Sunday morning dawned as any other day. The sunrise peeking through the slit in the bedroom window blinds, a peeping Tom. I have been awake for hours but impatiently waiting on the sun to start my day, to act, to do something.
My sleep was shattered by the rattling of my cell phone on the night stand in the middle of the night. I had been awake since then. Stunned, disbelief at what my youngest, my baby, my mini me screamed over the phone as soon as I answered, “There was a shooting, mom…a guy with a gun at the bar I was at…I’m okay…I’m okay…” she would utter those words over and over, “I’m okay…we are all okay…” trying to convince herself of this fact as much as she is trying to convince me.
The moments after the call come to me in fragments
In the minutes that follow, the scant memories she relays to me, piece together in my mind’s eye the details of what she has just survived. Disbelief at what I am hearing, sitting in my pj’s on the toilet in the guest bathroom in stunned silence, I gather myself, “Calm down calm down” I say. I ask her to say it again, clearly I misunderstood, this wasn’t happening to my baby.
My mind wanders, desperate for details, but shying away at the sound of them. My brain winces and closes its eyes, protecting itself as she talks, it is too much, it is too much….My daughter, her beautiful smiling face, my baby girl, talented athlete who earned a full athletic scholarship to play volleyball at a Division 1 university, my extrovert who never met a stranger, a friend to all, a leader in every true aspect of the word, loved by all, revered by many, role model, held in such high esteem by every adult she meets.
My world, my heart, my pride, my absolute joy, smelly knee pads, wild hair, messy room, flashes of the essence of her front and center, rushing through my mind as she talks…
“We didn’t know what it was…”
“The boys jumped on us and threw us to the ground…”
“I’m okay, mom, I’m okay…we are okay…”
“It got quiet, the shooting stopped, and people yelled, “GOGOGORUNRUNRUN!!!!!”
Sobs, heaving sobs as she recounts this horror, nothing I can do on the other end of the phone, in my pj’s on the toilet in the guest bathroom.
I listen, she sobs
“I am stronger than everyone else mom, I was able to get up and run…”
“I ran like you told me to, I ran like hell, just like you told me….”
She is breathless now…she is not talking anymore…I am silent…I can’t breathe…this IS NOT happening…I start…
“Where are you now? Are you okay? Are you hurt? Anyone hurt? Are you safe?” The questions, tumbling out of control, vomit of words, pouring out of my mouth, no time for her to even answer…except, of course, “Are you okay?” and her “I am okay, mom.” The seventh or eighth time she utters it in our conversation so far…then more silence.
We cry together on the phone
The crying starts again now, quieter, silent tears roll down our faces miles apart but sharing this moment of utter disbelief, fear, sadness, relief, gratitude. We cry together in our separateness, she safe in her Dayton apartment, mascara running down her face, her naturally curly blonde hair- wild, clothes dirty and disheveled, black shadows on her arms and legs, remnants of bar dirt, temporary tattoos of her night, crawling to survive as a madman chased her with a gun.
Miles away, I cry with her, in her old bathroom, now the guest bathroom because she doesn’t live here anymore. She is grown.
Neither of us understands yet what exactly we are crying over but the tears soothe us, we share them and this brief moment in time. She is sobbing again, waves of heaves crashing at my ear, I am helpless, I can’t help her. My rage, anger, fear, instincts, fighting for control, what do I say, what do I do?
Then I realize how helpless I am
And then the realization there is nothing I can do, there is nothing I can say, helpless. I cradle my phone, wishing it was her, as I sit in my pj’s on the toilet in the guest bathroom and I wait for her to be done, heart shattered with each of her tears and exhale of heavy breath. Neither of us knows details, we don’t know how many are dead and injured, we don’t know anything except that she and her friends are alive.
