June 12, 2016 is a day I, and so many others, will never forget. I woke up to my phone buzzing non-stop. There had been a mass shooting at a nightclub not far from my home in Orlando. A nightclub frequented by many of my friends.
June 12, 2016: The First 24 Hours
The morning was spent letting others know that I was okay while also frantically trying to get in touch with friends to know they were safe.
I made an attempt to go to work but anxiety and fear took hold and I asked to go home after just a few hours.
My friend Taylor met me at work to make sure I got home safely. She stayed with me for a while until I felt okay to be alone. The afternoon was spent continuing to reach out to friends and constantly checking social media for updates.
That night names of the deceased were slowly released once families had been notified. Sleep wasn’t coming any time soon as I sat and refreshed the page on the City of Orlando’s web site. There were still people we hadn’t heard from and the not-knowing was a brick in my stomach.
It was in the small hours of the morning that I was able to pull my thoughts together and I turned to social media and posted.
It has been a struggle to find the right words for what has unfolded in the past 24 hours in Orlando. I would be remiss if I did not express my gratitude for everyone who has reached out and expressed concern and well wishes for the safety of my friends and me. It was through these kinds words that I learned of the tragedy that unfolded rather than being bombarded with through social media or otherwise.
The rest of the day played out in what can only be described as slow motion. I found myself moving between profound grief and crippling anxiety. I made every attempt to sticking to my daily routine and schedule but found myself unable to do so. I’m grateful for my co-workers who did not fault me when I could no longer put on a strong front.
I have done my best to avoid media coverage as I can’t stand the constant replaying of horrific images and footage of what went on. I am painfully reminded of the events at the Boston Marathon just three years ago. The same fear, the same grief, the same weight of an unbearable loss in the community that I love.
I sit here now, finding myself in that same position where I was three years ago. I sit here now watching the web, constantly refreshing the list of names. That deep pit in my stomach as I read each one, fearing that the next may be one that I know, selfishly praying that it is not. Knowing that each name I don’t know, someone else does.
My heart breaks with each new name. Knowing there are more to come. Knowing that each is familiar to a member of my community. Each comes with the pain of great, unnecessary and unbearable loss.
For me, this is not a time for politics. It is a time to come together to help one another make sense of such a tragic event. To hold each other up. To find the light in the darkness.
My heart is with those who have been hospitalized, with those who’s grief comes from seeing a loved one’s name on that list, and for those, like me, who are still waiting.
Be strong friends.
The next morning I immediately logged back on to the City of Orlando page. Scrolling down the updated list, my heart sank as my eyes scanned across the first of three familiar names.
Through tears I called work to say I wouldn’t be in. There was no way. I ended up staying away for the better part of the week.
June 14 & 15th 2016: Faith, Trust & Pixie Dust
When I need an escape there is only one place that makes sense to me. Magic Kingdom. My Disney family was hurting just as much as I was and for many the show had to go on. Cast members returning to work and putting on a happy face with dealing with immeasurable pain.
I spent the time during my visits thanking cast members for being there. There were hugs and tears and through it all, some smiles.
June 19th, 2016: The Kiss Goodnight
I had returned to work and though it was tough, made it through. There was a vigil planned for “The Kiss Goodnight” at Magic Kingdom that I, at first, had made the choice not to attend. The idea of being in a large crowd didn’t appeal to me. In the 11th hour I decided to go- keeping my intentions to myself as I wanted this for myself.
The plan for this vigil was to gather a community in mourning and share in a collective moment of silence following the playing of the Kiss Goodnight.
The Kiss Goodnight is a little known moment that occurs 30 minutes following park closing at Magic Kingdom. Cinderella’s Castle begins to twinkle and the song When You Wish Upon a Star slowly builds. A narrator then greets guests still in the park:
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, on behalf of everyone here at the Magic Kingdom, we thank you for joining us today for a magic gathering of family, friends, fun, and fantasy. We hope your magical journey with us has created wonderful memories that will last a lifetime.
Walt Disney said that the Magic Kingdom is a world of imagination, hopes, and dreams. In this timeless land of enchantment, magic and make believe are reborn, and fairy tales come true. The Magic Kingdom is a place for the young and the young at heart. A special place where when you wish upon a star, your dreams can come true. Until we see you again, have a safe trip home. Thank you, and goodnight.”
While the gathering was not sanctioned by Disney, it was clear that they knew of the gathering and took steps to ensure a safe environment, asking many cast members to stay late for crowd control.
Two amazing things occurred during the vigil, that to this day, brings tears to my eyes thinking about.
