Forward Together… Nine Years Later

12:14am… February 14. The date I read on my phone took me by surprise. I knew Valentine’s Day was around the corner, but it seemed to arrive sooner than I realized. Even when I see grocery stores beginning to showcase their finest bouquets, or when drug stores have the plush teddy bears with the heart shaped candy, it’s still hard for me to separate the holiday with what this day really signifies for me. This date hasn’t felt the same since Valentine’s Day 2008. Nine years have passed since the 2.14 Northern Illinois University campus shooting during my freshman year. Nearly a decade when a former NIU student walked into an oceanography class and senselessly opened fire. Their faces and names have an imprint in my memory. Ryanne Mace, Catalina Garcia, Gayle Dubowski, Dan Parmenter, Julianna Gehant, and Steven Kazmierczak. Six lives who’s story had ended prematurely. For six different families, I’m sure this day will never get any easier for them.

Once the calendar changes from the 13th to the 14th, moments from that day come flooding back to me. The faces from the students running into the dining hall, who were seeking refuge, is tattooed in my brain. I don’t think I’ve ever seen fear so clearly illustrated than in their expressions. I remember consoling friends near me. “Is there there a second shooter?” “Which of our friends are safe?” “Did we know anyone in that class?” All questions that were racing through our mind in a very short period of time. Things just happened so rapidly at that point. Watching the police force storm their way into Cole Hall. Huddling up and praying with a group of strangers in a dorm room. Calling family members sharing with them I was safe. Hearing dozens of ambulances arriving on campus from any surrounding hospital. Seeing news-copters circling above while stretchers were being pulled out from the scene of the incident. It was hard to wrap our heads around the images that were taking place before us.

There are certain watermark moments in your life. Moments that leave a lasting impression that seem to follow the path with you. I’ve often wondered why this event has impacted me as much as it has. We’re infiltrated with bad news on a daily basis, news of tragedies worldwide. I didn’t know any of the victims personally. I wasn’t in the classroom, and haven’t suffered with PTSD since that event, unlike some people I know. Despite those circumstances, it is an event that impacted me directly. These were students just like me. Students that had a meal plan and would eat at Dog Pound Deli, students who would have study sessions at the Founder’s Memorial Library, students who would attend fraternity parties on Greenbrier, students that were sitting in the same uncomfortable lecture hall chairs of Cole Hall, just like me. I could’ve been sitting there with them. It’s sobering to think that I almost registered for that same class, at the same time. It was only from my mother’s suggestion to change my schedule, which is the only reason I wasn’t sitting there with them. I do believe that was the Holy Spirit using my mother’s intuition, and gave her the discernment to know I shouldn’t be there. Hearing their names in the news, seeing their faces in the paper, gave me an appreciation for the gift I was given in life, and my heart broke for their loved ones.

Each year, it’s been neat to see the Huskie community come together around this time. Just when I think too much time has gone by, and it would no longer be acknowledged, I see many former NIU students change their Facebook profile picture to a memorial image. Old friends will reach out, share memories of our time at school together, and give loving tributes online. Even though a lot of us didn’t know the students that were lost, we still feel an obligation to remember. We remember the students that were just like us, students that were enjoying all the excitement that comes with being in college, students just like us who’s life was unexpectedly cut short. They leave a legacy and a reminder that life is a gift, that life cannot be wasted. A day that was surrounded by horror and sadness nine years ago, falls on a day celebrating love. We need to show love to one another, say “I love you” whenever we have a chance. The love we have for our family and friends needs to permeate to our neighbors and the world around us. For a while, I couldn’t separate the sadness that loomed with this day. I didn’t see Valentine’s Day as a day that needed to be celebrated. Now I see it as a day of love, remembrance, and embracing the blessings that our Lord has given us. I am thankful for the life I have been granted, and for the memories and friendships NIU gave me many years ago.