I wore mirrored sunglasses and waterproof mascara, but forgot sunscreen and kleenex.
All was not well, but I was holding it together, albeit more like with scotch tape than duct tape. That is until I exited the expressway and smacked into hundreds of signs of solidarity at the corner of E. South St. and S. Rosalind Ave.
I continued west on E. South, rounded the corner onto S. Orange Ave., panicked at “where the hell am I supposed to park!”, and pulled into a gravel lot I’m pretty sure was technically off-limits but that it was not a business day and across the street from the lawn of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, currently a memorial space for the Pulse tragedy.
I wore my favorite black sundress, a sharp A-line number I picked out when I discovered I had “nothing to wear” to a first date beach date for sunrise three months ago. The position of the dress straps lined up with my swimsuit straps, also purchased specifically for said first date. This dress quickly became one of my favorites, so much so that I went back and bought a second one in a different color. White. Because my closet would rebel against anything not black or white or shades of gray. A black dress seemed appropriate for the occasion, and this particular black dress is wind resistant, as in gusts of wind don’t turn it into a Marilyn Monroe moment.
It was a very windy day. My hair whipped around my face as I crossed E. Anderson St. at S. Orange to get to the lawn. I have a lot of hair, a mess of curly tangles. The rainbow arch of balloons gave up a yellow that bounced across the street in an ebb of traffic. Traffic seemed light, but it was a Sunday.
People were signing a large condolences board with Crayola markers, over and around a week’s worth of condolences streaked by daily rain showers. People were photographing the line of candles sitting on the Seneff Arts Plaza monument sign, careful not to trample the piled rows of flowers lying in the sand. The overhead sun shone bright and the candles glowed, even the unlit ones. Flowers glittered with leftover rain drops, or fresh tear drops, it was hard to tell. The balloon arch thrashed in the wind. I twisted my hair over my shoulder, held it tight, and stepped onto the grounds.
I sat in a chair at the front of the lawn, at the largest of the three groups of sorrowful leavings, in front of the piles of flowers, posters, and gifts surrounding pictures of 49 faces that will never smile again and cried until I was cried out. I cried the ugly cry, and the sobbing cry, and the sniffling cry. It was so heart wrenching, actually physically painful.
Other people sat in other chairs. The sun played peek-a-boo in the increasing cloud cover. I watched people walk around. People in sweats, people in suits, people in flip-flops, people in platform sandals, people in tennis shoes. Old people, young people, straight people, gay people. Black people, white people, all the colors in between people. Disabled people, abled people. Locals, out-of-towners, foreigners. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Atheists. Distracted. Focused. Sad. Mournful. Devastated.
A grandmotherly woman approached me as my sobs diminished to sniffles. She asked if I was OK. Can anyone really be OK sitting here, witnessing this, knowing what it’s for, what happened?
“Oh, well, yeah. No,” I answered. It was a sweet gesture, I knew that.
“Did you know someone who, well…?” she asked.
“No,” I answered.
“Are you from here?” she asked.
“Yes. No. Not originally, at least.” I wondered if these were requirements for grief, or public grief, specifically.
“It’s so sad, what happened,” she said. “What is this world coming to?”
I just shook my head, and she said good-bye and left me to mourn. But I wondered, why do people keep asking what is this world coming to? The world isn’t coming to anything that it hasn’t already arrived at. The hate train docked so long ago the wheels have rusted to the rails. Attila the Hun, anyone? China built a wall around itself to keep outsiders out. British Empire. Slavery. 9-11. The Crusades. Western Expansion. Sandy Hook. Columbine. Oklahoma City. Mathew Sheppard. World War I. The rise of Hitler and World War II. The Bible – even if you don’t believe in it as The Word of God, its historical context, its representation of its times, not unlike any contemporary text that becomes historical text over time, it demonstrates that hate, oppression, war, rape, murder are not 21st century constructs. The world isn’t coming to anything. This is it. This is the world, has been for millennia. Humans are unstable, unreliable creatures. Anger exists. Hate exists. Darkness exists. So does joy, love, and light.
Assault rifles probably don’t need to exist, though. Not that gun control is in anyway criminal control. Stopping the manufacture of assault weapons won’t make those already in people’s possession disappear overnight, and if Prohibition taught us anything it’s that even law-abiding citizens will turn law-breakers overnight to get their hands on what they want. More acceptance needs to exist. More community. More love.
Love is loudest when it’s crying out in pain and anguish against an act of hate. Love needs to be loud in the in-between moments so hate doesn’t get an opening to shout again. It’s not enough to love when sending condolences for victims of hate. We need to love at all times. Love needs to talk insistently, without so much as a breath, so hate can’t get a word in edgewise. But that won’t eliminate hate. To eliminate hate would be to eliminate love. The yin needs the yang, otherwise it’s just a semi-circle.
