I live in a small city in Upstate New York. It is an area that has been hard hit by a poor economy for many years, but an area that is beautiful. The three-season road construction aside, we are surrounded by rolling hills and a short drive to the Finger Lakes and wine country. There are many parks, a university and community college, small playhouses and venues to hear live music. People are generally friendly and there is a small town vibe in this area of about 200,000 people.
We are pretty quiet news-wise. There is your standard drug charges and occasional violence from that but the majority of the population is law-abiding and hardworking. And I never felt unsafe here.
On April 3, 2009, my hometown made national news. An armed gunman entered the American Civic Association a few blocks from my office and opened fire on everyone in his path. Within minutes, he had killed 13, wounded 4 and then killed himself. The American Civic Association, for those who are not familiar with it, provides citizenship, cultural and language support for area immigrants. It is there for the sole purpose of helping people. Most of the people who lost their lives that day were attending a citizenship class that the shooter had previously attended.
My husband’s aunt was one of the lucky few who survived that terrible day in our history. She was a hero, though I know she would scoff at being called one. After being shot, she crawled under her desk and called 9-1-1. She remained on the line with authorities until they were able to storm the building, playing dead when the shooter returned to stand over her.
As the anniversary of that tragic day looms, I am reminded again of the important lessons that I took away from that day.
Hate and anger will eat you up. When something like this happens, I think it is human nature to rage against the shooter, anyone who was linked to the shooter, society, gun control, the universe. We need someone to blame and something to point to that will assure us that this cannot happen again. The shooter’s family residence was shown on the news and I feared that people would somehow blame them. But what many of the family members who were left behind showed us was a quiet acceptance, a releasing of that anger, and a support for those left behind. I didn’t hear the husbands who lost wives or children who lost parents screaming for vengeance on the evening news. Instead, I saw candlelight vigils, prayer and a strength of character that helped them crawl out of bed the next day and keep living.
Life is short. This one seems like a no-brainer. Everyone always says that, right? But how often do you really consider how fragile our existence is? We can be gone in the blink of an eye. Our time here is finite. We do not have unlimited days to follow our dreams, become a better person, or tell people how much we love them. We need to do it now, while we are still able to. I have always been a dreamer and I have always been big on hugs. I think after that day in April 2009, I started to dream a little bigger and do something about those dreams. I also started to hug people a little more, and to tell them how I feel.
We need to really see people. In this day and age, modern technology pretty much guarantees that we are taking phone calls in the middle of everything. I am not sure how they juggle it, but it seems everyone under the age of 25 is adept at texting and carrying on a separate conversation simultaneously while driving and eating. I can’t text and chew gum at the same time, let alone carry on a separate conversation. Please people. Put your phones down. Look into each others eyes and talk to each other. Listen to each other and really hear each other. Even when you are alone, put down your phone and say hi to strangers as you walk by. See the people around you. They may not be here tomorrow.
Lastly, be grateful for your days. I have talked before about how we tend to replace excitement with dread as we get older. Birthdays are no longer celebrations. But remember that not everyone gets another birthday. Not everyone gets another day. No matter what is going on in your life, it could be worse. Grab ahold of the days and moments that you have been given, live them for all they are worth and never give them back.
When we see tragedies like this in the news, they usually feel far removed from most of us. We never think it will happen here. But it can and it does. And it is our responsibility to remember that and to learn from it. We need to live a little more, and love each other more.