Dandelions Growing Through the Cracks in OD OG

  • Feb. 5, 2024, 9 a.m.
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  • Public

“Please, mom, don’t let me get shot-I don’t want to die yet.”

My 8 year old begs me this as we are running to the exit of the mall. The crowd blurs around us. I can’t pick out individual people-only smears of frantic movement looking for the doors. I hear a teen, maybe a few years older than B, yell into her phone, “There’s an active shooter-I’m trying to get out, I don’t know what the fuck is going on!” I wonder if she is talking to her mother. An old man who had just come in, sees everyone running for the exit. He turns around a trifle confused and mostly afraid. “What’s happening? Is the mall being evacuated?” he asks me. “There’s someone shooting in the mall, get out!” I answer him, as I wrap myself around Rowan as much as possible and crane my neck looking for my ex and Bridget, as we get on the downbound escalator. Where are they? They were right beside me a minute ago. Then I look up, she has stopped at the top of the escalator in a panic—her shoes have come untied. People are pushing around them. Her father is urging her to get on, to hurry, & she is frozen, not knowing what to do. I have always told her to make sure her shoes are tied before getting on an escalator, after hearing years of horrifying news accounts of kids’ feet getting sucked into the hungry machinations of the moving stairs & she has been listening. But I have not told her what to do when there is an active shooter in the mall that you’re visiting on a day off from school.

As I watch my ex and daughter disappear from the horizon at top of the escalator, presumably to take the stairs, I yell, “I’ll find you at the bottom.” I feel a feverish anxiety that they are out of my sight. I hold Rowan in front of me, hoping that it will make him less of a target from behind, should it come to that. God, it’s not going to come to that, is it? We get off the escalator, my hand hits the bar to open the door & I push him outside, whipping my head around to see Mike & Bridget heading towards us from the stairwell. Only then does it occur to me, that I have not promised my son that he is going to be ok.

We run to the car in the parking lot. I hold onto Rowie by the hood of his coat, as if he might turn to fog if I let him go. I tell him we’re almost there, we’re almost at the car & then we are going to drive away from here. It’s going to be ok, we’re ok. When we get in the car, we all sit there in stunned silence for a minute. When the kids ask us what happened exactly, neither their father or I know how to answer.

The day started out as a fun family trip to the mall about 50 minutes from our city. The kids are off from school, so I wanted to do something different with them. We usually take them to the mall as a special little trip & make a day of it as a family, as non-traditional as it might be for 2 exes to take the kids together. Other parents had the same idea of occupying their children with a day at the mall. It was packed with teens & children off from school & exasperated, but loving mothers. We had our traditional lunch at Johnny Rockets and went to the Lego Store and 5 Below, as well as a few other stores. I wanted to go to this huge Burlington they have on the bottom level, but Rowan was starting to get overstimulated & I had already spent so much money that I put that plan to rest 6 feet under. (Thank God our plans changed. We would’ve been right near where the shots happened.) I told them we would get a boba tea on our way out as a treat to end the day. We had just picked up our orders when there was a furious pounding on the window. A man was trying to get his daughter’s attention. He yells at her to leave the boba tea place. At first, Mike & I think he’s just an asshole. But then the daughter points at the pickup window— “But my drink!” He yells, “Forget the fucking drink! They’re shooting! They’re shooting! We gotta get out of here!” As they turn and run, I see everyone running from the same direction he just came…all you can hear is muffled shouts, the shuffling of coats and clothes and rustling of bags. It’s a symphony of panic. The security runs towards where all the people are coming from, pulling their walkie-talkies from their waistbands. I tell Mike to grab Bridget and not to let go of her, I grab Rowan and we run with the rest of the crowd.

And then, my son begs me not to let him get shot, because he’s not ready to die yet.

In the car, Rowan is quiet…contemplating everything as he sips his boba tea. I try to find a police scanner that might tell what is going on. Rowan quietly asks if we can talk about better things, happier things. We agree to do so. We ask a few times if they are both ok. Bridget is more vocal about being ok than Rowan, who only nods reluctantly as he sips his drink. After a few minutes on the road, my ex pulls over at a rest stop. He says he needs to use the restroom-but I can see his hands are shaking. Rowan goes inside with him. He asks my ex lots of questions about what happened, but seems settled when he comes out to the car. When we get home, Rowan & Bridget play with their Legos, as my ex & I pour more than a thimbleful of vodka into our glasses.

