STEM Shooting – 1 Year Later (Part 1)

by Charity

**Warning: Trigger Alert**

**This post contains content regarding school shootings and related events. Please take care of your mental health and skip this post if needed.**

Shooting ?

This is the exact text message I got from my friend when I learned there was an active shooter at my daughter’s school.

One word.
Eight letters. 
Every parent’s worst nightmare.

And then-
Your breath is sucked away.
Your heart stops.
Your brain short circuits.
And your whole world stops and spins at the same time.

For me, this moment is exactly 2:18pm on Tuesday, May 7, 2019.

This date, time, text message and scene will be forever seared in my memory.  The snapshot of this exact time, down to the second, has been the picture in my mind everyday, multiple times a day, for the last year.  I know it has a permanent home there, and I’ll never be able to force it to move out.  But it’s hard not to watch it when it’s on replay.  No matter how bad I want to hit pause and stop the neverending horror show for a while, I can’t.  So I live with it and try not to let it’s big ugly face take over the rest of my life.  I have compartmentalized it, and it’s under a triple lock and key, but the monster lives in a clear case so I can’t avoid seeing the horrid thing locked inside.

It was one of those super rare days in Colorado where it was cold and literally rained all day long. Cloudy, dreary, gray, the whole nine yards.  That never happens here.  But it did on this day.

It had already been an extremely tough few days for me.  For those of you who saw my Facebook or Instagram posts yesterday, my sweet nephew, Declan Jace was born straight into the arms of Jesus on Monday, May 6, 2019.  I had been at the hospital until about 3am, and back at the hospital bright and early on Monday morning.  I was tired and completely, emotionally drained.  The morning of May 7, Andy let me sleep in while he got Adalyn ready for school.  I have this rule where I ALWAYS give each kid a hug and say I love you before they leave for school because you never know what will happen, or if it will be the last time you see them for whatever reason. I heard them start to leave the house and I was just so tired, I didn’t run downstairs to give Adalyn a hug. They yelled goodbye and I yelled it back. I laid in bed, upset with myself for not going and giving her a hug.  Then I thought, it’s fine. Chill out. Nothing’s going to happen and everything will be fine.  Sleeping is important.  

I don’t really remember much about that morning.  I went to the hospital to be with my family and say goodbye to my precious nephew for the last time. I don’t remember where the little kids were or who they were with, but I eventually got them back before I had to go pick up Adalyn from school. I had made plans with one of my best friends, Stephanie, to go to dinner with our kids that night just so I could decompress and talk to a friend.

I loaded up the littles around 2:00pm like I always do and started heading to STEM. It takes me 12 minutes door to door.  Shortly after I left my house, Stephanie texted me again and said, “Do you have Adalyn?”  I thought it was kind of a funny message, but  I figured she was wondering if all my kids would be joining us for dinner because so many other people had been watching my kids over the last few days. So I voice texted back, “Yes, I’m headed to get her now. I have the other kids with me too.”  She responded.  “Ok, good.”  I didn’t think much of it and I was driving so I totally missed the text after that which read, “My friend just texted me a disturbing thing about STEM School.” (I didn’t even know this text existed until I looked back at the text chain when I started to write this blog post.)

 A minute later, I got a text message from Carter’s school (which I happened to be right in front of when I got that text) that said they were on lockdown due to an incident at a nearby school.  I really didn’t think much of that either.  It seems like we are always on lockdown for something. Lightening, coyotes, all sorts of stuff.  And rarely do I actually worry about it.  I was stopped at a red light on the corner, and a police car who was also stopped behind me, suddenly turned on his lights and burned rubber, speeding around me. I blurted out to the kids, “Wow, he’s in a hurry!” At this point, I should have figured something was up, but I was still pretty oblivious to the fact that whatever was happening could potentially be at STEM.  I texted my friend back and said there was definitely something going on.  She said yes and that she was trying to figure out what school it was at.  

