On reporting and writing about the worst moments in life…
It was one of the first deaths I covered.
I was still a young reporter working in Tallahassee and a Florida State University student died on a weekend trip to Orlando. There was a vigil held at the Westcott fountain at Florida State in his honor.
At the time I didn’t know how he died and it was my job to find out. But I couldn’t bear to ask.
I reported that an “unfortunate accident” led to his death. That’s what they said at the vigil. The next day we had to write another story clarifying how he died because the “unfortunate accident” overshadowed all the other details.
The lesson that I learned as young reporter was that you have to be able to ask questions and do things that sometimes feel unnatural.
There was no way around it. Do it, or quit.
After that, there was the woman who was accidentally shot at a fraternity party. At her vigil, I watched her twin sister who witnessed the shooting talk about this woman who she had never been without — until now.
I sat in the back row in the same ballroom where I had orientation and celebrated the brightness of my future only a few years prior. I sat there and cried for a stranger.
When it was over, I went back to the newsroom and wrote about what it. This wasn’t about me.
After that, there was the story of the drunken-driving car crash that killed a mother, her elementary-aged son and her son’s best friend all at once.
There were only two survivors: The father and husband who lost everything in a moment and the drunk driver who caused it all.
As he recovered in the hospital, that father just cried and prayed. That was all he had left.
I had to fight to keep my voice level as I asked questions of his friends. This was not about me.
Eventually, I got better at covering death. I wrote about them almost exclusively for a year while I worked in Orlando.
Some of them never left me:
The toddler whose father intimidated his mother until she sent him to Orlando to stay for the summer.
He was beaten to death because he wouldn’t sit still and chew his food.
When the boy should have been sitting in his kindergarten class, he was lying in a bed of a children’s hospital — dying.
When a man killed his wife in a park in front of their two children and everyone else, then later killed himself.
When a woman was hit by a stray bullet as Orlando police tried to stop an armed suspect in the middle of downtown. She died on the floor of a nightclub.
I was there to cover the aftermath of all of it.
I’ve been in the background of more death than I can fully wrap my mind around.
I have seen more people than I can recall during the absolute worst times in their lives. I came into these moments as a stranger and people trusted me to have the last word in the story of someone the loved.
I valued that trust and treated it with care.
I covered murders, rapes, suicides, drownings.
I learned to call them car crashes because sometimes it was no accident.
And for me, like so many victims and witnesses have described tragedy to me in the past, “it was like a movie”… It had to be.
In order to ask questions that were unnatural to me. In order to drive in the direction of tragedy instead of away. In order be worthy of the trust that people put in me…
I had to find a way to separate myself from the reality. If I didn’t it would have consumed me. And I couldn’t let that happen because again, this was not about me.
In fact, in my years as a journalist that was something I constantly reminded myself about… “Don’t become the news.”
I don’t remember when I started to say it. But I repeated that to myself. I repeated it to my coworkers. I repeated it to my friends.
I quit my job as a reporter in September. With that I left a part of me to die. But I also gained a new part of me as well.
Orlando Mass Shooting
Today, the biggest news story to come out of Orlando since I quit happened. My old coworkers are working on it right now. They are calling it the worst mass shooting in American history.
The. Worst. In. History.
I still can’t fully wrap my mind around that sentence. But still, at least 50 people are dead in the place I called home for three years. More could die.
I don’t understand what that means — 50 people are dead. More could die. It doesn’t make sense.
My friends are the ones who are telling their stories today and will keep telling their stories for months to come. Even when the national news cameras leave, my friends will be there telling the stories.
Years from now, the newspaper I worked for will remember this. They will write stories on the anniversaries. First every year. Then maybe just the big, round-numbered anniversaries.
They will write: Today is the anniversary of the worst mass shooting in American history.
That is going to happen.
This story history now. This is a part of the fabric of Orlando forever. It will be as much a part of Orlando as Disney, even if it’s not in the travel brochures, it will be there living and breathing under the surface.
This is now a part of the fabric of the people who experienced it. Living and breathing under the surface. Forever.
This will forever be the worst mass shooting in American history — until it’s not anymore.
People changed today. They are not the people they were yesterday. And the words to make other people understand the significance if they don’t already, those words don’t exist.
The words to make it clear that lives will now be measured in terms of “before the shooting” and “after the shooting,” those words don’t exist.
Either you get it. Or you don’t.
I cried for my friends and the victims and their families and the police officers and the medics and everyone in a way that I never would have been able to if I were still a journalist and I was on the ground covering the story.
Even now, as I’m writing this, I’m in a waiting room inside the intensive care unit of a Miami hospital.
I’m waiting to find out how a friend’s father is doing after he was injured in a fall that happened more than 300 miles away from the events in Orlando and had nothing to do with them.
What’s happening in his hospital room is not a news story.
Worlds are colliding and I’m oscillating between “the movie” and my real life.
After years of separating myself from the news so I could cover it with as clear a head as possible, I’m learning what it’s like just to live inside of the pain. I’m learning what it’s like to worry.
I’m learning that it is not a movie.
I’m learning that even though we all walk around thinking it — whatever “it” may be — will never happen to us, it can.
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