Les Semaines

April 15, 2007

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What Coping Means

How to begin talking about this? I wouldn't and maybe shouldn't, but writing is what I do. It's funny that I don't know where to start because I've been doing so much talking talking talking about it but in such a scattered way and with so many different people it's all become confusion.

The last time I saw Rebecca was so mundane. It was Friday, and she was walking towards the women's restroom. She wasn't near enough for me to even say hi. A week or so previously one of my coworkers had shown me a print out of the photographs that Rebecca had sent to people in her own immediate work area of the guy that was stalking her, so when I saw her--that was for the first time after I'd seen the picture--I remember feeling sympathy for her and her situation, thinking what a weight she was carrying having that kind of harrassment. Then I thought of how annoyed the character in my novel who undergoes a similar situation would have been to have been thought of as someone who had a burden. I suspected Rebecca would feel the same way, so I kept walking back to my office.

The Monday was a usual Monday with the usual urgh Monday tasks at work. I had been at work two hours and my coworkers and I had already done our daily espresso run. I was staring at an email message I was answering when I heard a loud noise. My mind dismissed it as hammering (we have a wood shop in the building and frequently hear loud noises) but I did think it was odd that it was just six and so quick. Maybe someone had dropped some lumber. I never leaned back in my chair enough to look out the window. If I had, as I have so many times since, I would have seen her open office door with the gun-smoke haze coming out.

I don't know what made me get up and go out to the main office (did I go to get a print out? Just realize something was happening? My memory is blank about this). I saw the white faces of my coworkers. None of us had any idea what was going on, but people were running. Suddenly there were police running up the stairs with flak jackets on. One of the faculty members came out of his office and said, "Oh my god, Rebecca."

And just like that, we knew.

We tried to stop the faculty member from going out there. After all, we didn't know if there was still someone out there with a gun. We didn't know anything. We stood around what seemed like a long time, watching back boards come up the stairs and police checking the whole floor. Eventually the police told us we had to evacuate the building. I went back into my office, grabbed my coat and backpack. I even--and I had no idea I had done this until the next morning--turned off my three lamps. Then I closed my door and went. The three of us and the postdoc whose office is next to mine went out together. The police stopped us on the stairs and took contact information. When they asked for mine, I said, "All I heard was the shots" but they took mine, too. Two of us had to write them on other people's cards, because we don't have any.

Then we went outside. It was cold and clear, and the media were already there. My coworkers and I spent a lot of time trying to avoid them. [Later my parents and friends saw me on the TV news, hugging a friend who had come from elsewhere on campus to see if I was okay.] Rumours flew. Students worried that there was a sniper, and I told them that we would have been herded blocks away had that been the case. We'd already put the bits and pieces together. Murder-suicide [though as a friend points out, let's just say murder, though the second part does point out that there was no more danger to other people].

We milled around for a long time, not knowing what to do. The press tried to talk to us but we said we knew nothing. I called Jim to tell him not to worry, and loaned my cell to my coworkers to call their spouses. I called another coworker who works afternoons to tell her we were okay and then later not to come to work when it was clear that they weren't going to re-open the building that day. Somewhere in this that friend came to look for me. I remember hugging her and her asking me if I was okay and I said, "this isn't my drama; this isn't my drama," but of course it was. And it is.

I spent some time with my friend and she offered to walk me to my car, but I said no, thinking I was fine, I had to be fine, but I spent the whole time walking to my car on the phone telling people I was okay, then letting Jim talk me almost the whole way. I went home, ran errands, but the whole time I was talking. I hated being out of contact. I was shaking.

It's as difficult to explain how things are now. The words are there: shock, trauma, stress. We've had some counseling sessions via the university's system, and they've been very helpful. My coworkers who experienced this have been terrific to me as they've been going through their own things at the same time. Last weekend it felt horrible to be out of touch with them because they were my sanity checks, that I wasn't crazy to feel so personally messed up about this. My family and friends have been great, too.

It's just that everything is intensified. I feel too much myself, probably because I'm watching my own reactions so closely. All of my bad traits have been heightened and I've been having all kinds of dumb little personal issues. One day this week I felt shocked (and a touch guilty) to feel cheerful at work. It was like that feeling when you've been sick a while and you're finally better and you feel great. But it didn't last. I've been angry, upset, depressed, sleepless, beset by nightmares, worried, guilty, you name it. I know that I'm basically okay, it just takes more time than this, and besides she does not deserve to be forgotten.

I think about what happened that day far too much. About Friday when I saw her last. About her family. About what my coworkers and the faculty and students are going through. About what could have been done and wasn't. About options that weren't taken, metaphoric and literal doors that weren't locked, and whether they should or should not have been. About how we all have this illusion of safety because we need it to go about our everyday lives. About violence in so many other places and how this has brought home what it means. How this truly isn't about me. And is.

I knew Rebecca. Not well, but she was a colleague, part of my extended office family. I knew she was smart, dedicated, inspirational to her students, shy, private, graceful, kind, and that I could send people to her and she would help them. She cared.

When they were starting up the program she ran, I showed her how I did things for the similar programs I ran, and that was probably the most contact we ever had. I wish on that Friday I had closed that gap between us. Maybe said something. Advised her to, like the character in my novel finally does, get the hell out of town where he couldn't reach her.

There's a refrain from a Two Loons For Tea song that ended up in my novel: "Don't let him win." That refrain gives my character courage not to. Rebecca had plenty of courage, but her killer still managed to get to her. He was not stopped.

Thought we lost her and it's horrible, I still won't let myself believe that he won. And even now I feel determined not to let him. I'm not sure what exactly it can mean at this point, but I know it means something.

To remember Rebecca. To remember what happened and is still happening. To not let him win.

Here's more about Rebecca Griego.

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