At this point, I’m about a mile away from the school.  More police cars are zooming by and I see one coming toward me on the other side of the road.  The street to go to STEM is between me and him.  I prayed, “Dear Jesus, please do not let that police car turn on Ridgeline.” Right then, as if the police car was mocking me, it turned and I knew instantly that whatever was going on was happening at her school. At this point, I’m starting to panic a little. I have no idea what’s going on, but something is definitely going on. I texted my friend that whatever was going on was happening at STEM. She responded, “Yes.  Shooting ?.”  I read that word at the exact moment I looked up from my phone to see a dozen police cars with lights flashing surrounding the school.

That image.  That moment.  That single point in time is burned into my memory forever.  I have yet to write about it, think about it or talk about it without getting chills and a flood of emotions, so vividly bringing me back to that moment, every single time.  It will haunt me forever.

“Oh my God.”  Those were the only words I could text. “Oh my God.  Oh my God.”  My fingers couldn’t find any other keys to hit.  They were just responding to the words screaming out in my head. “Oh my God!”  

Other friends are starting to text and call at this point.  I don’t know which calls to answer or what messages to respond to.  (Of course, the first person I would call in any situation is my husband Andy, but I knew he was working across town and didn’t have his phone with him, so I didn’t waste time trying to get a hold of him.  I had no way to contact him.  Eventually, they made an announcement in his building and he was able to call me.)  So I did what most anyone would do: I called my mom. I told her there had been a shooting at Adalyn’s school and that I needed her to get information for me. 

Another one of my close friends texted and asked if I was okay and if she could do anything.  I responded, “I just held a dead baby and I’m a little emotional.”  Looking back, it was such a strange thing to say, but I think in that moment I was feeling the disbelief of everything that had happened in the last few days.  It was more of a “I just held a sweet, innocent baby who didn’t deserve to die.  That was so hard.  This can’t be happening because this is way too hard to deal with on top of everything else. More people don’t deserve to die.  None of this seems real.”  

If you are a parent reading this blog post, and you have not been in this situation before, I know you’ve imagined what it would be like.  You have to, right?  Because the reality is, far too many of us have experienced it, or know people who have lived through it.  Everyone knows someone.  And unfortunately, many more will find themselves staring at this giant right in its ugly face.

It’s all the feelings you would imagine it to be.


But the one feeling I was not prepared for was complete and total helplessness.  I mean COMPLETELY helpless.  My baby girl is in that school where someone is shooting people with a gun and I can’t do a single thing about it.  Not. One. Thing. All I can do is stare at the building and wonder.

What do I do?
Is she okay?
Is she alive?
Has she been shot?
Is she injured?
I need to call her.
She’s 7, she has no phone.
What are her 7-year old eyes seeing and ears hearing?
Is this a Sandy Hook type situation?
Is she in the bathroom? Oh God, please don’t let her be in the bathroom.
Is she in her classroom?
Does she have blood on her?
Is she freaking out?
There are 1,800 students in the school.  Surely she would not fall into the tiny percentage of people who don’t make it out alive, right?
But we always seem to fall in the tiny margins of unfortunate situations.
What do I do?

All of these thoughts and questions were flooding my mind at the same time. I was probably only standing there for about 30 seconds, but I remember thinking every single one of them, and probably more.

Other elementary parents who were also in driveline were running up and down the sidewalk.  
Some were crying.  
Some were running towards the school. 
Some were running away.

What do I do?
My gut reaction was to run towards the school, but I had Carter and Aubrey in the back seat.

Can I leave them there?
Do I get them out of the car and take them with me?
No, that doesn’t seem like the right choice.
Maybe I should just leave them in the car?
Can I really leave them there?
What do I do?
I can’t panic.  I don’t want them to see me panic.
Should I cry?  I feel like crying is the appropriate reaction, but I can’t.  I’m too numb.
Shock.  I think I’m in shock.
I can’t think clearly.
What should I do?
Should I call someone?
Who do I call?
I can’t just keep standing here.

This thought cycle led me to get in and out of the car many times.  I vividly remember trying so hard to figure out what to do and not being able to make a decision.  So I would get in my car when I thought I couldn’t leave them alone, and then I’d get out of my car when I thought I could leave them there and just get a little closer to the building.  And then back in, back out. They are safer sitting in the car than my other kid is who is potentially trying to dodge bullets in her classroom, right?

