Today my mother spoke to Renee, Gerald's mother.
At Gerald's school, for seniors there is what is called "zero period." To my understanding, this is approximately the first thirty minutes of the school day and is what is generally known as homeroom. Underclassmen must be present and accounted for at the start of zero period, but seniors are allowed to arrive at their leisure, just so long as they aren't tardy to first period, which is the first official class of the day.
Gerald, being a laid-back, easygoing kind-of guy, had a tendency to be late to first period. Like any parent, Renee had been pushing Gerald to be punctual and start getting to school on time.
That horrible morning, Gerald did just that; he left the house on time, pecking Renee on the cheek on his way out the door. He mounted his bike and pedaled away, sure to be at school well before the end of zero period.
Not much later, a friend called to ask if Renee had heard anything about the lockdown at the school. She'd heard that maybe someone had been shot and wondered if Gerald was okay.
Renee called Gerald's cell phone.
Renee called again and again.
Renee called the school office to see if Gerald was present in his first period class.
She took off towards the school and on the way there she came upon the scene, which was already taped off about a block away from where she was. The authorities did not yet, however, have enough forensic evidence to have been able to take away the body. They wouldn't let anyone close enough to get to the area to get a clear view of the crime scene. Renee heard from several bystanders that someone — a student — had been shot and killed.
At some point soon after, Renee learned that it was, in fact, Gerald who had fallen victim to the bullet.
The shooter was a soldier who had returned within in the past year from a tour in Iraq. Friday morning, probably as Gerald was dressing for school, the shooter dressed in all black and took special care to wear his bulletproof Kevlar gear, as if he expected that his schoolyard targets would pull AK-47's from their bookbags and return fire. He walked outside his house and began shooting. He non-fatally shot a father who had just seconds before, buckled his young children in to their carseats. Then he turned and shot the next person he saw in the back of the head. My cousin.
"If only I hadn't nagged him so much about getting to school on time. He wouldn't have left so early and wouldn't have been there.
If only I'd given him a ride this morning on my way to my doctor's appointment.
If only I'd made him breakfast, he wouldn't have eaten so quickly."
The guilt is tearing away at Renee.
All day long, I've been upset that I haven't been more upset in the way in which I feel I should be upset. Because I don't know this young adult version of my cousin and had not even seen a picture of him past his tenth year, I feel somewhat distanced from the amount of trauma a family should feel by a tragic, sudden loss like this one. The shock over such a senseless, illogical tragedy happening to my blood is there, and the outrage at the shooter is there. Sadness that the chance to know my cousin has been taken from me permanently was there. My heart hurt, but if I am honest, it didn't bring a depth of loss that wracked waves agony and shudders of grief through my body.
My eyes watered, but not enough to shed a tear.
But now, having heard Friday morning's nightmare from Renee's perspective, I feel a horrible, chest-cinching pain which binds its urgent fingers around my throat and threatens to suffocate me.
My heart couldn't comprehend the loss of my cousin with the depth that I wanted it to, but my heart could identify with the pain of a mother losing her child. I can only imagine what it was like to have had that pang of immediate fear swell in the pit of her stomach and blossom into frenzied panic when Gerald didn't answer his phone.
I can't help but wonder – is that when she knew? Did she know then, when his cell phone rolled over to voice-mail? Did she feel something in her heart suddenly go missing? Did she feel the threads of Gerald's life-force that wove through her heart suddenly snap, or was it a slow, languorous unraveling that pulled away more as the unanswered minutes droned on?
One of my biggest fears is not being there to avert the misstep into the deep end, or to break the fall from the slide, or to jerk the car away from the head-on collision…of feeling like I could have done something to stop it even when there wasn't anything that I could have controlled. Of having to hold the the moment just before devastation out in the palms of my hands and roll it over like a tragic prism, able to see in retrospect how the shifted angles might have meant that it was my child that was with me and not the recurrent, torturous thought, "If only…."