Anyone who has experienced pain, loss, tragedy, or abuse can tell you about their before and after moment. Some people have several, but we all have at least one. It’s that moment that marks a clear division in your life: before it happened, you were one person; after it happened, you were another. This is a hallmark of tragedy – you are forever changed as a person. Sometimes for good, sometimes for bad.
My before and after moment came on a chilly spring day in April of 2007.
I was about to finish up my freshman year at Virginia Tech. College was a lot more challenging than I thought it would be, and I found myself on academic probation after my first semester. Throughout my second semester, I had been working diligently to improve my grades, and it was paying off. At this particular time, I was pushing to finish a big paper and take a test early so that I could go to Seattle with my parents. They were headed out there for a conference, and I wanted to tag along to check out the University of Washington for grad school (yes, I was planning WAY ahead because I already knew I wanted to be an Occupational Therapist).
I was in the study lounge on the 6th floor of West Ambler Johnston Hall, the dorm where I lived. I was working away, when all of a sudden, one of my hallmates burst through the door. “Whatcha doin?” she asked, playfully. “Ughhh….I’m trying to finish all of this work before I leave in a few days,” was my reply. She asked me a series of questions about the work I was doing: how long did I think it would take, how much left did I have to do, how much time was I going to devote to this? I thought it was odd how much interest she was taking in my homework, so I asked her to tell me what she really wanted. “Okay, you caught me. I didn’t want to tell you this, but we’re planning a surprise birthday party for you before you leave! But it won’t happen if you’re in this room studying for the next 72 hours!”
I packed up my books and starting prepping for my Hollywood-themed “surprise” 19th birthday party. And I’m so glad I did. It was the last time we were all together like that.
A few days later, I left for Seattle with my mom and dad, having successfully turned in my early assignments AND celebrated my birthday with amazing friends. We had about two week’s worth of plans crammed into one, so we were on a tight schedule. We spent our first day and a half sight-seeing, visiting the Space Needle, Pike Place Market, and just generally taking in the beauty of the pacific northwest. I went to sleep on that second night excited to visit the university, and plan for my future, in the morning.
I awoke the next morning, Monday, April 16th, suddenly, jolted into consciousness by the sound of my phone buzzing off the night stand and onto the ground. What time is it? I thought. I glanced at the obnoxiously orange numbers on the hotel’s digital clock: 5:12. Who is calling me this early? I let it go to voicemail as I reached to pick up my phone off the floor and simultaneously put on my glasses. The voicemail was from a high school friend who lived just 2 buildings over from me at VT. His words left me even more confused than before. “Hey Alyson. I’m just calling to make sure you’re okay. I heard something went down in your dorm this morning, so I just wanted to check on you. Call me back, okay?” He must not know that I’m in Seattle, and what happened in my dorm?
I texted my roommate, along with another hallmate and asked what was going on. “Alyson, someone was shot in our dorm this morning.” By this point, I was wide awake, scanning my mind for a way to process the information I had just received. I felt so violated, even though I was almost 3,000 miles away from the scene. Was it someone I knew? Where did it happen? HOW did it happen? WHY did it happen? My mind raced with thoughts and questions.
I got out of bed and walked next door to the room where my parents were staying. I knocked, but received no response. It was early on the west coast after all. I started walking back to my room when my mom opened the door. I told her what had happened, disbelief and fear hanging on every word. If only I had known in that moment just how much more we would endure…
I felt pretty shaken up, but I began to go through my morning routine. By the time I took a shower and got dressed, more details of the shooting in my dorm had emerged. Two people were shot and killed – Emily Hilscher and Ryan Clark – although we didn’t know their names at that point. It happened just two floors below mine.
We all assumed this was an isolated incident, as did the police and investigators who responded. That all changed when reports surfaced of a second shooting across campus, this time in an academic building – Norris Hall. I grabbed my laptop and went into my parents’ room. I was in shock and on a mission to find out more information. I felt so isolated, not being able to be there with my fellow Hokies. Cell signal on campus was hit or miss that day, likely a combination of the sheer number of call attempts being made and the high winds in Blacksburg. I communicated with my friends mostly through AIM, as detail after detail began to emerge.
When I reflect back on that day, most of it is a blur. But that blank space is peppered with specific details that haunted me for years after.
– The feel of the hard hotel room floor that I sat on for hours, glued to my laptop and the TV, watching the living hell unfold before my eyes.
– The pair of bright red Nine West flats I bought at the shopping center adjoining our hotel as the reports rose from “20 dead” to the final “32 dead” (Who buys shoes in the middle of a tragedy? I was totally in shock and needed to get out of the hotel room; I ended up walking the mall like a zombie, and I barely remember buying the shoes.)
– The moment I realized I had shared an elevator with the RA who was killed in my dorm just a few days before.
– The look of horror in my parents’ eyes as I broke my stoicism halfway through the day in favor of big, heaving sobs. Even though we were safe, in a hotel room 3,000 miles away from the destruction, I saw in their eyes the heartbreak of not being able to protect the innocence of their daughter.
– The fact that April 16th – for me – happened simultaneously in West AJ and Norris Hall in Blacksburg, VA and the Mayflower Park Hotel in Seattle and the pull I felt in my heart to be somewhere I wasn’t.
I had called or texted almost everyone I knew at VT – my friends, my classmates, my boyfriend at the time. I had heard back from all of them: they were okay, they were safe. But the most surreal moment came as I found out that my good friend and hallmate wasn’t able to get in touch with her boyfriend, Mike. I thought back just a few days before; we were all together for my birthday, we were happy. I thought back a little further to the Chic-Fil-A Bowl in December of the previous year in which VT lost to Georgia. Mike had driven us down to the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. We were all together, we were happy.
