Even from the outset, it was no ordinary day. I remember sitting at a stoplight that morning three years ago, on my way to my office on the campus of Virginia Tech, and thinking that I wasn’t sure I had ever seen snow — mid-April snow, no less — being blown horizontally. It didn’t appear to be falling even, just sweeping across the landscape, scouring the newly green earth. Of course, within just a few short hours, other unlikely events would come to pass, events far more significant than a late spring snow. I did not know that then. I wish I did not know that now.
Three years have passed since that time, and today, many are remembering that same morning in their own ways. Some will remember communally, gathering to listen to music, to learn from speakers, to reflect quietly. Thousands will run 3.2 miles in remembrance of the 32 lives lost. There is solace here, to be sure — the solace that comes from sharing grief with others who have felt it. There will be hugs. There will be candles. And there will be tears. As usual, my friends and colleagues from University Relations here at Virginia Tech will be on hand to record those moments and more.
But many of us — and I count myself among that number — will remember that morning privately. Here are some things I remember.
I remember the way that same wind blew for days without ceasing, a bitter wind that made every moment feel urgent and heightened every emotion. A wind so constant that when it finally stopped, it seemed just as loud in its absence.
I remember the swarms of people — the press, the police, university administrators, students, parents, gawkers — descending on the Inn at Virginia Tech like attendees at some grim carnival. Among that number were the parents, colleagues, and friends of those that were lost — dumbstruck with grief, wandering the corridors, marked by blank and impenetrable stares.
I remember the constant hum of the war room, our makeshift communications center in the midst of the crisis. The televisions blaring with constant coverage. The knots of state police, FBI, and university officials, huddled in corners. The phones clattering endlessly as journalists, alumni, ordinary people from around the world called in seeking answers. Those of us whose job was to provide those answers pounded on our laptops, crafting responses, sharing them with those who were cradling phones between chin and shoulder, trying their best to respond to all the questions that came their way, and I remember the frustration that we all felt as we faced the fact that there was so much — so very very much — that we did not know and could not explain.
I remember slipping into a conference room at the inn, seeking out a senior administrator to prepare her for an interview with Oprah. At the moment I stepped in, the president of the university, the superintendent of the state police, representatives of the FBI, and the county coroner were trying to explain to a room full of devastated loved ones why they could not yet claim — could not yet see — the bodies of those they lost, and I remember how I knew that moment would be burned indelibly into my consciousness, that I would never escape its import.
And I remember joining a crowd of Hokies on the Drillfield a week later, as representatives from the Student Government Association released a single balloon — one at a time — for each life lost. 32 balloons, each climbing skyward so slowly it seemed reluctant to leave the earth. Thousands of us watched, struck silent by profound grief.
Close your eyes now. Count to 32. Go slowly. Pause after each number, and imagine a life lost for each number you count. Imagine the vacuum that each of those lives left behind.
There. That’s the size of our loss. That’s the scope of our grief.
I carry these and many more memories with me today and every day. I do not want them. I long for the day when I need no longer carry them so close at hand. But today is not that day. Not for me, and not for many of you who are reading this post. We remember. Not because we want to, but because we must.