We stood in the cold outside the Clackamas Mall, arms wrapped around each other, watching the crowd expand to release individuals and couples to step forward and place their candles on the memorial stage. The faces of the two deceased smiled over the mournful group gathered before them. The photographs were snapshots enlarged, taken in a moment of joy, caught off guard by the photographer. A moment of carefree fun never meant to represent them in death, though maybe it should.
My cousin’s words in my ear haunt me still. On an evening when we should all be focused on our own grief for a community shattered with violence, it’s confusing to feel competitive in the backdrop of the Sandy Hook elementary school killings in Connecticut.
I arrived at the Clackamas Mall just after it opened as I’d announced, determined to be among thousands wishing to cleanse the community and mall from its recent tragedy, a young man entering the mall with a weapon, determined to kill as many as he could. Luckily, and unfortunately, two died and one is now in recovery after being in critical condition through most of the weekend. Many others have been wounded in body and spirit. Dressed in a brightly colored outfit complete with Santa hat and scarf, I walked every section of the mall, visiting every store and talking to as many people as I could. As I told my readers and KOIN-TV, I drove 40 miles across Portland, Oregon, to join others to help the mall get back to normal and tell the terrorists that they will not win. Fear will not survive here!
With that commitment in my heart, my determination and dread grew as I drove across town listening to the news of the attack in Connecticut. The news coming through the radio spoke of a death toll nearing 30. My chest tightened with the stress of finding a place to park in the jammed mall parking lot, thrilled it was full and eager to do my small part in helping Clackamas heal, at the same time nauseous at what the community of Newtown were facing as parents raced to the school not knowing if their child was dead or alive.
I stood before the mall entrance watching a small team of volunteers from the local TV and Radio station put assemble what would become the temporary memorial stage where the pictures would stand next to those offering words of condolence to the crowd that would form later that night in the cold.
How can I walk into this place, a place filled with people struggling with their own grief, an open wound that impacted more than the 10,000 people present in the mall that day. The ripple effect of the violence spread across the state, the country, and even the world. I first heard the news on BBC Radio. The world put its spotlight on this bedroom community of Portland, Oregon, a town once home to the Clackamas, Kalapuya, and Molallas tribes, settled in the early 1800s by explorers and fur trappers and hunters exploiting the rich foothills of the Cascade Mountains and fertile Willamette valley. Today, it’s a town in mourning.
Yet, that spotlight had now shifted away from this grieving community to Sandy Hook Elementary School almost exactly opposite the country from Clackamas.
Signs greeted everyone at the entrance, asking everyone to remember and honor the loss and inviting people to sign memorial books and stars upstairs at the food court.
Waiting in the lines at Barnes and Noble bookstore, people openly talked about why they were here and the confusion over their feelings about the news coming out from the East Coast. One woman told me that she’d been waiting outside the doors when the mall opened, as determined as I was to get life in the mall back to normal and support the vendors. Yet, when the news reached her, she felt helpless, victimized by young men believing that guns and murder are the answer.
“By being here, maybe I can help in a small way here as well as there,” she told me with a sad smile.
The mall slowly filled throughout the day. I never meant to spend the entire day there as malls are my least favorite shopping experience, but my cousin contacted me through social media about noon to tell me that he and his wife, a therapist and volunteer with the Red Cross, were on their way to the mall to join me and help out. Caught in traffic, much of it heading to the mall, they didn’t arrive until late afternoon, giving me more time to wander and shop, and talk to the steady stream of people filling the mall.
As the crowds grew, laughter erupted throughout the mall, spontaneous moments of joy. There were those who’d come to share their grief, but more were determined to bring laughter and joy back to the mall. A group of five or six people gathered below the food court on the first floor to sing Christmas Carols. Others soon joined them as they brought cheer and light and some of the holiday spirit back in.
In discussions over a quick bite to eat, my cousins and I talked about the whole situation, and the confusion on how to grieve properly as so many families were suffering on the other side of the continent. We also asked ourselves if there was a solution to such massacres and violence. We all agreed that while the discussion will focus on weapons, it is a time-waster discussion. Yes, weapons need to be controlled. Not because of the US Second Amendment – that only adds to the confusion. Weapons need to be controlled because we’ve proven repeatedly that we can’t be trusted with the growing proliferation and sophistication of such weapons. I grew up with guns. I’ve lost friends and family to poor choices with guns. I respect guns, but humans have been killing each other for thousands of years with bare hands and whatever weapon was available. This is not new. While we shouldn’t make it so easy for people to gain access to weapons that can kill more than one person at a time, it isn’t the guns but the people behind the guns that make the choice that guns are an acceptable solution.
