There will be a time for thoughtful discussion about the ways to prevent the constant carnage that is now modern life in America in the next few days.
But first, I want you to understand intimately what it was like for me to be a part of a story that shares too many similarities with what happened Wednesday in San Bernardino, where 14 innocent people are now dead, killed by a handful of America’s more than 300 million guns.
I knew from almost the moment I woke up to a phone call from my news station that my girlfriend Alison was dead.
I frantically called the local sheriff, who was on his way to the scene, and he confirmed there were “bodies down.” I knew what that meant. I knew in my heart that if someone wanted to target a live broadcast, it would be the person holding the camera and the person in front of it that would be hit.
Alison was not the first, nor sadly the last, loved one to be killed in an act of demonstrative gun violence. My first reaction was not, How could this happen? but rather, It actually happened to me.
I was shocked, but not surprised. My next call was to my father and I remember feeling that I could believe it, it was possible, and that I was just absolutely heartbroken that I was the unlucky fellow who had been picked that day, that week in America to be collateral damage to a phenomenon of our own creation.
The texts and phone calls start pouring in. In a macabre sense, I compare it to a college football star getting drafted. The vibration of my phone was constant and I tried to keep up in my responses.
“I’m numb,” I often wrote back. When I try to scroll through the people I’ve texted with to get to my precious texts with Alison, I have to flick my thumb time and time again to get down to hers. The date “Aug. 26,” goes on seemingly forever. Answering them at the time helped me do something, anything to not be frozen in the trauma.
Quickly the phone calls started coming from numbers I didn’t recognize. Most from New York, some from Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. The national media had my cell phone number and that onslaught began. I answered them all, I guess a basic instinct as a reporter who knows the game, but many victim’s families I know now have told me they give the phone to a trusted person to screen the countless requests for comment. I later found out many news organizations have special accounts with LexisNexis to purchase our private cell phone numbers. Don’t think at all you’d be protected from their search.
The interviews begin and the same questions repeat. “How are you doing?” is the worst question ever conceived. I continue to hear it daily. The press asks you to remember “the most,” or “the best” whatever about that one you loved. You beat yourself up when you struggle to come up with a story to share, one that you could easily find and tell under any other circumstance.
For me, it all happened the same day. I was a buoy floating in a hurricane, moving from one thing to the next.
But for many of the families affected by gun violence I now know, the story is agonizingly slower. For those who lost children at Sandy Hook, the information didn’t even come in drips—they were gathered into a firehouse, then told hours later that their child “had expired.”
An ER nurse and mother of a daughter shot by a friend with an unsecured gun told me she rushed into the operating room to try to help revive her, only to be told by law enforcement to “not touch the evidence.” That “evidence,” her little girl, had her eyes crusted over with blood.
As I lay in bed the first night without her, I tried to go moment by moment, word by word, re-creating our last day together. Our lunch, our dinner, watching Netflix. Waking her up to go to work early that Wednesday morning. I was angry at myself for any gaps I couldn’t fill.
In the next days, the reality of the death settles in. What kind of service do you have? A funeral? A celebration of life? Do you want to see the body at the medical examiner’s office? Burial or cremation? How many death certificates do we need to settle her estate? Those questions are more universal, but when it’s a trauma death, often they haven’t been contemplated beforehand.
I’m not going to pretend that I have any idea what the more than one dozen families in California are dealing with right now. Each life lost is its own story and each name deserves to be known and spread.
But for me, as the early days wore on, the realization my girlfriend was now a statistic, a case out of hundreds now part of one of the truly unnecessary narratives of this generation, put a tight burning sensation around my chest I feel each time I read reports of another person killed with a gun.