I wrote this piece for The News Tribune weeks before the latest shooting in Oregon at a community college like the one where I work. That horrific tragedy happened in a class like many I have taught. I am not at all sure how to process this most recent ‘extraordinary day,’ and am still working on it.
I might never figure it out but find that I can’t stop trying.
In any case, here are the words I have to offer about my own experiences this summer in Puyallup.
We drove home one day in the high heat of August, thinking it was a day like any other.
My teenager had the wheel while my preschooler sat in the back. As soon as we looked down the half-mile long road with a pasture on one side and gravel pit on the other, we knew something was up. Cars sat still in the lanes with their doors left open, and people stood hugging one another.
My son slowed, and we pulled up to see a tree lying broken across the pavement. I got out and at first didn’t understand what had happened to the woman driving a block from my home.
A rotting snag had stood in its ugly glory for years by the side of the road. I noticed it often when I took my walks and drove my commutes. It collapsed that afternoon and fell on the car a young woman was driving, perhaps because the weather stayed dry for so long. The wood shattered the windshield and a branch drove itself through the car’s dashboard.
Moments later the fire department got there, and we all stood with our mouths open, marveling at the twist of fate and timing that left the car in ruins but the young woman and her passenger unhurt.
The next day I left work, thinking again that it was a day like any other. I glanced down at my phone to see a message from my son’s daycare. There had been a shooting, it said. Puyallup Playcare was on lockdown and someone had come in to say a teacher’s husband had been killed.
After calling ahead, I drove to the preschool with my heart so high in my throat it was difficult to breathe. I found teachers and staff clearly shaken, still trying to grasp the events. The gunshots happened only blocks away. I later learned police officers courageously stopped the shooter without killing him before he could injure anyone else. One of the officers involved is a family friend.
I saw other astounding things over those two days. I saw my neighbors come out to help the young woman and stand with her until she could get her car sorted. I saw the teachers and staff at Puyallup Playcare hold it together and keep the children calm. I saw communities gather to help each other heal and local churches like my own offer services to those affected.
Through it all I saw people hugging one another much like those standing on the road near my home.
The day the tree smashed a car, I drove around the scene and walked into my 80-degree home without air conditioning. I stood in my kitchen thinking of that driver and what to do for her. Remembering my salted dark chocolate bar, I plucked it out of my cupboard and walked the block to the scene where the young woman still waited with my neighbors through the clean up.
Even as I gave it to her, I knew it was a small thing, but a candy bar seemed the best I could do. Life is fragile, and I learned once more that a day like any other might not be. I am grateful we have each other and a bit of chocolate while it lasts.