It was graduation night for the group of cosmetologists at the hair school I work at, and I was unsure of how the night would unfold. Was I going to go out and celebrate? Was I going to meet up with the now graduates and some of the educators? Nothing out of the norm for a graduation night, but my friend, Ana, was visiting. I found myself sitting on the couch with her and another close friend talking about life and just having one of those good deep thinking conversations. It was too late when I decided I needed to get home and my bed sounded like the best idea.
I tend to be an early riser, but I woke up later than usual that Sunday morning. I glanced at my phone and noticed a slew of notifications.
“Alex, just tell me you’re OK. I’m worried.”
“Alex, I just saw the news. Are you OK??”
“Hey, girl. Please tell me you and the students are OK??? Text me back!”
Missed call after missed call. I was being tagged in Facebook posts. What the hell was going on?? I got online and my heart sank. “Mass shooting at Pulse nightclub. Several confirmed dead”. I still get goosebumps. I frequented Pulse. Pulse could’ve been a stop last night while celebrating graduation. I live less than 10 minutes down the road. My mind started to race. Did anyone tell me they were going last night?? Is everyone I know OK?? I started to text everyone in my phone; panicked. The number of deaths was rising. It would later turn out that I did know family members and/or partners of some of victims.
I spent that morning watching live streams of news coverage. Crying. Sobbing. Then going into leadership mode. Trying to figure out if everyone I knew and loved was safe. Helping those I knew who didn’t know if their loved ones were OK. Then back to crying. I remember answering texts back letting people know I was OK and them replying, “Thank God!” I remember breaking down at one point and saying, ” I am thankful it wasn’t me. But for so many it was. And I can’t handle that thought.” I felt guilt. I felt extreme sadness. I felt confusion. Why? Why? Why?
Ana picked me up only a few hours later and we were on our way to figure out how to help. Mister Rogers once spoke about seeing scary things on the news and his Mom would say, “Look for the helpers. There is always someone who is trying to help.” I couldn’t keep sitting at home. I had to get out with my friend – we had to help.
The sun started to set and we had way too many donations at our site. Some of the people we met decided that we’d all pack up our cars and drive the donations to another location that had nothing. We figured the families of the victims could use everything we had. We were told to head into a room and to just start dropping off the things we had in the corner.
I walked into a cold, drab room with white tile floors. It reminded me of my elementary school’s cafeteria. There were tables all around the room with what appeared to be law enforcement officers, detectives, and social workers. People were sitting at the table with them describing their loved ones. Some looked dazed and confused. Some spoke quietly and sadly while others cried uncontrollably. “He wore a bracelet that he didn’t take off. It was gold.” I heard a woman say. “Did he have anything else that you’d recognize him by? Tattoos? Where on his body?” the lady helping asked. At this point, the victims’ bodies were still at Pulse and had yet to be identified. As I was walking out to grab another cart full of food and water, I saw a police officer confirming to a woman that her son had been identified in the club and he was deceased.
There’s something about witnessing that moment – a mother finding out her child is no longer alive. It’s almost like I could see her world crashing down around her, I could feel her heart beat stop and I could feel the air getting knocked out of her. I could feel her suffocation and feel her losing herself for a brief moment in time. I walked out and immediately started to cry to Ana who had also witnessed it. We didn’t realize where we were being told to go and that we were walking in on these intimate moments. The group agreed that we would stop walking in and out of that room and drop off our donations in another area.
I heard from a friend in law enforcement that the cops were struggling as they walked around the club trying to identify people. Hearing the victims’ phones go off. A room full of vibrations, ringing, alert tones. Their friends and family I’m sure texting and calling the same things I had woken up to that morning.
I walked into work Monday morning like a complete zombie. My friend and co-worker, Mark, walked into my office looking the same. We sat in silence for a few moments before we started to cry. I walked downstairs and a student walked up to me. I remember his hug, so tight and so scared feeling. I could feel him cry into me. All I could muster was, “I’m sorry. I am with you.” as I cried with him. We suspended class and had a day of wellness. Letting students cry, talk, create art, etc. I left early that day and went straight to the memorial. Holding my candle while the city mourned together; listening to 49 bells ring eerily in a somber downtown. Everywhere you turned in the city there was artwork, posters, stuffed animals, etc. There were people praying. There were people crying. There was music both upbeat and sad. It was beautiful and it was tragic.
I spent that week creating a list of therapists and grief counselors that could come out and speak to our students and staff. I was even able to have therapy dogs come out. Watching those golden retrievers march in with their little vests that say, “Please pet me. I’m here for you!” will make you feel all kinds of things even if animals aren’t your thing.
Those sad, gloomy days turned into weeks. The city was one big memorial site. The news was filled with the stories and accounts of those who survived and the stories of those who didn’t. All social media platforms were remembering the 49. It was a while before “normal” crept back in. Our own Orlando kind of normal. Showing the world why we’re called The City Beautiful.
There’s not a day I drive past Pulse that I don’t see people there. For a place that holds such sadness, you find such calm there. There are groups that go to give free hugs, counseling, to just chat, etc.
I remember visiting one day and a lady saw me and started to cry harder than she already was. “I’m sorry, you look like Amanda. She died here. Do you know her? You look exactly like her. May I hug you?” I nodded and held her while she cried. We were meant to see each other that day. Those moments remind me that there is something bigger than us.
In a few days it will have been one year. 365 days. I can only imagine what those days have been like for those affected directly. Filled with grief. Filled with healing. Filled with nothingness and and filled with everything.
I’ve never sat down and wrote about Pulse. I tried many times, but I’d find myself too overwhelmed. This week I feel a lot of that sadness resurfacing. I feel that woman’s pain and yet I feel the numbness. That deafening, frightening quiet creeps in and I’m back to that day scrambling to help and seeing all those faces again.
There are hundreds more like me. Who have their own memory of that day. Their own experience on June 12th. Who have a deep love for Orlando like me.
This is our city. This is our community. Our hearts may have been broken a year ago, but we beam with pride to call this city home. There isn’t anywhere else I’d rather be or any place else I’d want to call home.
I encourage you to read the stories of those there that night or who knew someone there: Dear World: Orlando
Take a moment to pick out an Act of Love this month and honor the 49:
You can find out how to volunteer here: One Orlando Alliance
You can learn more about the Pulse Memorial here: OnePULSE Foundation
I remember spending nights where I’d just say their names out loud anytime I saw the list. I think that something I’ve learned is that we can’t allow them to fade away. Remembering how important these individuals were and are. We mustn’t forget. Say their names:
Only the best Orlando love and light to you all. Forever, for always. Love, love, love.