Content Warning: Descriptions of gun violence and familial death.
It’s hard to be the picture of resiliency when you’ve been knocked down and can’t get back up.
I wish people would realize they’re walking over me, continually pushing me down. But I also don’t. The people that step on me have their own places to be, their own lives to live. I don’t want them to burden themselves with mine. I don’t want anyone to lay down beside me. But it still hurts. I feel the heels of their shoes press into the bruises that have made homes on my skin — everything lingers.
I don’t know. Maybe I want someone to look down. Maybe I want someone to lay beside me.
What I do know is that I’m scared a lot. I don’t think I’ll ever not be afraid again.
I put my jacket over my sister’s shoulders as she cries. I hold my sister so tightly I fear I might crack her ribs. I smile when someone asks where I’m from.
“Oxford,” I say, bracing for impact.
They smile. They don’t remember. That is almost worse.
Things haven’t changed that much. For me, they’ll never be the same.
A year ago today there was a shooting at Oxford High School. Four students died: Madisyn Baldwin, Hana St. Juliana, Justin Shilling and Tate Myre. Many more were injured, now fully recovered. But even more will never be the same.
I am not a survivor myself, but my little sister, Abbey, was there that day. She crawled out of a window and ran down the street. I was in Mason Hall during those minutes my sister made her escape.
I do not try to represent or describe the totality of the experiences that came after this event. I simply seek to speak on my own.
The changes that happened after aren’t big. They aren’t noticeable unless you’re looking for them. They’re clear when Abbey’s eyes get lost in space, and I can tell she’s somewhere far away. They’re clear when I play certain songs, and we cry without speaking. They’re little changes in her face I can’t pick out. She looks older. I think it’s something in her eyes.
I look in the mirror sometimes and try to pick out the differences in my own face. Maybe I look different too. Do I look older? Is there something in my eyes?
But maybe I don’t. Because sometimes I look at Abbey, and she looks just like she used to. When we’re screaming a song in our parent’s truck. When she’s watching TV with my older sister. When I watch her play with our dogs in the yard.
Those moments remind me how little everything changed. Is the look in my sister’s eye all that’s changed because of this tragedy? Is that all that changes after something like this happens to someone? Nothing tangible, nothing monumental, nothing that will protect other children and other parents and other families from this kind of pain. From this kind of change.
Just this. The way my sister cries and shakes. The way I look in the mirror and pick apart my face, hoping for some change, because something, anything ought to change as a result of what happened in my hometown 365 days ago today.
It’s always the pain. That’s all I can see.
At the end of the piece I wrote for “The Oxford Edition,” I called upon anyone reading to look at my community, to see it. Actually, I believe I didn’t “call,” I “begged.”
My friends read the article, my hometown did. For a few months afterward when I met someone new, and I said my name, they sometimes knew who I was, they attached my name with the piece. But that was back when people froze when I said where I was from. They looked. They saw. They listened to my story, to my sister’s story, to stories from those on campus and from those back in Oxford. I thanked them. It takes a lot of time and a lot of effort to do that — to look, to see, to listen so earnestly.
But now, a year later, they don’t remember. And I don’t blame them.
There have been 717 mass shootings in the U.S. this year. I can’t remember 717 towns. I can’t remember that many names. This overwhelming, intense pain that has burdened my family, my town for months now, plagues thousands of other souls in this country.
Because my little sister shakes and cries when she hears fireworks. Because my little sister can’t go to school without the therapy dogs that they provide. Because I can’t listen to certain songs. Because my dad can’t think about it for too long because he’ll just freeze, and the world will keep moving without him. Because my entire life, my family’s life, feels like trying to push a run-down car uphill. Constant effort, just to keep moving, and when we turn around, we realize we haven’t even made it that far.
And I didn’t even lose someone. Think about that. 717 mass shootings. Thousands of families, thousands of people. That’s a lot of names that you, I, we can’t remember.
That’s a lot of names that deserve to be remembered.
When it happened, my older sister and I fled Ann Arbor. I sat in the passenger seat as she drove, as she pleaded with me not to talk about it, because she couldn’t drive and dry-heave at the same time. I pleaded with my mind to stop racing, my arms to stop aching for my little sister.
But now it’s nearly a year later, and I’m driving home again. Just like that day, I’m driving to see my younger sister. My hands grip the steering wheel, and I see a Twitter notification. Another headline of a school facing another threat of a mass-shooting. I don’t dig too deeply for the details, I can’t without freaking out. I think my Twitter notifications have listened to my search history. It may not currently be the worst day of my life anymore, but I think, with a growing anger, that somewhere out there, it is somebody’s.
I glance at the passenger seat and think about how, two weeks ago, I was holding back a panic attack like vomit. I remember locking every muscle in my body so I wouldn’t move, so I wouldn’t show anyone that I was on the verge of tears, of breaking down. All because we had tumbled over a particularly nasty bit of roadkill.
I wondered if this will be what the rest of my life is like. Crying over roadkill, fake guns, movies I used to love, Evan Peters in American Horror Story, sirens, book covers, certain names, the way no one understands and yet too many people understand and how none of us should, my little sister’s backpack, my old chemistry teacher, therapy dogs, the image of my little sister bleeding out on the floor of her high school and whispering my name, and I don’t even know what’s happening and someone is stepping over her, the classrooms in Mason Hall, flags at half-mast, calls from unknown numbers, hospitals, Grey’s Anatomy season six episode 24, my little sister’s 16th birthday, the idea of my tears falling down my face and the shade of the frost on the grass and how hard the ground would be if I had to bury my little sister.
And just like that I’m back in it. Because what are just nightmares to make me sob are real to some people. To so many people. I pound my fist into the steering wheel as I pull into my driveway, pressing my forehead against the cool glass so I can feel something other than this. And then I realize that this, this is nothing. This is getting off easy.
I put each hand on its opposite shoulder and hold myself close. I don’t want to go inside like this and scare my sister. I’d rather bear this burden alone. But I know I am not. My family is just inside, bearing this burden. 717 new communities in America are out there, bearing this burden, just from this year alone.
A little under a year ago I begged people to look at my community. Now, I’m afraid I’m going to beg people again.
Please do something. Check in on your friends. Have conversations about mental health, about gun control with your families, friends. I said in my previous Oxford Edition piece that the months following the event felt like I was stuck in the moment of that day — Nov. 30. Others may walk on. Others’ worlds may change. But mine has not. Mine won’t. I refuse to let it.
Not until you see. Not until we see. Not until something comes out of this. This pain, this unending, burning pain that is somehow overwhelming and all-consuming and still doesn’t compare to that of those who lost people exactly one year ago, of those who lose people to gun violence every single day.
I will remain frozen. I will remain in that moment of horror, a piece of me will remain in the worst day of my life until I feel like the world has paid for what it has done to me. To my older sister, to my father, to my mother. To my little, baby sister, who I am fortunate to spend yet another day with. To Tate. To Hana. To Madisyn. To Justin. To Oxford.
Please, I’m begging you. Take a piece of yourself, your mouth, your hand, your heart and hold it out. Promise it to me, to people like me, to people in worse positions than me. And then do something with it. Be a part of the reason that the only thing that comes out of this tragedy isn’t pain.
Statement Correspondent Riley Hodder can be reached at email@example.com.