Survivor’s Skill: Sutherland Springs, Texas

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The Internet Age has fragmented our minds and our lives to an alarming degree. We have lost touch with the plainness of reality and the continuity of the human experience. We find it easier than ever to Google a quote from whichever departed celebrity it is currently trendy to mourn on Facebook, yet harder than ever to adequately process the complexity of the world around us. Today’s happenings are little more than Tweets and headlines and opportunities to shout into an echo chamber, and they will be forgotten as soon as tomorrow comes and brings another piece of news with it. We have robbed ourselves the opportunity to deeply mourn, to feel overcome by the grey area in the world, to grapple with randomness and Divine Intervention on a real timeline instead of a Facebook Timeline.

When I tell people I went to Sutherland Springs last week, it doesn’t even register with them anymore. If I say, “the town in Texas where the guy shot up that Church in November,” then they get a certain grim expression, perhaps a deep-down twinge of self-loathing upon realizing that they don’t even know the name of that town which lost 4% of its population in a single minute.

I have longed to be there since I learned the news, since I realized that I’d lived nearly an entire day before I found out what happened to my southerly neighbors, since I sat in a small church in Texas that very morning and noted where every exit door was with my typical 21st Century neuroticism.

I didn’t want to see bullet holes or bodies, I did not have a voyeuristic thirst to witness gripping chaos firsthand; I didn’t even have a strong journalistic instinct to separate my feelings from the story and go get the details before anyone else did. These are the things we have systematically used to replace the gamut of human emotions.

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Instead, I wanted to go sit somewhere across the highway and sob hysterically and hug strangers. I wanted to feel pain at its epicenter, to be gripped by the raw emotions that the town was feeling amidst the media circus that was slowly encircling people who were already having the worst days of their entire lives. For weeks, I felt a certain gloom that precluded laughter or drinking a beer. I was disturbed, not as much by matters of legislation or depravity as by the particulars of the situation. Much like Las Vegas the month prior, we lost people who were earnestly and wholeheartedly living in a way I cannot, people who worshipped imperfectly and singularly, people who attended concerts and donned flip flops and cowboy hats and drank overpriced Bud Light, people who had full lives and dark secrets and did not bother overintellectualizing the strange act of being. They lived and died without fear, even though they were no doubt terrified to hear the crackle of gunfire and to feel the implacable piercing feeling and to lose the fight to keep their eyes open as the sound and color slowly faded out of the world.

These things disturb me, because I have felt that feeling and woken up, I have realized how plain it is, how it doesn’t really look or feel any different than anything else. We read headlines and somehow assume the places these horrors occur are different and faraway and have a certain look or feel which characterizes the sites of tragedies. Instead, these spots look just like anywhere else, and were it not for memorials or recognizable landmarks, we’d be none the wiser. Our dying days will not be gloomy and wrought with pathetic fallacies, nor will every funeral come with a rainbow or perfect rays of light beaming down from the heavens.

For now, we tweet our condolences or rage or even mockery of the prayerful in hopes it will make us feel better and entitle us to moving on and having fun. It is all survival mechanism and survivor’s guilt. Because how does anyone make peace with something as random as going to Church and ending up dead? How can we ever explain disturbed lone wolves snapping and lashing out and then killing themselves before offering an explanation? Why do we care so much about motive when the end result is the same?

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* * *

As time passes and I gradually return to ‘normalcy’ and reflect more upon the feeling of hitting the pavement face-first at twenty-five miles per hour, as I remember staring at friends and strangers and paramedics in a traumatic stupor and feeling the light drain out of the world despite my best effort to stay with them, I am stricken by many things: the urgency a brush with death places upon us. Our ability to normalize and gloss over such a traumatic experience in order to ‘move on.’ The way survival is so fickle and random that it can all feel very pointless or extraordinarily meaningful. The difference a day makes.

There are a few things which humans are consistently reluctant to examine: their actual desires versus the goals the world imparts upon them, their base animalistic sexuality versus their complex minds and souls, and their own mortality. The near-death experience is somewhere between cliché and leitmotif, and it inevitably results in an overcorrection followed by a gradual slide back to where we were before we almost died. People become a lot more spiritual when there is a death in the family.

