Nine years, three months and 25 days ago, my friend Carol was celebrating her 20th birthday while at college in Arizona. Carol’s friend, Nicole, who went to college in Maryland, flew across the country to celebrate with her. Before our friends on the east coast were awake to call and say happy birthday, they had both been shot and killed.
You always hear that victims of crimes like this were “the life of the party,” but damn it if Carol wasn’t the life of every single party. She had the biggest smile the world has ever seen. She could hold the attention of every person in the room with whatever she was doing or saying, and she knew it. I’ve known thousands of people in my life, and I can say with full confidence that I’ve never known anyone that more genuinely wanted to make sure that every person around them was having fun. Carol felt it was her responsibility to make that happen. I was not there the night she was murdered, but I can guarantee that in the hours before it happened, she made sure that every person around her was having a great time.
Carol was also fiercely supportive and protective of her friends. If you were with her, she had your back 100 percent — always. She had everyone’s best interests at heart. It was that which motivated her to tell a college friend to steer clear of a boy she’d been dating. He was bad news, and Carol knew it. Carol’s friend must have known it, too, because she listened to Carol and broke it off with bad news boyfriend.
Three nights later, on Carol’s birthday, he went to the parking lot of Carol’s apartment complex. He sat there, armed with two guns, for hours. He had countless opportunities to walk away and not do what he’d do next, but he didn’t take any of them. Instead, he laid in wait and sprung a trap. When Carol and Nicole got out of her car after their night of celebrating, he jumped out and shot Carol in the head. She died instantly. Nicole tried to run away, but he shot her in the back. Then he walked 15 feet away from their bodies and shot himself. He exited the world like a coward rather than face what he’d done. Nicole fought as hard as she could to survive, but died an hour later in the hospital.
I heard about the shootings the next day, as the news made its way across the country. I immediately booked a flight home and prepared to attend the dual funeral a few days later. I arrived at the funeral an hour early and found myself with no place to sit. The ceremony was so jam-packed that my friends and I had to stand in the hallway outside the room with hundreds of others. Carol and Nicole’s friends and family shared beautiful, tearful remembrances of them both. You could barely hear them over the sounds of everyone else in the room crying as well, but I didn’t cry until much later.
We all left the service and drove down the Long Island Expressway to the burial site. Multiple lanes of traffic were shut down to allow the massive line of cars free passage to get where we were going. On the way there, a friend remarked that Carol would have absolutely loved this. The entire freeway was shut down just for her — she was the center of everyone’s attention.
Carol and Nicole were buried side-by-side in front of what must have been at least 1,000 people. It’s Jewish tradition that friends and family members who attend a funeral pick up a shovel and pour dirt onto the coffins themselves, so that they truly bury their loved ones, rather than letting strangers that work at the cemetery do it. The line to pick up the shovel and pour dirt and Carol and Nicole’s coffins was nearly half an hour long.
I went back to school after that, and for a while, everything was fine. When I returned home for the summer, it suddenly wasn’t. I would often find myself unable to get out of the car and make my walk to the door of my house. I was paralyzed with fear that something would happen to me on the way there. I’d sit in my car for what felt like an hour, looking around in every possible direction as much as I could to make sure no one was waiting there for me. Then I’d get out and sprint to the door as fast as I could, before closing and locking it behind me to make sure nobody else could get in.
I did this for about a month before one day I just couldn’t get out of my car at all, and I finally broke down crying. I told my parents what I’d been going through, and they sent me to see someone. He told me again and again that what I’d been experiencing wasn’t fear, but guilt. My friends were killed on their walk from the car to the door. I couldn’t stop imagining that someone would similarly ambush my walk from the car to the door. He said I was almost hoping that they would, so that I could somehow stop the attack and prove to myself that I could have saved my friends, had I been there. But the truth is that I couldn’t. I was on the other side of the country, and anyway, he was a crazed lunatic with a gun. If I’d been there, I’d be dead, too. It wasn’t healthy to blame myself, or to imagine the same thing happening to me.
It took me awhile to accept that, but eventually, I did. It took me awhile to get out of the car without hesitation and fear, but eventually, I did. It took me awhile stop sprinting from the car to the door, but eventually, I did. It took me awhile to stop thinking about what happened every single day, but eventually, I did.
I now only think about what happened when it’s Carol’s birthday, or Nicole’s, or any time there’s a shooting. There was one this morning at a night club in Orlando, and it brought all my memories back. The murders, how I found out about them, the funeral, the procession, the traffic lanes, the burial, the shovels, the sprint to the door. All of it came rushing back, as it always does.
Just as there were when my friends were killed, there will be people that send thoughts and prayers to the family and friends of the victims in Orlando. There will be people that caution against politicizing a tragedy. There will be people that talk about how “a good guy with a gun” could have stopped Omar Mateen from doing what he did. And there will likely be no action taken to stop people like Omar Mateen or the man — the boy — that murdered my friends from getting their hands on guns in the first place. And a few days or a few weeks or a few months from now, there will be another shooting, one that brings back all my memories once again. And the cycle will start all over from there.