I cry for my baby and the sheer terror that she just experienced. I sob….she stops and comforts me, “I’m okay, mom…I’m okay…”
Somehow we hang up the phone, the “I love you’s” outnumbering the “I’m okay’s” by a two to one margin. I sit there, on the guest bathroom toilet, knees drawn to my chest, glasses on my face and pj’s sagging on my body…
My daughter is the youngest of my three kids
The youngest of my three daughters was born a mere 37 months after her oldest sister. Our house, from the moment of bringing her home, was busy, noisy, happy, and she added her special element to that. As a baby, she was content to watch the chaos around her, the dancing and singing we did as she sat in her pumpkin seat, sucking her thumb, taking it all in.
I was so busy, most days I never felt like I had enough for her. She doesn’t have much of a baby book. Pictures of her are few. I only have those that exist in my memory. I was busy, I make excuses. I knew I was missing out on her. I felt it, I hated it. I started cherishing the middle of the night feedings, she and I alone in the quiet of the house, her smiles and babbles, my joy at the her existence.
Breaking my own rule, I would hold her and study her and cling to her in those early morning hours of her very life, not putting her in her bassinet to sleep, but holding her, rocking her and memorizing her. I remember that now as I sit in the guest bathroom in my pj’s in the middle of the night, she is not in my arms, she is far away in her own apartment, she is crying with mascara running down her face.
I can’t help her. I am helpless.
I shake it off, I think of her in the past and it comforts me. My mind numbs out the present horror and takes me to a safe place, when I could fix it, when I could control it. I see her with the toy microphone singing bible songs, I see her flying from the chair to the couch, her little 3 year old self, fearless, belly laughing, always happy, always smiling. Incredible.
My mind goes here, automatically, and I remember her now as a little girl, dancing and singing with her sisters. The three of them, could have become two on this night.
A few moments ago, as I slept, my sweet daughter crawled on the floor of a bar, crawled for her life. I shudder and I close my eyes to make it stop. I know I don’t know details, I know I don’t know anything, yet my mind rushes to the extreme, I can’t help it.
“Stop it!” I tell myself, “Stop it!”
She is older now; I see her competing on the soccer field, basketball court and volleyball court. I see her smiling, laughing, confidence oozing.
“She’s so fun to watch.” The other parents from her teams would tell me.
“What a leader she is.” Opponent’s parents would say.
“She is my favorite player to coach.” Year after year her coaches would tell me.
“A joy to have in class.” Teacher conference remarks.
“You must be so proud….” People would say.
“Thank you” I say out loud to them and, to myself, I whisper, “You have no idea…”
I always appreciated her, always. I knew I was blessed that God gave her to me, but more so, I knew she was blessed and a blessing to us.
The day after the Dayton shooting reality sets in
Back to the guest bathroom, I know I can’t sit here forever. I have to get up. I wander back to the bedroom, I break down again, I tell my life partner, her step-mother, and we both try to make it go away. She’s feeling the same things I feel, our minds shouting “NO!!” as loudly as they can, reality not listening, reality taking residence in our minds. Like an unwelcome squatter, we can’t get rid of it.
An hour later, I search cable news for an update; I am perusing Twitter and texting her. She is still telling me “I am okay, mom.” I am replying “Good. I love you.” She says, “I love you, too.” and so on for the next couple of hours. She is okay and we love each other…got it.
It is this early in the process that my mind starts to make noise, the “what if’s” are just starting to rear their ugly heads, “how could this happen” rebounding in my brain. I shove it away, I make it stop as best I can, I can’t go there right now.
Still unaware of any details, I find a tweet with a snapchat audio recording of the gunshots. Taken from over a mile away, by accident, the person was recording a motorcycle and the shooting just starts in the background.
Quick rapid fire shots it goes on and on. I listen again and I count more than 50 shots fired in less than 30 seconds, then a different gunfire sound and more, many more shots. The video is over in 36 seconds. I can’t ‘unhear’ it; I listen to it again and again and again even though once was enough.