It would be nice to eliminate some of the internet hate, the so-called trolls, and stop treating people online like being an asshole gets a free pass just because it’s typed and not spoken. This behavior is not just limited to anonymous online words, though, and we need to just quit being jerks to each other – in traffic, in line, at PTO meetings, over parking spaces, for toys and clothes on mad-rush, deep-sale discount days.
Eventually I got up to join the parade around the photo memorial section. That’s when I got angry. Fist tightening, jaw clenching angry. But not at the madman who chose to cause this pain, not at this time. That came later. No, it was the appearance of the site that got my blood boiling. The smell of flowers rotting in their plastic covers, flowers drowned by more flowers and baking in the tropical sun. Posters of peace and condolences hand-crafted with genuine love and aching sorrow torn and crumpled by fallen wreath stands, left to lay broken on the ground, probably not unlike the bodies on the floor of Pulse. Candles extinguished, more rain gauge than memorial. Inkless pens in a bucket, unable to leave another mark of sorrow on the white leather couch.
As I stared at the thousands of signatures on the couch the rain cloud, positioned directly above the Phillips Center and surrounded by blue skies and white puffy clouds, opened to a flash downpour. People scattered. I almost scattered with them, but then I looked down at the faces of the dead, then up at the surrounding skies. The discomfort I would experience in a few minutes of rain was nothing, not even classified as suffering, compared to what the victims of Pulse went through. I stayed where I was standing and let the rains wash over me.
At the corner of the couch was a large ziplock bag of rainbow ribbon awareness pins with a note that they were free for the taking, a donation to mourners. I took one, pinned it to my dress. My anger was diminishing, a reaction to grief being overtaken by sadness. My tears had resupplied, ready for more to fall. There was nothing wrong with the memorial. It is the result of hundreds of loving people doing the only thing they knew to do. Just do one thing for me, please. If you ever leave flowers at a site like this, and it’s possible you will one day, take them out of the plastic cover before you lay them on the ground. The plastic is unsightly and the flowers really don’t do well in it.
Ready for part two, I asked the Red Cross workers where the crosses were.
“Follow Orange to the hospital and look for the crowd,” she said.
“Thank you,” I answered.
“It’s a mile down the road. Are you walking? Most people drive.” She reached out with a bottle of cold water.
“I have water and a pear,” I said. “And good walking legs. Thank you.” And I set off.
I walked to the hospital, in more short rain showers, where the 49 crosses stand in front of a lake with fountains and flowers and ornamental grasses. Greg Zanis made these crosses, each about three feet by two feet with a red heart. He’s been making these for 20 years. The Chicago Tribute reports that he’s made 15,000 crosses for murder victims. Fifteen-thousand! Let that sink in for a minute.
I stood in front of each and every one, a quarter mile from they were gunned down in a rage of hate. I read the name, looked at the photo, sorrowed for the life that will not be fulfilled. Brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, friends, lovers. As young as 18 to as young as 50. A truly diverse group who exemplified acceptance and community.
I took an hour to visit the crosses. Giving each a dedicated moment felt like the right thing to do. Acknowledging their name and face felt like the right thing to do. At the end of the long line, I faced the hospital and cried again for everyone who had been there and was still there. Some of the injured survivors are back home with loved ones. Some didn’t make it, nine, I think. Some are still recovering, 17 at last report. Some are still in critical condition, four, currently, with one already receiving 200 pints of the blood donated in the wake of the tragedy.
Others were not physically injured and never went there, hundreds. For them I faced the city and sent out a hug through the universe. I’ve never been shot at, but I know how it feels to be in fear in a place where you should be safe, and the everlasting affects. Their suffering didn’t end that night with a final beat of their heart. It will go on. Songs, sights, smells, sounds…triggers, they call them, like the mechanism that released the bullets that started all this for them in the first place.
Before I walked the mile back to my car, in another rain shower, I stood on the corner and faced the direction of Pulse, just four blocks away, and blew a kiss. The road was closed to vehicular traffic. I didn’t test if the sidewalk was open to pedestrians. I didn’t want to. It’s just too soon. People lost their lives there. I do hope it re-opens someday. And I hope it’s the biggest, loudest, happiest party ever to happen in the City of Orlando when it does. Takes “site of the worst mass shooting in US history” and changes it. That massacre is not the legacy destined to Pulse.
I went through a wide range of emotions during my visits to the memorial sites. Each of them distinct, though not altogether separate. I needed that and I’m grateful to the space to be able to experience it and begin to heal. I’m just so damn sorry such a place needs to exist.
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