But when the body count is high and the event is in a place we’ve never been and it is more of a headline and less of a fact of life, we fight like hell to brush it off. It is better to keep living than to dwell, it is just another senseless tragedy that more laws would prevent, we should strive every single day to remember and honor the fallen, God has a plan for all of them, there is no point to anything. There is probably some truth in every philosophy, but there is not complete truth in any of them. And this, again, is something that few people want to admit, because it implicates them in some inconvenient way.

* * *

When I arrived in Sutherland Springs, I realized just how close I had been to this little town countless dozens of times in my life. I may well have passed through once or twice. I stopped at the one gas station in town, the gas station from all the news headlines. I felt compelled to fill up my tank, to contribute in some way to the local economy. I needed a snack and a drink, so I went inside. It was all devastatingly normal. I waited in line behind a young man who was cracking jokes with the cashier, and when it was my turn, the Indian man behind the counter smiled at me and said, “Long time no see my friend!”

“Yeah, it has been too long,” I agreed. “How are you?”

“All is good, you know. Busy.”

It was a mundane interaction, an average case of mistaken identity. I could be any redhead with a beard. I was glad to spend too much money on coconut water and trail mix, glad to pay a little too much for gasoline, humbled to stand on this particular patch of pavement.

Directly across the highway, a few cars were parked on a vacant lot. People were working feverishly, and twenty-six wooden crosses came into focus as the volunteers walked to and fro. I quickly realized they were gathering dead flowers left at the roadside memorial, that a woman was delicately mowing the surrounding patch of land with a respectfully silent push mower. People were picking up every piece of trash, straightening the teddy bears and photos and fake flowers left by each cross, spending time and energy honoring the memory of those lost.

I wanted to ask if they needed anything, or buy a case of waters and assorted candies, or give them all hugs. Then I was overcome with a combination of understanding and meekness. I know they’ve been treated like a circus sideshow for the past few months, with people taking photos and gawking and patting the quaint, Christian folk of Sutherland Springs on the backs for lack of anything better to say or do. And I knew that there was nothing I could offer that would come close to doing the scale of the hurt here justice.

Indeed, the tragic truth is that the greatest kindness I could do there is to simply not stop at all, to not park at the First Baptist Church, to not sit on the front sidewalk and weep a meager, pathetic weep. It did not help anyone there that I took a handful of pictures of the place before I threw my camera in my car in disgust. It did not heal any wounds that I wanted to read each name on each wooden cross aloud, so that for at least a few minutes I could grasp the magnitude of humanity lost.

As I studied the front façade of the church, which was made immortal by the breathless news coverage the first day after the shooting and never again, I was stricken not so much by the tragedy I came to mourn tangibly, but by the dichotomy of reactions. On the one hand, most of humanity which happens to pass by on Highway 87 might whip a hard left turn and come gawk at the poorly-patched bullet holes, a tangible mark of a thing they saw on Twitter and Facebook, of which they would now have pictures to show their friends. There is no higher achievement in 2018 than taking your own picture of something which is famous on the internet.

On the other hand, there were the neighbors, the houses all up and down Main Street, which were left with no choice but to continue living. As I walked the grounds of the church looking for some finality to my non-point-source sadness, a nearby house was blasting rap music at a merciless volume. And I happened to recognize the tune, and it held in high relief the two truths most essential to modern civilization: that blood has been spilled on most every inch of soil, and that we have no choice but to ignore this fact if we plan to make much ‘progress’ of our own. The church daycare room was in disarray, likely untouched since That Morning. The offices were stacked high with paperwork and spare chairs, and it was clear that no work was getting done in them.

The raucous insensitivity of Big Pimpin’ blaring from a few doors down punched me in the throat, but it also made me wonder if the responsible party were a better survivor than I ever will be.

You know I thug ‘em, fuck ‘em, love ‘em, leave ‘em
‘Cause I don’t fuckin’ need ‘em
Take ‘em out the hood, keep ‘em lookin’ good
But I don’t fuckin’ feed ‘em
First time they fuss I’m breezin’
Talkin’ bout, “What’s the reasons?”
I’m a pimp in every sense of the word, bitch

Talking about, what’s the reason? What’s the reason a man could become so slighted by his one-time significant other that he would spray a building full of worshippers with bullets before entering the building and systematically executing them while they all cowered and watched and waited their turn?

And what’s the reason that once the trail grows cold and Bitcoin goes up and another Kardashian has another baby that the news moves on and runs out of new facts to report and the world forgets along with the headlines?

