I kind of held it together until I saw the rocks.
When I went to my high school reunion, I made a visit to the memorial for the shooting at Heath High School. It’s strange to be at a memorial for a thing you saw happen. Even stranger to touch the names of people who like your posts on social media and who wrote you notes in middle school. But many things about my life are strange, and I wanted to sit in that. Where else could I do that than the memorial for the crime my brother committed?
I’ve never really made a secret of the fact that I am the Girl Whose Brother Shot People. Really, how could I? But I didn’t share a lot of my experience of it, either. My story is a very uncomfortable one. I don’t quite fit in the oversimplified “good guy/bad guy” narrative. Even the people closest to me don’t really know what I lived through, or how it all feels inside me. I’d never shared anything publicly until January of last year, when I wrote an open letter to the survivors of the Marshall County shooting. It’s not that I never had opportunities to do interviews and talk shows. But I’d never had interest in those things. When people asked why, I’d always say the same thing:
A victim talks about what happened to them. A survivor talks about what they did. I want to be a survivor, and I haven’t done anything yet.
So what changed? Well, the first time I shared anything of real substance about my experience of the shooting, it was a little accidental. The shooting in Marshall County wrecked me. At the time, I didn’t know any of the students at Marshall County High School, but I felt very connected to them. Emotionally, I endured the first 48 hours with them - hour by hour. I quite literally relived the day of the shooting. It was awful, but I knew I was experiencing this 20 years after the fact, and it felt oddly comforting to realize that even those emotions were temporary. I felt like I should write them a letter so they’d know that there is a life 20 years in the future. I sat down at my dining room table, and words just starting pouring out of me. I typed them up - initially for a facebook post. But I ended up sending them to a colleague. From there, they became an op ed, and it seemed like suddenly they were everywhere (you can read that piece here. I’m very proud of it.).
Writing that letter changed my life. In good ways and bad ways and ways I still can’t really understand. The Marshall County Shooting changed the entire trajectory of my life.
I thought about all this while I looked at the memorial. I’ve spent a lot of time grieving for what happened to my friends, my family and my community. But January 2018 was the first time I’d really considered what the shooting did to me and how it changed my life. It was when I realized that I deserve to have a story, too, even if it is an uncomfortable one. Last summer, while sat at the memorial, I thought about two generations of school shooting survivors, and how entangled we were. I thought about what it means to be a victim and what it means to be a survivor. I wondered which one I am and which one I want to be. I thought about the words I’d written to the students at Marshall County High School, and I wondered whether or not I really believed them.
All along the top of the memorial were little rocks, painted in Marshall County High School colors. They were curious to me, and I wondered why people would put Marshall County things at the Heath High School memorial. Then it struck me . . . it wasn’t just anybody who put those there. The rocks came from the students at Marshall County. This thought literally brought me to my knees. These kids are young enough to be my children, and they lived through this awful thing. One day they they got an idea to paint these rocks and take them to the Heath High School memorial, because they felt connected to us somehow. I imagined them painting the rocks. I wondered what that trip to the memorial was like for them. I wondered if they cried, or if they told funny stories about their friends until they cried. That’s what my friends and I would do. I wondered if they brought snacks. We would bring snacks. They were strangers, but I knew those students. I didn’t know them, but I understood them, and I knew they would understand me. They were so much like me, but so different.
What struck me that day was the difference between us. Their lives had just been wrecked. Six months after a school shooting, I knew there was nothing comfortable in their world. But they showed up for their story, and they showed up for mine. They can’t put a bow on their experience, or even predict how they will feel minute to minute, but they are embracing it anyway. They are so very afraid and so very broken, but they’re reaching out to comfort other people. And there I was, 20 years of story and healing and comfort later, too afraid to do the same thing.
I was determined not to be a “victim.” The word felt so passive and helpless. I didn’t want to be those things. I aspired to be a survivor. I wanted to be brave. I wanted to be strong. And I kept waiting for that to magically occur . . . like one day I’d get a certificate to prove that my journey was complete (“Congratulations! You are a hero! You will need to slay 7 dragons annually to maintain your certification. You may be subject to a random drug screen.”) What I didn’t really understand was that this is a life long thing, and you can’t pick and choose the parts. It’s all or nothing. You can’t be a survivor if you’re not a victim. You can’t be brave if you’re not afraid. You won’t be strong if you avoid picking up heavy things. To be a hero, you’ve got to take the journey.
. . . I want to be a survivor, and I haven’t done anything yet.
I thought I sounded so smart, until I realized how stupid it was. I had been waiting until I’d done something to tell my story. Maybe I needed to do something so that I would have a story to tell. Heroes don’t wait for the story to be written. They go out and live an adventure. These kids understood that intuitively, and they did something. They showed up in West Paducah, Kentucky. They’re 20 years behind me, but somehow ahead of me on this journey. And I’m honestly quite glad for that. I learned from them in 2018. I think I’d follow them anywhere.
I looked at the rocks. It took a long time for me to get the courage to pick one up. I held it in my hand and thought, “I should be more like these kids. They really are the heroes of the story . . .”
“Know in your heart that you are never alone and you are never forgotten. You are part of our club, and you are in the company of heroes.”
-Kelly Firesheets, who sometimes says things that are smarter than she realizes