Theater 8, Addendum

Originally posted May 5, 2013

*****

I had the privilege of seeing family recently. It was a mini reunion of sorts, an unexpected and lovely surprise on a windy, sunny Sunday afternoon. A relative of my late husband was celebrating a milestone birthday, and we all got to gather to celebrate her. I was and am honored to be included still in this family, even though my husband is no longer here. He remains my connection to these good people, and I am grateful.

Among the welcoming faces I saw was that of a young man, the son of my late husband’s cousin. He is on the local police force, as was his father before him. His girlfriend was there, a lovely and engaging young woman. She is also on the police force in our city.

So it was probably inevitable that talk would turn to the Aurora Theater shooting, now nearly ten months ago. He knew my girls had been there, and was eager to see how they are doing in the aftermath of the trauma that was that night.

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(Photo Source: Google Images)

I have written before about my daughters’ time in Theater 8, about how they tried to leave but were stopped in the interest of their own safety. I shared how they left the theater parking lot just before it was locked down  and how we struggled to make sense of what had happened as the night hours wore on.

I also told of a story I’d read about a man who got up to lead two girls out of the theater, one of whom had been shot in the jaw as bullets came through the wall from the beginnings of the rampage in Theater 9 next door. As he started to lead them out to the lobby, he saw what he thought might be a gunman, so he retreated back into Theater 8, closed the door, and instructed someone to pull the emergency alarm.

This was the story I shared on that Sunday as this young relative, a member of the S.W.A.T. team, asked why my girls didn’t leave the theater right away. “They tried to go out the emergency exit, but someone thought they’d seen a gunman out there. And someone had already said they thought there was a gunman in the lobby. So they were hiding on the floor between rows of seats, not sure what was true or what was safe for them to do.”

“That was us,” he said. “That wasn’t the gunman that guy saw in the lobby. It was us. We got there three to four minutes after the call came in. When we arrived the gunman was still in Theater 9. We know that because people were still coming out of there, and they’d been shot on the way out.” He went on to explain that they were armed and wearing gas masks.

“Well I think I would have shut the door on you, too!” I told him. I’ve never seen a S.W.A.T. team in action (and hope I never have cause to) except on TV or in the movies, but if I’d seen them approaching me, armed and in gas masks as I was trying to help someone who’d been mysteriously shot, I could very easily mistake them for gunmen on the loose, I’ve no doubt.

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(Photo Source: Google Images)

His girlfriend told me that she had not been on duty that night, but she did what she could, calling the families of the officers she knew were on scene. She worked to assure them that their loved ones, the first responders we so often count on, were safe. They were doing their best to contain a nearly uncontainable situation, and had no time to contact their relatives who undoubtedly heard the story unfolding, feeling as confused and frightened as the rest of us.

We don’t often think of them, I imagine, of the families of the people we trust to step in, to run towards the danger every day. I have family members in more than one city and state who are on the force, so I have somewhat of a feel for how it is. But I don’t live it daily, knowing that just going to work could mean that someone I love is putting their life on the line.

I suppose we also don’t think much about what those first responders see, how it affects their lives, their jobs, and the people they love. I wonder if we often take the time to think of them as real people, with real lives, families, children, struggles, and emotions. Statistics do not bode well in regards to many things when it comes to these fine folks and their families. They live in a dichotomy that few of us could understand, much less be bothered to consider very often.

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(Photo Source: Google Images)

It’s a humbling thought. Yes, I know they choose to do that. Yes, I know it’s their job and they’re paid for it. I know that some people will choose to focus on the relatively few public servants who lack integrity and character. And I also know those who opt to be first responders are the minority, that most of us don’t make that choice, don’t decide on such a career.

I still say it’s humbling, and I’m thankful they were there to offer order on a night of terror, as they are so many other times that don’t happen to make the national, or even nightly, news.

