Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Day of Remembrance

Tomorrow will be a difficult day for the Hokie nation, of which I am a member. It will mark the anniversary of the horrific events that took place at our beloved university, Virginia Tech, on April 16, 2007. Tech has been a part of me my entire life. I truly bleed orange and maroon. My grandmother used to tell me wonderful stories about going to dances at Tech in the 1920's with members of the Corps of Cadets. My dad was an engineering student there when I was born, I have a little baby bib - my first piece of Tech apparel- that has a picture of the Gobbler--now known as "Hokie Bird" with the caption VA Tech Class of 19?? on it. That caption on my bib became a reality when I entered as a student in September of 1974. My first dorm room was on the 4th floor of West Ambler Johnston, right down the hall from where the first shootings occurred on that day in April. I met my now husband at the Hokie House on my first night as a freshman. Not only are my dad, my husband and I alumni, but my 2 uncles, one cousin, several second cousins, my husband's 2 brothers, 4 nephews and one niece are as well. We took our kids to football games in Lane Stadium from the time they were old enough, and we sent them to Hokie basketball camps in the summers. Now, our oldest daughter is a 3rd year student there. She was a freshman when the shootings occurred, living in West A J, just like her mom 32 years earlier, and living in the room directly above where the first shootings occurred.
That day, and the week that followed are permanently etched in my memory. The day began like any other, it was a Monday, I was at work. My daughter called me the first time at around 8:15, saying that she was upset, because she had a test in her first class, which was at 9:00, and she had tried to go out of her room to go down the hall to the bathroom, and there were FBI agents and police all over the place, they escorted her to the bathroom, then back to her room, told her to stay in there with the door locked until further notice--don't open the door for anyone, and stay away from the window. She was worried about missing her test. She said at the time she had been told by her RA that the girl in the room directly beneath her, and the RA on that floor, had been shot, that they thought it was a domestic dispute, with the girl being shot by her jilted boyfriend, and that the RA got in the way trying to protect her.
Then, Meredith called back later and said that there had been more shootings across campus in one of the class buildings, they thought the guy had gone looking for the girl's new boyfriend, and shot other people trying to get to him. We now know that that was not really the case.
Meredith was finally cleared to leave her room around 1:00 PM, but she was afraid and eventually one of her off-campus friends came and convinced her that it was ok to come out of her room, they went to Roanoke for the night, and stayed with members of my family.
I think what has probably haunted me the most is that the girl that was the first victim, Emily, had stayed at her boyfriend's apartment Sunday night, and was just coming in to her dorm Monday morning. Apparently, Cho, (the shooter) was hanging around the entrance to the dorm, just waiting to gain access, and he saw his chance and followed her in. His dorm was across the way from Meredith's dorm, and he supposedly would stare at her dorm out of his window. So, what if my daughter had gone to breakfast that morning, or had stayed at a friend's house the night before, and had been the one coming in the building at that moment? It could so easily have been her. Or, what if she had just been coming out of her room to go to the bathroom, and he had chosen to go on his rampage up one floor? Meredith had a class in one of those rooms on Tuesday-Thursdays, what if he had chosen Tuesday instead of Monday? All of these "what-if's"...
Then, of course, there are the thoughts of what must the families of the victims being going through, I can't imagine having lost my daughter at all, much less in such an awful way. And, what about those students and professors who got up that morning and went to class, not knowing that for some of them, it would be their last day on Earth, and for those who were wounded or were in the classrooms where the shootings took place, but weren't killed, I think about the scars on their bodies and in their minds forever. I was lucky enough to have heard from my daughter numerous times during that day. I heard that one of the most upsetting things mentioned by the officers that went in after the massacre, was the eerie sound of all the cell phones going off, frantic loved ones on the other end, trying to locate the victims.

That week, all of the tributes, memorial services, and outpouring of caring from people around the world were truly touching. Although I was not a family member of one of the actual victims, anyone who ever stepped foot on that campus forever became a member of the "Hokie Nation", and was affected. To see your beloved, picturesque campus on TV as the background for all of the horrible images we were seeing, and being able to place yourself back in that dorm, and in those very classrooms where all of that violence took place is unfathomable.
As author (and alum) Nikki Giovanni stated in her moving speech at the university convocation April 17, 2007, "we will prevail". And, we have. Meredith dealt with a lot of post traumatic stress in the months that followed, but has overcome and prevailed, for the most part. The campus has gone on about their business, many of the students have graduated. Meredith's class will be seniors next year, and they were the youngest on campus at the time, so soon, the majority of students will not have been involved at all with the tragedy.
I would like to share the link to a special memorial edition of Virginia Tech Magazine, alumni receive this magazine several times a year, I have the actual hard copy which was published shortly after the tragedy. Two of my favorite things in the magazine were a beautiful picture of Niagara Falls with maroon and orange lights shining over it. And, a very moving article by an alumnus entitled "Choose One". That article touched me so deeply, it basically urged alumni and students to choose one of these victims, for whatever reason(s) you choose, and more or less "adopt" their spirit, then as you go through life, remember this person as you watch a VA Tech football game, think of that person being able to watch and enjoy that game, or next time you walk around campus, or just anything, think of the Hokie you have chosen, and have their spirit walking beside you as you do the things they might have been doing had their life not been cut short. I have done that, the person I chose is Austin Cloyd, I think I chose her because she was the same age as Meredith, and she had the most beautiful red hair. Her dad is a math professor at Tech. One day last year, Meredith was sitting in a hallway of one of the math buildings studying, and Austin's dad came over and just started talking to her, asking if she needed help or anything. In my mind, I think Austin knows I think of her all the time, even though I never knew her, and that her spirit told her dad to go and spend some time with Meredith.
Here is the link to that magazine:
So, tomorrow, members of the Hokie Nation will remember that day in many ways. Our local alumni chapter is sponsoring a blood drive, so I will be donating blood. Meredith will be attending memorial events around campus. Rachel, who attends Roanoke College 30 miles away from Blacksburg, will spend the night with Meredith tonight, and run in a memorial 10K tomorrow.
I have so many more thoughts and feelings rolling around in my head, but have probably taken up enough space.

I would like to share some photos taken 2 weeks after the shootings, on the day that I went to move Meredith out at the end of the school year. We were very proud of Meredith, students were given the option of not staying to finish out the year, and just taking whatever grade they had as of April 16, or, staying, finishing out the year, and taking exams. Meredith chose to stay and finish out the year, and go through with exams, and made the dean's list.

Here is a picture right outside of Meredith's dorm, West Ambler Johnston:

Here is a picture of my girls looking at the objects inside the memorial tent that was set up on the Drill Field to hold all of the remembrances that were sent to the school.

This was a temporary, makeshift memorial set up on the drillfield, in which there was a marker of Hokie stone-which is the stone that all of the buildings on campus are made of-for each of the victims. People left mostly flowers and candles here.

A close-up of one of the markers, this particular one being for Ryan, who was the R A that was killed in Meredith's building, and the only one of the victims that she knew:

A view of the memorial tent from the area where the stone markers were:

My girls standing in a grove of trees on the Drill Field, the trees had big black ribbons tied around their trunks.

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