I called Mike’s cell phone about 5 times before I got through. I got his voicemail. I don’t remember what I said, but I know I was mad. Mad at the whole situation, mad at him for not communicating, mad at the world, mad that I wasn’t there, mad that someone was shooting people on my campus.
I got another text: Mike had class in Norris Hall that morning.
My heart sunk. But my head refused to give in to the idea that Mike could be dead. Figuring out accurate information on that day was chaotic. This was before the days of heavy social media use and smart phones, so we were all just trying to grasp at any information we could find through AIM, text, the University website, and the hoards of news outlets present. In true optimist form, I announced to my parents that Mike was okay, that he had just lost his cell phone at best or was in surgery at worst.
The hours passed by slowly and painfully. We knew nothing. Then, late that night, I got the call. “Alyson, you need to come home right now. Mike’s gone.” I calmly told my parents the news and proceeded to curl up in the fetal position on their bed, unable to process anything.
Within a minute, my dad was on the phone with the airline. Can we get on a red-eye? When’s the earliest we can get home? What will it take for us to get back there? I don’t remember anything else about that night. The next morning, we headed to the airport. I felt so disconnected from my friends as they all prepared to attend the convocation with President Bush and the campus-wide candlelight vigil.
I made one last phone call to my boyfriend before we went through the security line. I was in a daze, experiencing life in a different dimension, when the TSA agent in front of me brought me back to earth. “Does this look like a liquid to you?” she barked as she held up a tiny bottle of hand sanitizer. “Uh, um. Yes,” I managed to whisper. “Then WHY is it not in your LIQUIDS bag?!” she retorted. I broke down. I collapsed right then and there, in the middle of the security line in the SeaTac airport. I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t move, I could barely breathe. I was sobbing with my entire body, my entire being. My parents had to physically pick me up and move me through to the end of the line. I can’t imagine what it was like for them to see their little girl in that state.
We made it back late that night. My brother and sister-in-law were waiting for us at the house with dinner, looks of sympathy and uncertainty in their eyes. No one knew what to say or do. This was uncharted territory for all of us – including the rest of the country. School shootings hadn’t become the mainstay that they are now, and this one was – at the time- called the “worst school shooting in US history.”
I drove back to campus that night, feeling numb. I needed to connect with my friends and fellow Hokies after being so removed for all of the horrific events. I don’t remember if I went back to my dorm to get some clothes or if I just drove straight to a friend’s house, but I know I never slept in that dorm again. I couldn’t.
The weeks following April 16th seemed to alternate between slow motion and fast forward. We were stuck on a loop of pain, tragedy, tears, and questions. We cleaned out Mike’s apartment. We made plans to travel to New Jersey for his funeral. We packed up our dorms (to this day, I still don’t remember how I moved out of my dorm, but I’m pretty sure my family handled most of it). We said goodbye to a campus we had loved so dearly.
We were given the option to take our current grades and not go back to classes for the rest of the semester, which I took. I couldn’t imagine sitting in a classroom as if nothing had ever happened. But I did return for classes that summer and again the following semester. I finished out my degree at Virginia Tech, and I graduated in May of 2010.
For years, I struggled with feeling safe inside of a classroom. I would choose a seat that would offer me the best vantage point and potential hiding place if someone entered with a gun. I would flinch every time someone dropped a book or a truck outside backfired. I dreaded going to class in buildings that were near construction zones, as the sounds would keep me on edge for hours.
I learned that Emily Hilscher – the girl who was killed in my dorm – had been in my chemistry class. When you’re in a freshman class of 200, it’s hard to get to know everyone. The following semester, our professor told us that he had seen the shooter outside of our classroom in early 2007, peeking in several times. There was always speculation about a connection between Emily and the shooter, but it could never be proven. Had he watched her as she sat in our class? Had he cased our classroom as a potential place to carry out his rage?
I learned that had I not tested out of the first year of French classes because of my high AP French score, I would have likely been in Jocelyne Couture-Nowak’s class in Norris Hall that morning. I had class the following year with some of the students who had been shot in that room and survived. Could I have been shot too? Could I have died in that classroom?
I learned that life is short. That none of us are promised tomorrow. That it’s okay to feel deep, deep pain. That I could feel deep pain, experience tragedy, and still live.
10 years later, I am grateful for what happened in those trying days, weeks, and months. Not the loss, not the fact that 32 of my classmates died, not the hole that was left behind in their absence. But I am grateful for the way in which our community came together. I am grateful for my friends – even and especially the ones I no longer speak to. I am grateful for my incredible family. I am grateful that I met my husband, Ken.
Tragedies render us forever changed. Before they happen, we are one person; after they happen, we are another. On April 15, 2007, I was one version of myself; on April 16, 2007, I was a completely new version.
I often reflect on the motto of Virginia Tech: Ut Prosim. In Latin, it means That I May Serve. In so many ways, my years at VT prepared me to serve others.
- I learned that I could be broken down to nothing and rebuild.
- I soaked in the power and value of community and support.
- I experienced the need to say goodbye to things and people who no longer served my journey.
- I learned how to hold space for the darkness – in myself and in others.
- I witnessed the edges of grief and pain.
- I experienced an awakening on every level.
- I began using my voice, standing up for what I believed in, strengthening my career path, and healing in many ways.
Now, it’s April of 2017, and I can hardly believe it’s been that long. I look back on the pain, the grief, the loss, the tragedy, and I know I experienced it for a reason. I can see the myriad of ways it has impacted my ability to be a great coach, occupational therapist, friend, daughter, sister, wife, and person. I’m not the same person as I was before that day; I’m an even better version of myself.