I caught myself driving home last week in silence.
The soft thud of the interstate transitioning from asphalt to the concrete leading over the North Umpqua River ripped me out of my thoughts. I looked to my right, watching the water cascade over the Winchester Dam with Umpqua Community College sitting in the background.
I started to cry.
Six years ago I looked the same way. I was a few months into my job at The News-Review and had never been to the college before — honestly, I didn’t even know where it was. But as I pulled onto the freeway on my way to cover the shooting, I quickly realized I didn’t need directions, I just had to follow the screaming line of police cars headed in the same direction.
The permanence of the shooting has hit me differently every year, but this year in particular has been the most — confusing.
A friend of mine who was on campus said this year felt the hardest, while another said she was finally able to find some semblance of peace after the 5th anniversary. Meanwhile, I’ve struggled to figure out where in that spectrum I exist.
I still pause when a shooting comes across the police scanner, I find myself frustrated when I read reports that mention past massacres but omit UCC, and I can’t drive Umpqua College Road without picturing ambulances flying by.
Growing up I was always presented with the idea that grief was linear. Tragedy and heartache would hit you, but then it would slowly and steadily get better. Time heals all wounds, as they say.
It’s a well-intentioned phrase, I suppose, but a misnomer nonetheless.
Six years later and I still remember the knowing nod the fire chief gave when he saw me that morning on campus, the student who hugged me in front of Snyder Hall when I went up to interview her, and the state trooper who saw me standing in the middle of it all, my notepad shaking, and asked if I was OK.
I nodded, thanked him, and scribbled something to myself as he walked away.
“I’m not,” I wrote.
I’ve flipped through that notebook each year since the shooting, but find myself identifying with those words more today than I did a few years ago. I’ve passed the college thousands of times on my way to and from work and always feel a twinge of guilt, a feeling that I don’t anticipate will ever go away. I’ve long been uncomfortable claiming any amount of grief for an event that I’m only tangentially connected to — I didn’t lose a loved one and I wasn’t there to hear the gunshots — but the conversations I’ve had with those who did seem louder this year.
If that same trooper were to ask me today if I was OK, I’d say no. But admitting that feels worlds better than continuing to swallow the thing grief wants me to believe: That six years passed should mean six years removed.
I’ve long encouraged friends to express their grief rather than let it fester — advice that, as they know, I’m terrible at following.
But it seems time. Which might be selfish to acknowledge here, and on this day in particular, but maybe it’ll help someone else. Maybe not.
Either way, I’ll continue to look east toward the college as I cross the river each morning and keep those who died, and those who survived, on my mind.