Of all the images captured that day, one stands out among the others.
I woke up at 6:30 am that Friday morning without the faintest clue of what the day would hold. July 20, 2012. Ten days ago. Until I flipped on the news, I didn’t know about Aurora’s Century 16 movie theater or the dozens of people injured by gunfire and the many still unaccounted for. When reports flashed across my screen, the horrific reality settled like cement in my stomach. Why?
Even then I didn’t know I’d end up at Gateway High School. Didn’t know I’d sit with one woman for eight hours as she waited news of her son. Didn’t know later that night we’d receive confirmation of his death along with nine other families in a school thick with pain. Didn’t know that over the course of a weekend I would witness a depth of grief that made my own bones ache in agony.
I hesitated to write this post. What should I say? Not say? Who am I to put words to their pain? I entered Gateway High School an outsider. My children and husband were all accounted for. The only reason for my presence was the request of a friend who awaited news of a son. I showed up, ignorant and naive. I offered feeble, inadequate comfort. And even now, as I try to recapture those hours, I remain so much less than the loss deserves. How can I possibly honor these families?
I did not lose a son that day, nor a husband. But I lost a hefty chunk of my innocence. Friday through Monday, I sat with those who lost someone in a horrific, inconceivable way. I experienced the agonizing wait while they counted minutes and hours until they received feared news of a son, daughter, boyfriend, girlfriend, mom, dad. I watched shoulders shake and bodies crumble under the weight of devastation. I heard groans carrying enough lament to split the sky. Even as I write, I know I will never forget the wails, nor the names of those they grieved.
As vivid as those images and sounds, the scene shining like a light in the dark is what I saw when I first stepped inside Gateway High School:
Twelve round tables circled with the weeping. Friends and family gathered in both sadness and strength, facing their most difficult day together.
And, centered on each table like a solid bastion, a copy of the New King James Holy Bible.
I noticed the Bibles right away, surprised, as I am every time I find one hidden in a drawer in my hotel room. More, I felt calmed, as if God himself blanketed the terror and torment of that room with His promises. I reached for one the moment we settled into our table, caressed the cover and pulled it close.
I have no answers for what happened 10 days ago, no spiritual insights or easy offerings.
But these truths I know:
Humanity may be capable of horrific evil, but we’re also capable of incredible good. In the gymnasium, circled around unfamiliar tables, families and friends and strangers came together. We did not know each other before, but we hugged, held, exchanged stories and tears. Regardless of previous differences, we became one, determined to press through this wretched thing together. I watched police officers weep, pastors of multiple faiths and denominations pray, counselors volunteer their time to offer support, restaurants and pizza shops deliver food, people across the world crying and praying and carrying this weighty burden together. No courtroom could contain all the evidence: goodness trumped evil that day.
But it gets better.
Whether or not we acknowledge Him, God’s presence was—is—as palpable as the Bibles. Our doubts and questions don’t diminish His reality. And although many aren’t sure of Him, many question His seeming absence on the night of this tragedy, I felt the presence of God holding us up more than the cold metal chairs. This I believe and am unashamed to say: God is real. And as I held His book, He held us. He was as near in that room of grief as I’ve ever experienced Him.
There will be a reckoning, a day when a real God carries through on His promise: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.” Rather than say it with a whisper, He will command it with a shout:
No more! NO MORE!
With the lament of a grieving Father, He will right all wrongs. How bleeding hearts long for that day! Until then, we wait. We cry. We live and lose, wail and pray. And we circle our chairs, alternately grieving and comforting each other, with this truth our unwavering bastion:
God is with us.