It was several weeks before I could work up the courage to talk to him. I’d seen him leave to walk his dog and decided to head out too. I was hoping we could walk and talk because I didn’t think I could look him in the eye. The path that separates our houses was frozen by the early snow we’d had. I was trying not to slip, cry, or hyper-ventilate while I was walking. My head was bowed. I didn’t see him until we ran into each other. Startled, I couldn’t stop myself and it all spilled out.
“Mike, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I should have called the police. I had the phone in my hand. I thought I was being paranoid—that he was one of the guys cleaning up after the flood. They’d been drinking beer after work so I thought maybe he was just sobering up in his car. I had no idea.”
On and on I went. The tears streaming down my face stung. Only the fog from my breath stood between us. Time stopped while I waited for him to say something—anything. I didn’t know if I could bear it but what more was there to say. I was thankful when he spoke quickly.
“You didn’t know. It’s not your fault. It’s nobody’s fault. It will never be understood.”
To this day we all feel the same way and when news of the movie theater massacre broke it triggered every memory from that day four years ago that I’d like to forget.
It was the night before my birthday. I’d come home after celebrating with my girlfriends and noticed there was an unfamiliar car parked in front of my house. It’d been a crazy day with a flood across the street and a lot of cars had come and gone. Why this one was still around I couldn’t figure out? The guy in it looked like he was sleeping.
I decided to give it more time. It was early in the night. At midnight when I noticed it was still there I picked up the phone to call the police and a wave of embarrassment rolled over me. I was being paranoid I reasoned. I shouldn’t bother the police for a parked car. They’d think I was just a high-strung overprotective single mom.
Instead of calling I busied myself with last minute preparations for the regional tournament Luke would be playing in the next day. I’d told him winning was the best birthday present he could give me. It would be his first experience in such a highly competitive tournament. Winning would qualify him to play at the state tournament. It was easy to dismiss my worry as just nerves. Everyone in the house was on pins and needles.
In the morning when we were rushing out the door I noticed the car and its driver but didn’t have time to do anything. When Mike and his wife Flo pulled up behind us while we backed out of the driveway the suspicious car pulled behind them. I thought it was weird but decided the driver had slept it off and was going home.
We turned right to leave our subdivision and Mike and Flo turned left. He followed them. Hours later I learned that when they stopped to pick-up the friends they were meeting, the driver got out of his car armed with two assault rifles and opened fire on them at close-range. In what Mike described as a hailstorm of gunfire his wife and best friend were shot dead while he and his friend’s wife fled for their lives. Their escape was miraculous.
Later when the police found the gunman in his car he committed suicide. His vehicle was filled with a stash of weapons and ammunition that could have killed hundreds. It was like a scene from a movie but there was no popcorn and no explanation. After months of investigation it was ruled a random act of senseless violence. One that started right in front of me. One I feel I could have prevented if only I’d made the call. This began my experience with “survivor guilt” a term I’d never heard before detectives explained it to me.
Four years later I know that I am not to blame for what happened. I understand how a person’s mind will search for the most benign explanation to avoid the pain of something worse. Denial is a powerful tool and we all use it in one form or another to navigate anxious feelings. For many people assuming the best is easier than assuming the worse and most of the time that proves to be a good way to live.
What lies at the heart of my guilt is that I knew something wasn’t right, talked myself out of it, and people lost their lives. That’s not an easy burden to bear even when one of the people impacted pardons you. Even when you know God forgives you.
The penny I found after running into Mike that morning assured me of that, but forgiving myself has proven harder. I’ll think I have and then something like the movie theater shooting brings a wave of guilt and shame. I have to sort through my thoughts and feelings all over again and look for what God has taught me before I can move on. It’s not fun.
What has He taught me? Beyond the issue of worrying about what other people think of you, I’ve learned I’m far more discerning than I give myself credit for. Doubt is not of God— it’s of man and the enemy. Man was created with the ability to question and the enemy exploits that. For someone like me, that loves to wrestle with a question, that’s the perfect way for him to work. When he can cause me to doubt my own reasoning and not act on something alarming, he’s won.
With 20/20 hindsight I think the penny I found peaking out of the ice was there to remind me that it’s not just about trusting God it’s about trusting myself as well. I think this is a lesson for others too. In the world today you’re made out to be either a hero or a fool when you speak up, but better a fool for life than death. Trust me—knowing you could have prevented a tragedy weighs far more than being labeled paranoid.
I praise God that the young man in the car did not follow me and Luke to the tennis tournament but my heart will always ache for the lives he did destroy. Sadly, I can’t change that but I can change me. In their memory I can be a better neighbor and make the call the next time it needs to be made. I hope you’ll do the same. If something doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t.