For the first time since the park’s opening in 1971, cast members from the various lands surrounding the castle were allowed to enter the hub in costume to take part in the vigil.
The second is what happened following the Kiss Goodnight. Normally following any sort of entertainment happening or announcement, the atmosphere music seamlessly returns to the park. Not so tonight. Following the Kiss Goodnight, Walt Disney World kept the music muted. For the first time in my experience, I was standing in the busiest theme park in the world in absolute silence.
July 12th, 2016: Keep Dancin’
I made my first visit to Pulse Nightclub since the shooting.
July 15th, 2016: Looking For Hope
Just over a month following the shooting at Pulse it seems like the world exploding in violence. Shootings, riots, terror attacks. I found myself in a constant state of anxiety. Panic attacks were becoming an almost daily occurrence.
I found myself making another late night posting:
Moment of honesty? I’m not okay. Things have just been nonstop lately and it’s taking its toll on me. It’s getting harder and harder to smile where there are so many tears being shed. I’m tired of seeing the news and fearing that someone I love could be hurt. It’s worse when I find out they have been. I’ve lost too many people I care about. We all have.
People I have smiled with, I’ll never get to hear them laugh again. People I’ve embraced, I’ll never feel their touch again.
My heart has felt so much fear, anger, confusion, loss and pain in the past few weeks alone.
I want to pretend I have something amazing and profound to say right now. To say I’m confident that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel… I’m starting to think there’s not.
Stay safe friends. Please be safe. Let’s love one another as much and as hard as possible because it feels too much like our time together is far too limited.
Let’s keep looking for hope.
July 29th, 2016: Don’t Turn My Tragedy Into Your Trend
An image published on the Orlando Sentinel website sparked a post here on my blog that went viral. My outrage for selfie-culture shining through and reminding people that we are still a city in mourning and that’s not something to take lightly.
September 11, 2016: One Voice
Three months following the shooting I joined the Orlando community at an event at the Dr. Phillips Center entitled One Voice Orlando. And evening of music and healing.
There was laughter and certainly a lot of tears this evening. It’s been a rough journey these past three months but every day is one closer to healing. I’m thankful for this amazing community who has shown so much love in the wake of such a hateful act. I am especially thankful for the woman who was sitting next to me this evening who offered a tissue (which is unseen but defiantly in my hand) as the evening came to a close with images from the days following the attack at Pulse. I’m thankful for being able to find myself smiling again, because I feel hope coming back and the knowledge that love will win. Love. Will. Win.
September 12, 2016: Be Strong, Believe
December 1, 2016: Up Hill Both Ways
I returned to downtown Orlando for the first time since September. I was picking up my packet for an upcoming race and the location was downtown, not far from the nightclub. Following pick-up I made the drive down the street to visit the memorial which had changed significantly since my last time downtown. I sat in reflection as people came and went. Some leaving flowers, others snapping photos or reading messages scrawled on the fence surrounding the club.
December 12, 2016: We Are Still Orlando
It has been six months since the shootings at Pulse Nightclub. The healing for all of us has been long in a year that doesn’t seem to want to end. While life has seemed to go back to normal, it has been anything but.
The road to recovery is long and winding and we are all making that journey at our own pace. I’m still trying to discover that pace for myself. I have found solace in others. I have had wonderful friends to lean on, to hug, to call in the middle of the night when the weight of it all feels like too much.
Something like this isn’t something you just get over and just because I’m smiling on the outside doesn’t mean it’s all okay on the inside.
It’s taking it all one day at a time.
Shortly following the shootings a friend posted something on instagram that stuck with me to this day. It was a quote from the X-Men comic books that I have since printed out and taped to my bathroom mirror so I can read it whenever I need to. It reads as follows:
“There are rules, what you’re supposed to do the first day after a loved one dies…then the first week…then the first month…all the way to the first year, the first Yartzeit. The idea, I guess, is that it’s supposed to take that whole year to come to terms with the loss. So the Yartzeit, it’s closure, but it’s more. Because when someone you love dies, it never goes away. Some days are easier than others. Some days maybe you can’t think about it at all…but it never goes away. And that’s all right. That’s as it should be…”
So on this day and every day forward, let’s be sure to remember the togetherness we felt during those first 24 hours. Let’s remember the kindness. Let’s be sure to live life for those whose were cut short.
Let’s not forget those we’ve lost and those who are still grieving. Let’s remember that love is love.
Let’s be the love in the world.
We are still strong. We are still united. We are still Orlando.