And what’s the reason I am so bad at being a “normal person,” the reason I fixate on tragedies that only affect me in the vaguest ways, the reason I do not feel able to enjoy the things which most people enjoy, the reason I usually don’t know I had fun until I look back in hindsight, having completed an arduous and arbitrary endeavor?

There were spots on the dead January grass that had been dug up because the ground was soaked with blood. The spots matched the images forever burned into my mind of the church with body bags out front and shattered glass and attendees’ cars parked in the same parking spots that my car was now parked in. I wondered who does the awful duty of removing the car keys from the pockets of the dead and moving those cars to wherever you move a car that belonged to an entire slain family. I watched an interview with a survivor who recalled telling a dear friend who was bleeding out while looking her in the eyes, “You’ll be in Heaven soon. You’ll be in Heaven so soon.” And she meant it. And her friend knew it. I wished that I knew it, I wished that the wind whipping through that dead grass and the quickly-fading memorial crosses on the fence sounded like anything other than an empty, hollow wind, that it meant anything other than uneven pressure and temperature systems across the Texas plains. I prayed there on the cold sidewalk, but what do you really pray when you can’t ask for anything at all.

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* * *

I walked around to the back side of the church property, to the side of the highway which faced the gas station, where the large roadside memorial of twenty-six wooden crosses and various personal affects lined the shoulder. The work party was busy gathering dead flowers and delicately trimming the grass, straightening the crosses and righting slumped teddy bears.

It was a motley crew, which seemed a perfect demographic sample of the population of Sutherland Springs. An elderly black man in dapper workwear gently raked detritus from between crosses. A rough and tumble woman sucked drags off a Marlboro like a true cowgirl while she gathered the dead flowers in their own bag.

“I’m planning on saving every single one of these,” she said. “I’ll make somethin’ pretty out of ‘em.”

A young girl who was bigger and nearly taller than me walked over to Hank. “That’s a pretty dog, mind if I pet him?”

“Oh, he’s real friendly. He’d love that.” For a millisecond, I felt useful. She pet him through her thick work gloves, gave me a sheepish, tired smile, and got back to work.

The woman with the cigarette took an unending drag, extinguished it on her jeans, and hollered across the group, “I’ve gotta go get the kids from school, I’ll come back by afterwards. Y’all need anything?”

I felt invisible and useless standing there. I knew that every person there was personally affected by the shooting. Most had likely lost a spouse or a sibling. They nodded at me as I made my way down the row of crosses, reading every tribute note and name I could find. Cars flew by on the highway, many going far faster than the 55 mph limit through town. A large Lexus sedan jumped on the brakes as it passed, then whipped a “Texas U-turn” and pulled up alongside us. An older woman in a full face of makeup gawked from across the street and conspicuously took pictures with her cell phone before merging back onto the highway.

I followed the thumping bass of rap music back to where I parked. Just beyond my car, the home of Stephen Williford, the hero who returned fire that morning, looked the same as it ever has and always will. The fence was plastered with BEWARE OF DOG and NO TRESPASSING signs, and a handful of cars were parked in the yard. The rattling thump of cheap speakers banged from down the street, and a repetitive squeak emanated from directly across the way. A child’s head appeared above the fence across the street every time he reached apex while jumping on the trampoline. The eerie cacophony around me was a masterful chorus of survivor’s skills, of things which I sorely lack. If I could hear his trampoline springs on that Tuesday afternoon, one can only imagine what he heard from his house on that quiet Sunday morning. As I drove away, I could not fathom listening to Jay-Z or jumping on a trampoline then, if ever again. But, I do not live in Sutherland Springs. And I have never been very good at just enjoying myself.

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2 Comments

  1. I, particularly, value a piece of writing which affects me, which reflects many of my own thoughts and feelings. A well written piece attracts my attention and respect. This expresses the contemplation and questions, the self analysis and the need, to discover the well lived life…morally, ethically and spiritually. Its a necessary pursuit and we become wizened with each.
    Having rejected the formal or even casual religious code, I still recognize the moral, spiritual values we all bring into our world and appreciate the multitude of ways that we practice those values. I appreciate and admire your work John.

  2. Great words. I felt the same way about the shooting at a church in Tennessee. It was less of a catastrophe, but still, no one I ask has ever even heard about it. We are so disconnected and addicted to flashy stories.

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