I’ve since learned that doing something repetitive like that is a classic trauma response.  Your brain is looping, trying to figure out what to do and how to cope with the intense surge of emotions that just consumed your body.  The top part of your brain activates, lights up and goes into overdrive.  This is the whole fight or flight response, and that’s actually where the term “flip your lid” comes from.  

I couldn’t figure out what to do.
I mean, no one was telling me to leave.  
So I shouldn’t leave, right?
If I left, where would I go?
Why would I leave when my kid is in that building?

At this point, one person was yelling that the perimeter was not secure and for everyone to leave and another person was yelling for everyone to go to a nearby rec center. I just stood there waiting to see what the majority of people were doing because so many people were saying so many different things. More and more people started getting in their cars and soon the official word was they were bussing all of the kids to the rec center and that we were supposed to go there. Tons of texts from my friends confirmed that.  And it finally gave me something to do.

Credit 9News/via YouTube

I called Stephanie to meet me and take my kids.  By then, everything had been blocked off and we had to meet in a nearby parking lot. I dropped off my kids and then drove to the rec center, located on a major street called Broadway. People were literally parking in the middle of the road, leaving their cars and running to the rec center to find their kids. I pulled off and parked in a nearby neighborhood.  I ran in the rain to the rec center.  There was no reason to run, but I did anyway.

I was one of the first people to get to the gym we were being escorted to.  I found myself standing there watching the crowd in the gym grow and grow until it was standing room only.  I could hear ambulances zipping by and helicopters flying overhead, and couldn’t help by wonder, is my daughter in one of them?

As I was standing there trying to process what was happening, I remember thinking that I was living in a really strange period of time.  I now personally refer to it as “the time in between.”  Only the people in the middle of the nightmare at hand really understand this chunk of time between learning about the event and knowing the outcome.  When most people think back on these kinds of events, they can immediately recall the details they learned on the news or the victims who died or the reason for the shooting.  But they don’t remember the time in between, this awful limbo, where we didn’t know if our children, friends, family, coworkers, were dead or alive or somewhere in between. And what the motive was to trigger such an awful thing. I wanted the time in between to be over.  It was lasting forever.

Arriving at the Rec. Center

The phone lines were completely jammed and I couldn’t make calls or receive calls.  I hunkered down by some windows and was able to receive texts every now and then. This is how I learned that the “incident” probably included older kids.  Then I started hearing chatter that the parents of students who were injured had already been contacted.  The updates the police were giving us on site had no information about what had happened; it was all about how they were coming up with a procedure for the reunification with our kids.  I had to rely on text messages and hearsay about what had happened.  It was all in my favor, so I clung to it.  At some point, Andy found me in the insanely crowded gym, and we just stood there, barely speaking words to each other. They finally updated us that kids were starting to arrive and what the process would be to be reunited with them.

When it was time for the first graders, they took us to another room and had us fill out paperwork before we could be reunited with our children.

There aren’t enough copies!
Will someone please make more copies?!
I need a pen.
I don’t have a pen in my purse.
Will someone please give me a pen?! 
We can’t have our kids back until we turn in this stupid piece of paper.
I just need a pen!

The second memory that will never leave my mind is when Adalyn’s class came into view.  They were all walking hand in hand in a single file line in the rain.  I saw Adalyn and my breath that was stolen from me at 2:18pm that day started to return, nearly 4 hours later.  I gave her a hug and tried to act as normal as possible (even though there wasn’t a single, normal thing about any of it).  She was wet and cold. She had worn shorts and a t-shirt that day and had been standing out in the rain for God knows how long.  She was giggling with her nervous laugh that she does when she’s scared or doesn’t know what’s going on.  I gave her my sweatshirt, grabbed her hand, and we walked out of the building, back into the rain. 

We had just walked out of a real-life nightmare.

People leaving the Rec. Center
Credit: CBS 4 Denver (Photo by CHET STRANGE/AFP/Getty Images)

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