I get out of bed early; as soon as the sun peaked through the blinds. Welcome. Sleep eludes me the remainder of the night. I water the flowers and marvel at the absolute brilliance of the day. I am filled with gratitude that our Sunday, while very different than normal, is not one completely shattered by that early morning phone call. She is alive, she is okay. I am sick to my stomach.
Desperate for updates, I have no way to get them. I turn on local channels and it is the same details over and over, turn on national news and I am told this is this politician or that politician’s fault <click> turn it off.
I open Facebook and see that a close friend has posted something political. She is upset, I know this, we all grieve in different ways and our helplessness in impacting change makes us lash out. I don’t agree with her politics, but I do not unfriend her. We are better than this.
Why can’t I get any details? How does one get information? I want to scream at the TV, Twitter, Facebook, “MY BABY ALMOST DIED!”
“Thoughts and prayers”
“Emergency roundtable discussions”
“It’s the Right’s fault”
“It’s the Left’s fault”
“Blah blah blah”
“Blah blah blah”
Nothing will be done. I am helpless. I am so angry. Pathetic.
I can’t wait to get to Dayton and see my daughter. She is trying to sleep, she is not texting me anymore and I hope she is resting. Once there, I come in last, she hugs her dad, her sister, says hi to the dogs we have brought with us to comfort her or distract her, she hugs her step-mom…I wait my turn, content to go last so I can take those seconds to try to gauge what she needs. I watch her, she is different, I see it right away, she hasn’t slept, her smile tentative, her eyes blank, not sparkling anymore.
I’m so glad to be able to hold her
Finally, my turn…she grabs me like she used to when she was my baby, her head buries in my neck, I feel her breath and tears, both warm on my skin. I relive when she was my little girl, she falls and scrapes her knee or she doesn’t feel well or someone was mean to her and hurt her feelings, this embrace with the warm breath and tears is the same as those, the same but so so different.
I can’t fix this, I am powerless to make this better, a Dora the Explorer band-aid, Sprite on the couch, or a ‘people can be so mean’ speech, will not make this better. Complicated. What can I do?…we hug. We stand there in her apartment in Dayton surrounded by our family and her friends, she holding on to me, gripping me, she cries and I cry and it is all I can do. Helpless.
She is anxious and restless and scared and uncomfortable
We go to lunch, not realizing or understanding what she just went through. She is restless and anxious and ready to go as soon as we get there. She isn’t comfortable in public places anymore, I see the terror in her eyes, it makes me sad and angry. It hits me that a bit of her innocence is gone, she is different.
After lunch, she says we have to leave. She wants to be with her friends, she wants to talk to those she was with and try to digest it. “I am never leaving the house again.” She proclaims. I believe her and I can’t blame her. The world is a terrible, unpredictable place for her now. I am actually glad she is never leaving the house again, I know she is safe. I don’t have to worry.
In my head I have already begun to plan grocery delivery services, online classes, and Uber Eats. This I can do, I think. She is never leaving the house again and I am going to make sure that happens. This is one way I know she will never again be shot at with a high powered gun. She is never leaving the house again…I exhale.
“You will feel safe again someday, honey. It will take time, but you will live again, I promise.” That is what I say instead, she doesn’t believe it and neither do I, but I say it anyway, my grand plans for her mastery of agoraphobia gone.
The days that follow the shooting pass slowly
The next few days pass, I slowly engage more on social media. Friends send me videos on Twitter and Facebook. One from outside the bar, people hurling themselves down the street, running into the bar where she lay on the floor, protected by her friends. Bravery and courage are not dead.
The gunman comes into the frame, as he turns to follow his targets into the bar where she lay a few feet from the door – boombangbangpopboombangbang – Dayton police officers at the top of the frame, I see them rush against the screaming crowd, firing, firing firing at the gunman. He crumples, they shoot him dead.
Inside my head, as I watch, I do a fist bump and whisper “yes!” as if I am watching a fictional war movie and not the death of a madman with a gun about to enter a bar where my baby lays on the floor. Even after a few days passing, it still has not really hit me yet. I still do not understand.
