I’ve written a fair amount about words here, and about their power, but last night I was reminded of how much weight language can carry. Two words, the subject line of a text message to my cell phone at 8:17 PM. Two words that simultaneously alerted me to a current tragedy, and dredged up memories of an experience that no amount of words could adequately describe. Two words, as blunt and straightforward as the act which necessitated their use: campus murder.
No reasonable person would assume that, for those of us who lived through and with the tragedy of April 16, 2007, life would ever be the same. Yet, day in and day out, I’ve learned to perpetuate that illusion. I’ve become adept at the graceful sidestep. I taught myself to avoid the slippery slope that remembering those events forces me to traverse. There are, of course, moments when I must remember — when I visit with my friends who lost a daughter, when I have a casual conversation with the woman from my daughter’s Girl Scout troop who lost a husband, when I have a meeting in the alumni conference center, a beautiful facility that was overrun by more than 700 journalists during those days.
At other moments, I reflect more deliberately, walking slowly around the semi-circle of Hokie Stone markers outside the main administrative building on campus, each engraved with the name of one now gone. Or, as I did this morning, browsing through the memorial pages on the university’s web site. But these are moments I seek out, moments that I’ve learned to take in small doses the way one builds up an immunity to a pathogen by deliberate, controlled exposure.
The most troubling thing about last night was the chain reaction those two simple words triggered, a reaction both unwelcome and unbidden. And, of all the vestiges of April 16th, this is perhaps the one that plagues me the most. Those events marked me. They changed my psyche, permanently and indelibly, and changed it in such a way that even these two unrelated and vastly different events are linked. They changed me in such a way that those two words, texted to my cell phone last night, pulled past events forward into the present, and invested present events with a weight and sadness far beyond their measure.
A few moments ago, an emergency vehicle sped through the intersection just outside my office window, sirens blaring, and my attention was drawn from my own here-and-now to what might have happened somewhere else. And in those moments, I began to imagine, again, the worst. It’s a foolish reaction, and one that, thankfully, passes quickly. But it’s one that I’ve come to recognize, one that I would gladly never have again, and one that brings to mind two more words that I hope one day to use with conviction.