“We probably passed each other as they left the theater,” said my girls’ step-cousin. “But they couldn’t have known it was me all suited up and wearing a gas mask.” I’m pretty sure he’s right on both counts. He didn’t elaborate much, but alluded to the terrible sights he and his team had seen in the theater in those early morning hours.

I was moved as these two officers told me that they haven’t been to a theater since the shooting. They don’t know when they will; they just know that they have no desire to for the time being.

“How are they now?” he asked me, wanting to know of any lingering effects of the night my girls might be having all these months later.

I told him that my older daughter loves to go to the movies. One day as we drove by the newly re-opened Aurora Theater, I asked her if she’d ever consider going back to see a movie there. “Sure,” she said. “I’d go.”

My younger daughter, I shared, has only been to one movie, and it was not at a traditional theater, but instead at one that serves dinner with the show. And that was enough. Other than that outing over four months ago, she has no desire or plans to go to any theater.

“You just tell her,” he reassured, “not to worry about that. Tell her that those big, bad S.W.A.T. guys don’t want to go to the movies anytime soon either.”

***

Mike Campbell

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(Above images courtesy of Google Images)

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… and this is my daughter’s personal memorial.

Content and personal photo © Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013.

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Theater 8, Part 2

Read Theater 8, Part 1 here.

*****

My daughters were crouched on the floor between rows of seats at the Aurora Theater only 2.5 miles from our home. Our phone call had been cut short because it was simply too loud in there to continue. Movie dialogue and music, growing crowd noise, and the piercing of the emergency alarm had sabotaged our conversation.

I lay in bed thinking it was probably a gang shooting, sadly not an unknown occurrence in the area. I figured the theater staff would come in, explain, and calmly evacuate everyone, handing them their free movie passes on the way out or at least telling them when they could come back to get them.

I waited to hear back from my girls. Nothing.

After about 15 minutes, I sent a text to my older daughter, who had been very concerned about her sister’s rising anxiety. “If you have to,” I wrote, “find an employee and tell them your sister is having a panic attack and needs to be away from the crowd. Maybe in an office or something.” This was at 12:55 a.m.

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(Photo Source: Google Images)

I pictured my younger daughter, shoulders heaving as they simultaneously tried to curl around and enclose her, breath catching, sobs racking the way these things happen when anxiety takes her into a place of full panic. Still, I did not yet grasp the enormity of the event. None of us did.

“Mom, I thought we were going to die. But I also thought that no matter what, I would do my best to make sure she got out of there alive, even if I didn’t. I had already decided that I would push people down, run them over, run past them, do whatever I had to do to just get her out of there.”

This is not the story that makes the news, but if you knew this girl, this big sister, and what she has endured in her 20 years, you would realize this protective determination was in itself a bit of a miracle. She took charge.

She led her panicked sister out with “We’re going. I’ve got you” as they joined a growing crowd finally exiting through the lobby.

They got to the doors leading outside when my younger daughter refused to exit the theater for fear of a gunman loose in the parking lot. “We are leaving and I am taking you home!” was the firm response from her sister.

So the younger, almost ever and always the leader in both mischief and fun, was taken by the usually more reserved elder out past the gathering throng of people, police cars, and emergency vehicles, loaded into the car, and driven the short route to home.

Granted, the younger cursed at the older pretty much the whole way. At the top of her lungs, it seems. But she had the grace to apologize a day or two later, after she left the confines of her locked basement bedroom where she hid for some time.

Unknown to me as I waited at home, the police blocked off the theater parking lot, putting it on lockdown just after my daughters drove out of it.

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(Photo Source: www.transcriptionoutsourcing.org  via Google Images)

As I waited anxiously, having flashbacks of stories from Columbine High School (I’d had friends whose kids were there, who had hidden from the gunmen as best they could) and thinking my girls may still be crouched on the sticky theater floor, I was debating whether or not to call, to battle the piercingly loud emergency alarm, movie music, and people that had infiltrated and ended our previous conversation.

