July 20. A date that will forever be seared in my mind. It brings a bitter taste to my mouth, filling me with anger from the inside out. A date nightmares were made manifest. July 20. A date of complete powerlessness, of deepest wishes to turn back the clock and do anything to prevent what never should have happened in the first place.
July 20, 2012. The date the red headed thief took what never belonged to him.
I woke up mid morning, sleepily stumbling down the hall and stairs to my usual cup of coffee and first cigarette of the day. Several months before I had left home in Colorado temporarily to check in to treatment in Houston, TX and was now living temporarily in sober housing while I got back on my feet. It was a Friday. I didn’t have any volunteering slotted and the day felt no more noteworthy than the next. About 1:00 pm some of my housemates came home and joined me in the garage where we hung out. They asked me if I had seen the news. . . if I had heard. I didn’t know what they were talking about.
There’s been a shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Isn’t that where you live?
I didn’t fully extinguish the cigarette in my hand before rushing to the TV and turning it on. Breaking News: Suspect in custody, 12 dead in Aurora movie theater shooting. My stomach dropped. My core group of friends outside of work had purchased tickets for the midnight premiere of A Dark Knight Rises. I had read about it on their Facebook pages the night before. I began to negotiate with my mind to try and make sense of what I was seeing and hearing. . .
. . . but news is reporting multiple rooms within the theater were showing the premiere; surely it wasn’t theirs. I’ll check their pages and put a post on Facebook. I’m sure they’ll update everyone that they were there but they were okay. . . I’m sure they’re okay. . . yes, they’re safe. . .
My safe story started to crumble as I went from page to page on Facebook looking for updates from hours before before turning to my phone. Crispy (Christina) wasn’t responding to calls or texts. Neither was Heather. Neither was Toni. In fact, no one was. It wasn’t more than an hour after I would soon learn everything was far from okay.
Crispy was shot multiple times. Heather was shot. Farrah, whose injuries were too graphic to write, was dying. Toni, days away from giving birth to her son Corbin, was injured. And Sully, Alex, was dead. He never made it out of the theater, dying only minutes into his 27th birthday, which was the reason they were there. . . to celebrate. . . but not this.
Lives were shattered and forever changed that day. Twelve lights extinguished from this world, one of which was just six years old, shot almost the same number of times. Just over 70 people wounded. How could this happen in a movie theater? How could this happen in Aurora? How the f*** could this happen AGAIN?
As the backstory would unfold over the next several years it was like fuel to a fire of resentment and bitterness. So. Many. Inexcusable. Missed. Signs. So many flags and warnings, opportunities where this could have been prevented. But the damage was done, the dead were buried, the wounded were mending as best they could. And the red headed thief? Well, he didn’t get nearly the punishment he deserved [in the humble opinions of many, myself included].
I’ve skipped over countless details. I’ve skipped over the hundreds of surgeries that have taken place as a result of 70+ wounded. I’ve skipped over acknowledging the first responders whose swift actions saved the lives of many; who are healing from their own trauma of what they had to witness that night that will haunt them forever. I’ve skipped over the donations that poured in, the city that came together over tragedy, the ripples created across the nation for gun reform. I’ve skipped the wonderful 7-20 Memorial Foundation, who created a sculpture garden where people can come to pay their respects, reflect, show kindness, and keep memories alive. I’ve also skipped over a relocation to Texas I didn’t want or ask for. And I’ve skipped over mentioning that Heather died December 3, 2017.
My folks saw it a blessing that I was in Houston at the time, and that I was meant to be here. I can’t say that I felt that way at all when I heard that. Although I wasn’t there, I have terrible survivors guilt that has troubled me ever since. And you know who ended up being the ones to comfort me almost seven years later? My friends who lived it. I felt such shame crying in front of them when they asked me how I felt about it today. What right had I to cry? To grieve? To talk about what we just hadn’t talked about these years since we just wanted to hang like we used to? What right had I to be comforted? Validated for my guilt? It turns out I had every right, and a right to my own timeline of healing. I learned that from them and a tiny piece of me healed that day.
Take a breath with me. I’m taking one now.
We all have every right to our own timeline of healing, no matter whether or not we have been personally involved in a situation. Tragedy takes us for a ride we never wanted to get on in the first place and aren’t sure how to get off, or when the opportunity to do so will present itself. It is a thief of peace and joy. Most often tragedy begins the cycle of questioning why [this] happened, how [this] could happen, and where is God [in this]? Somewhere in there forgiveness comes up only to be set aside and collect dust until you’re ready to look at it. . . if at all.
So how do you forgive the unforgivable? Those who act out in ways so calloused, so clueless, so twisted, so evil, so wrong? That is an active question in my life and possibly in yours if a past or present trauma occurs. How do you forgive the unforgivable even when you’ve heard “unforgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die”? I think you start small. Like really small.
For years I refused to say his name because that made him a person and I felt he lost the right to be identified as such.
Seven years later I cannot say I have forgiven James Eagan Holmes, but I can now say his name through a tightened jaw, which I consider progress. I can show the scars and share the journey of forgiveness to many wounds throughout my life but not this one. Not yet. And if there is a situation in your life where there is unresolved anger, don’t judge it. Don’t stuff it. Own it — because in owning it we call it to the forefront and expose it. Maybe just then it looses a little bit of its power, and maybe a little more the next time. That doesn’t mean a free pass to act out in anger, it does, however, certainly has a valid reason to exist in the first place.
How do you forgive the unforgivable? It starts with will. This comes up fairly frequently in conversations with my coach when I’m feeling stuck and not yet ready to do the work, so I say “I am willing to become willing. . .” and that is my starting point. Without judgment — though not always — and without attachment. I turn to God because it’s often a bigger job than I can handle, and I trust that I will be adequately equipped to respond when I’m ready.
Don’t let anyone tell you where you should or shouldn’t be in your healing process. You’ll know when the time is right, or when you’re exhausted from the energy it takes to hold onto the resentment and become willing to respond differently. Until then may we be kind to one another and ourselves as we heal the trauma we’ve survived no matter the circumstances. We are stronger than we think. We will rise.