying for it. I mean literally as the keypad still says "processing payment..." when a stampede of people come rushing into the store with terrified looks on their faces. The cashier says, "We had some people wanting to do a scavenger hunt in here yesterday. That's probably what this is."
I quietly tell my wife, "This is no scavenger hunt, something is going on." Suddenly another VS employee comes from the front of the store and tells us all to head out to the back. A scramble of people form a large throng pushing towards the back exit as an alarm is going off. Someone is saying something about a shooting happening at Macy's. I somehow get separated from my wife in the craziness and when I see her again in the hallway behind the store I tell her, "You stay close to me in case something happens. I want to be able to jump on you and shield you."
My heart is now pounding with my mind constantly thinking about the sheer terror that those children in Connecticut must've felt. I haven't even SEEN a shooter, a gun or anything that remotely looks like something threatening. It's just the IDEA that someone COULD burst in at any moment with a gun and start mowing people down that's got me in a panic. But we know little about anything that has caused us to get a tour of the dark back hallways of this upscale mall.
I look around the hallway noticing that there are at least five exit doors to the outside. I grab my wife's hand and head the other way from where Macy's is in the mall and I'm about to go towards the exit on the far end. Then it dawns on me, I have no freaking idea where this person is, whether this possible shooter is roaming and could be making his way through the mall. If we went out that back exit, we could essentially walk right into a hail of gunfire if it's still going on. I'm not willing to take that risk with the mother of my children.
Oh God, the kids. All we wanted was two nights away to make sure that our marriage remains strong and healthy. In the madness of everyday life, often times the marriage is the victim that suffers the most due to all the other obligations. And now because we did this selfish thing, there's a possibility we could leave our 7-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son without parents. Christ, I just want to kiss my son's beautiful head again. Cuddle my daughter one more time. I realize these thoughts are morbid and sick and extreme considering I don't know anything really, but it's what I have right now.
Thankfully the VS employees closed up the front steel doors and invite us back into the store so we're not all lined up like ducks in a row in a hallway. I feel a little more comfortable there as I push into a corner with my wife. Funny thing is if you'd told me I would've been in a VS for an hour or more I would've likely be stoked. Everyone is on their phones now looking for news reports. A girl standing next to us with her parents, probably in her early teens, is weeping. I place a hand on her arm and try and comfort her while holding my wife close. A couple of college age girls crack jokes about telling their parents that they're OK but stuck in a VS. The mood is tenuous with several folks trying to keep it light. We joke about a man's dog being our savior (his dog was probably 20 or 30 pounds overweight and a rather docile animal).
As my wife and I scroll through Twitter, we see "shooting at Whole Foods at Fashion Island," "shooting at Macy's at Fashion Island," "Shooting at Neiman Marcus at Fashion Island," and "shooting in the parking lot at Fashion Island." Clearly Twitter and social media aren't ideal in these circumstances because that's pretty much every direction around us. Were there shootings at all these places? Or was it confined to one place and people are just spreading rumors?
A man starts bitching at the VS employees. "I need to get out of here, you need to let me leave." Everyone else starts to lament that there's always one person like that. Others are mumbling, including myself, that he should just shut up and deal with it. Tempers are clearly high. And I'm fairly sure that the VS employees didn't go to work on Saturday thinking, "We're going to have to be soldiers today, protecting our troops." But that's essentially what they turned into these kids in their 20s. How this man doesn't realize that these folks are only acting to protect him is simply beyond my comprehension.
It dawns on me that I essentially left our purchase at the register and I ask the cashier who was helping us, "Is it OK if I just go grab our stuff since the front doors are barricaded closed?" She says sure. We walk over and the register is still processing...she closes it out and I grab the bag. I'm thinking it will be sad if these are the personal effects that will be handed over to our parents.
After probably 45 minutes of just huddling closely in the dream angels section, wondering if someone might burst through the doors and start shooting all of us: The older gentleman with the overweight husky; The sobbing teenager; The two college-age girls joking about telling their parents where they're stuck; And the couple trying to have a nice romantic getaway for two nights for the husband's birthday - they tell us it's OK to leave. My wife and I look at each other not really sure which way to go. All we know is that we're done shopping and we just want to get the hell out of there.
The only problem is that we still don't know details. We've been told at this point that the shooting was at Macy's. And the way to get to our car is right by Macy's. We hurriedly hustle out of the store and head towards the staircase next to Macy's. As we're heading down that staircase we can see out to the street entrance to the mall and there's a stream of three police cars screaming into the mall, lights and sirens blaring. We wonder aloud if it's still going on. Then as we get down to the bottom there's a police officer pulling an assault rifle and a bullet proof vest out of his trunk. Clearly it's still going on. People are all lined up on the sidewalk taking photos with their phones.
I hear a woman telling a couple that there is a hostage situation going on inside Macy's and that it's locked down still. We don't care, we just want out of there. We're moving to the car as quickly as possible. Because I'm still unclear as to what the situation is and the cop cars are everywhere I'm keeping my eyes peeled to make sure that no one grabs us and uses us as his escape plan from a nearly locked down parking lot. I'm checking every car we walk by to be sure there's no one crouching or kneeling there. Yeah shit like this can make you pretty unreasonably paranoid. Or maybe not so unreasonably given what's transpired over the last 24 hours.
We get out of the parking lot successfully. I tell my wife, "We need to get back to the hotel and figure out what the heck is going on." She tells me, "I'm just really glad we're out of there." Both of our hearts are pounding. I can't seem to stop my heart from feeling like it's going to come out of my chest even though we're now miles away from the situation.
As it turns out, someone basically decided to go a little crazy in the Macy's parking lot right by where we parked and shoot his gun in the air and into the ground. Thankfully no one was injured. No one was shot. I guess we were never in any real danger. But here's the thing. There was so much chaos. So much disinformation. So much ignorance around the area that your mind immediately assumed the worst. I went from trying on coats, disappointment that my wife wasn't going to get her makeup done by a makeup artist to suddenly wondering if I was going to have to sacrifice myself to make sure my kids grow up with at least one parent. It was sobering in a way that I've never experienced.
I realize we take these risks every day. Every time I get behind the wheel of my car I know that I could get hit by a bad driver. I take business trips on airplanes that scare the bejesus out of me. I don't want to leave my wife alone with our kids. I WANT to see my grandkids. But those are risks that we take knowingly, realizing that it could happen to us. But to suddenly feel like someone could quickly snatch away my life and my wife's life on a whim and do it willingly and with purpose? That's terrorism. It may not be called that but that's what I felt. Pure, unadulterated terror.
Once I found out the whole story, I felt a little silly about being scared. But truthfully, I'm still a little scared even though I was never in any real danger if only because of how vulnerable you realize you are. How vulnerable we all are in this beautifully free society. It's a tradeoff. It's just that it's never felt as real as it did on Saturday. I realize how lucky I am to have lived 41 years. Something 20 children in Connecticut will never have a chance to do. And yeah, I can't stop crying thinking about that. It's just about the most evil thing I can ever imagine.
I'm asking, no begging, you to not make the comments political. I needed to write this out for my own therapy. Writing is my way of processing and dealing with things. It helps me figure out how I feel about something and how I realize I remember the littlest of insignificant details such as the keypad still saying, "Processing payment..."
I mourn those people lost in Connecticut. I can't imagine the grief those parents have to cope with and I'm angry and sad and torn up about it. It's a mad, mad world we live in. Thanks for listening.