Again, not the issue and I won’t debate guns here on this site. It’s a dumb argument, from all perspectives. If you need a fresh perspective on this, read The Trigger by Arthur C. Clark and Michael Kube-McDowell. It’s an eye-opener. Thanks for your opinions on guns but I think there is a bigger issue that we need to deal with to help stop such acts of violence.
The point we all agreed upon is that there isn’t enough money for mental health. Too many people are slipping through the cracks – they aren’t cracks, they’re canyons. There are so few mental health facilities, both for the criminally insane and those who need to be removed from society for their protection as well as ours, as well as for those with minor mental health issues not getting the help they need early and often enough.
Privacy laws and fear of litigation make it frightening for even medical professionals and teachers to report suspected mental illness or issues. A psychiatrist treating James Holmes and his school’s “threat assessment committee” didn’t follow through on reporting or taking action to prevent him from becoming the “Dark Knight” killer in Aurora, Colorado, probably assuming he was crying wolf. Parents with all the information in the world often live in fear and denial and helplessness as they don’t know where to turn or how to help their child they suspect has mental problems. The stigma around mental illness is changing, but we, as a society, let these people down every day by not providing the help and services they really need to be functioning members of society or kept protected away from the general society.
This isn’t the place for a debate. Take it to those who can really do something about it. This is a place for storytelling, sharing my experience as I helped a community heal.
I was touched throughout the day by the confidence of others, sharing smiles, laughter, and even hugs. I got hugs from store clerks and even a few shoppers as they laughed at my classy Santa outfit and cracked jokes about the holidays. I held a few hands as they spoke about what happened or paused in their day to think of Sandy Hook school children and their families.
While there was confusion, the candlelight vigil brought clarity. We were all here to ignore all else in the world, to honor our own community’s loss. As the pastors spoke quietly of loss, regret, death, and memorial, they also spoke of hope and togetherness, unity in the face of tragedy as pop music played quietly from the stage with words of hope, encouragement, and faith. The crowd sang “Amazing Grace” softly, some fighting back tears and others giving in. Many hugged police officers and security guards and cried with them as they moved through the crowd, honoring the first responders who rescued so many and released those hiding all over the mall to protect themselves from the violence.
The community came together. It was a step in the right direction towards healing. It will take a while for all of us to heal from the spate of killings that haunt the world recently, from Norway and Finland to the Middle East, Africa, and right here in United States.
The lighted display we discovered as my cousins and I left the mall summed up our feelings. Under movie posters featuring death and destruction on the scale only Hollywood can imagine were the words in holiday lights: “Say No to Violence.”
I rushed home late Friday night after the day in the mall eager to share my thoughts with you. By the time I got home, the facts were more than just rumors coming out of NewTown, Connecticut. All day Saturday and Sunday, I worked non-stop, eager to blog about my experience but thrashing over the story, the words, and what was most important to share. I finally decided to keep it simple and just share my experience.
Part of the responsibility of bloggers is to share their experience of the world, their perception, their story. How they choose to share is part of the process. Some share with words, others with photography, cartoons, or artwork. The manner of expression isn’t important. What’s important is that we express ourselves. What’s important is that we share ourselves.
If the shooter had just shared himself with others, opened himself up to the world around him and seen the magic in a human life, would the outcome have been different?
What I know is that we are all in this together. There is no one isolated from these events. On Monday I met with a friend who told me how grateful she was that I drove across the county to be at the mall. One of her best friends was the boss of the woman who was shot and killed. Monday afternoon I went to the hospital to visit a friend. He’s battling a rare liver disease and a weekend full of television news watching literally made him sick with anxiety and stress, disastrous in his present condition.
Everyone is impacted by this. As bloggers, it’s important we share our thoughts, feelings, and desires on how the world needs to change. Join me in igniting that conversation, one that will include all views and sentiments, and lead to a world where guns and murder are not an acceptable option.
The photographs within this post are by myself and my cousin, Duke DesRochers. Much thanks to him for allowing me to share his images with you.