The next video is the view from inside the bar, gunshots, people screaming, running, clawing, shoes purses on the floor a beloved cell phone left behind in the panic, at the end the gunman comes into frame and I see him, from this angle, crumple under the bullets from the police. He is close to the door, one or two seconds away from entering the bar.
My daughter is inside the door, the gunman lies in the doorway, stopped by police bullets. Someone sends me a picture of the gunman dead, partially covered in a white sheet, head practically lying on the door frame. God dammit, this was too close.
Embedded in my mind for eternity, I keep watching over and over again. I see something different every time I watch. The sheer bravery of the police, their rush TO the situation, practically dodging civilians running away in terror, firing on the gunman and stopping him, dead, in his tracks.
Literally, seeing the moment my daughter’s life was saved and the horror at what could have been if 2 more seconds had passed and he had been able to enter the bar. With the weapon he had and the amount of ammunition, we would have countless more dead – open fire on a sea of people in a small enclosed area.
It makes me physically ill every time I think about my daughter crawling on that dirty bar floor, clawing her way to survival.
The second video, from inside the bar, has sound. Less steady because it is taken on a cell phone, the distinct screams and yells and noises from inside as the people grapple with what is happening and coming their way. It shows the scene described by my daughter – the sheer chaos, the shoes left behind, the screaming – it hits me that this is what my daughter was doing.
She was screaming, losing shoes, crawling to survive – the chaos of it all. It breaks my heart, literally breaks my heart, and I understand why when I look into her eyes I see terror. She lived through this.
I don’t watch or listen to anything else. I turn it all off and I start to plan.
My daughter is no longer a prisoner in her home. She is practicing and working out, she even went to the grocery store. She is timid, I can hear it her voice, some of her confidence gone, the swagger’s not there anymore. She goes to group counseling offered by her university, she doesn’t tell me what happens there she just says it helps and that is all I need to know.
Her friends are there for her surrounding her with love
Her roommates, all teammates she started with last year, literally surround her with love and concern. They play Wii and Euchre and seem content to never go to a crowded place ever again. Even though they were not with her that night, they understand in a way that I can’t or don’t, in a way that only our friends understand. We all have friends like that, she is beyond lucky to have them in her life. They know their role without me asking them, to keep an eye on her, to make her laugh, to keep it simple – amazing to me how well they know her and she them.
Today is Thursday and today is a good day. I ache for those who lost loved ones and those who are injured. I have been on my knees praying, I lit candles. I know that any family in that position is feeling immeasurably worse than I am. I weep for them.
I visit the scene of the crime
I went to the site last night on my way home from visiting her and her friends and making them dinner. It was what I expected – chalk writings, flowers, candles, post-it notes – it is always the same after these things happen. I saw the doorway to the bar, I saw the spot where he crumpled to the ground amid the police officers’ gunshots, I saw the back door my daughter squeezed out of, I imagined her sprinting through the parking lot, terrified.
I had to go there and weep. I wept for my daughter, for the dead, for the injured, for the families, for the police officers, for our nation. I wept. As much as I knew I had to go there, it’s overwhelming and I couldn’t wait to leave.
But, I am glad I went. We should all go.
The politicians are all still arguing, and I am just a mom from Kentucky whose daughter lay on the floor of a bar as a madman tried to kill her. She crawled, fought, and muscled her way out the back door not knowing what awaited her.
All she knew was that her mom always told her to “Run like HELL…” so she did. #let’sdosomething
“There but by the grace of God, go I” – John Bradford
There but for the grace of God, go all of us.
Gretchen Stephenson is a small business owner and novice writer. She is passionate about her family, friends, politics, fostering stray cats, travel and camping in her RV. A mother to three grown daughters, she lives in Park Hills, KY with her life partner, their three wiener dogs and three cats.