I hate that this place my children associated with happy memories of their family is now tainted with violence. I hate that my son contemplated the possibility that he might get shot. I hate that I can’t promise an umbrella of safety to cover them wherever they go. For years, I’ve long known this logically, that at this point, I cannot even guarantee my children will come home from school…(After all, I come from the Columbine Shooting generation….our school getting dismissed in active shooter drills and lockdown drills. Something my older sister never experienced. Something that has only gotten jarringly worse over time.) I hate that I cannot be the forcefield to take the hits.

And then…

Of course–
there is my own damage, my own secret handshake with guns & violence.

As a 6 year old, my uncle & his friend shot a cow in front of me, repeatedly… and forced me to watch. The cow performed a ballet full of suffering-trying to lift its body up again and again in an ugly dance of survival, till finally, they put a bullet through its head. It made a horrible groan before laying still. They were torturing it to send a message to me. This. This is what will happen to you if you tell.

When I was a little older & my parents threatened my uncle with eviction, he threatened frequently to annihilate my family and then blow his own brains out. The sheriff deputies said, “Till he does it, nothing we can do.” Till he fucking kills you, don’t call us. Ok, thanks. I remember my dad sneaking out to the milk-house once, where my uncle’s gun rack was once and realizing with ice in his belly, that the rifle was missing for God-knows-what-reason. Around this time, my dad began taking me out to the field, even though I was probably only 8 or so & showing me how to shoot a gun. “Just in case” sounding a lot like “it is going to come down to defending ourselves.”

As a 9 year old, my uncle shot at me as I waited for the bus. I stood there in my red plaid dress with the bib collar, ankle socks…more backpack than kid. And that rotten fuck took a sniper shot at me from behind. He hid in the milk-house, aimed his rifle at me and pulled the trigger. I can still hear the thundercrack & then the bullet whistling past my braids, before lodging itself in the wood of the shed across the road. The sound of it hitting wood, reverberating across the fields. I didn’t beg my mom to save me from being shot. I didn’t even stay home. I stood there, a bass drum of blood in my ears, and waited for the bus to take me to school, which was the only safe place I had to go. I saved my fucking self.

Later in life, I was immersed in a lifestyle that lent itself to gun violence. Even though I was not a drug user, my husband was & our people-places-things were all unsafe. Once, I was in a convenience store, waiting for Alex to make a “purchase” in the back when someone came in claiming to have a gun, threatening to shoot the place up because one of the owners had stolen something from him. (To be more specific: a 19 inch tv. I wish I was joking, but the guy legit threatened to shoot everyone in there over a 19 inch tv. cue up the shrugs Crackheads are not known for logic.) I hid behind an almost empty rack of generic greeting cards, praying he wouldn’t shoot me. The man left before Alex came out of the back with his “goods” to find me huddled behind the rack, shaking and terrified. Another time, I had a drug dealer roll up on me at a stoplight and threaten to shoot me because Alex had stiffed him on drug money while using my verrrry recognizable car. (At the time, I was driving a super old Corsica with a wide patch of silver duct tape over the lock mechanism on the driver’s side door. We called that car The Bruise.) When he realized I was not Alex, that Alex was not with me, he drove off.

It’s hard not to think about these life events after yesterday & how, even though I have learned to function around the poison of them, the memories still impact me. (My belief system is largely made up of being mistrustful of others & avoiding anything that can be seen as my vulnerability.) I worry about how my children will frame this moment at the mall, if this will change how they see the world. However, I think the only thing I can do is try to keep perspective. My children were not exposed to the level of violence involving a gun (or otherwise) that I knew as a child. I think, mostly likely, my kids will be ok…a little wiser & sadder perhaps, but ok. I think the important thing is that my children knew they could look to their parents for help in a scary situation & that there was room for them to talk & express they’re feelings about it. They have a lot more going for them in the pros column, when it comes to how they end up processing this experience.

And really, at the end of the day, there is so little we have control over…certainly not lunatics with loaded guns in the middle of crowded malls. Sometimes all you can do is hold onto your kid as you escape a bad situation and provide reassurance to them.

I can only hope that like dandelions that grow through cracks in the sidewalk, my children are determined with their desire to look past the concrete in order to see the sun. (Even as I finish writing this, my son just came into my room to give me a kiss on the cheek, unbidden…just because he wanted me to know he loves me. The world isn’t so bad after all, I guess. Not when he & Bridget are in it.)

Written in February 2023

Last updated February 11, 2024

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