I was giving it “just five more minutes”, when suddenly there was pounding on my bedroom door.

“Mommy!” My 18-year-old threw herself onto my bed, onto my body, and sobbed in fear, anger, frustration and panic. I stroked her hair. She cannot be held when panic has hold of her, and even touching or standing close to her is normally off-limits until she feels she has regained some control. “It’s okay, honey. You can cry. It’s okay.”

Her older sister came into the room. We spoke a little bit, trying to piece together a clear picture in spite of all the confusion. “I don’t want to talk about it!” was all her younger sister would sob, eventually taking her refuge downstairs in the basement.

The next hours were spent online and in front of the television, trying to gather information, numb with the realization of what had actually happened and how close my children (young adults, yes – but my children nonetheless) had been to death and destruction.

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(Photo Source: www.scpr.org  via Google Images)

I remember the dawning thoughts of “Okay, wait. I think this is NATIONAL news. This is going to be everywhere. Oh, this is really bad.”

Thankfully, my daughters left the theater quickly enough to avoid the sight of carnage, damage, and bloodshed. They were spared what many were not. I am very grateful.

Even so, they were traumatized, adding yet another layer to what seem to be endless layers of challenge for our family. I don’t pretend to understand. I don’t pretend to be okay with it. I don’t pretend to think that the issues they were already facing will not be worsened and intensified by this experience; they probably will be.

But I will do my best to encourage them to face this head on, to allow for their grief and trauma to be processed (and my own as well), but not give it permission to control their lives.

These are ultimately choices they must make for themselves, and I don’t think we even yet fully understand what the entire impact of this experience will be. But I am not prepared to give up on their behalves.

One daughter is ready to head back to a movie theater, eager for the enjoyment she derives from films, toying with the idea of film production school.

The other is not yet ready to be on the light rail, or in a classroom, and especially not in a theater. These are the first steps and, faltering or not, they are necessary for all future steps.

“Mom, they’re calling it a massacre now.”

“Yes, I heard that.”

“I can’t believe we were there, Mom. I just can’t believe we were there.”

“I can’t either, sweetie. I’m so thankful you are home and safe, but I’m so sorry you were there. I’m so sorry you went through that.”

“Wow. Some day I’m going to be able to tell my kids this story, and that we were there.”

“Yup, you sure will.”

“I had a lot of friends at the movie; some were in our theater. Some were in Theater 9. But they all got out okay. None of them got hurt.”

“I’m so glad they got out okay. I’m so glad.”

“I just wanted to get her out of there, Mom, even if I couldn’t get out alive myself. I just wanted to make sure she was okay.”

“I know, and you did. You could not have made any better decisions than you made; you did everything right. Even if things had turned out differently, you did everything right, and I’m so proud of you.”

*****

Post Script written April, 2013:

It is now nearly nine months since the internationally publicized Aurora Theater Shooting.

My older daughter loves going to the movies, alone or with friends.

My younger daughter has been to one movie theater since July 20, 2012. It was one of those places that combines movies and dinner, where the seats are bigger, the aisles are wider, and the layout is not like that of a traditional theater. She was flanked by two trusted men, both members of the US Army, which was all by careful design. She knew what she needed, and she made sure she had it. I can learn a lot from that girl.

I am immeasurably proud of both of my daughters.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

Theater 8, Part 1

July 18, 2013. It is now two days until the one year mark of the horrific tragedy that was the Aurora Theater shooting. Our city remains scarred but determined. I find that I can’t watch much of the local newscasts this week, though. And that’s okay.

In honor of those who lost their lives, those who survived their injuries, those who were “just” there at the Aurora Theater on July 19 & 20, 2012, and the families and friends of all the aforementioned: Please indulge me as I re-post (with a few updated revisions) the story of the time my daughters spent at the Aurora Theater that night.

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(Photo Source: Google Images)

This account is written in three parts. The next two parts will be posted July 19 and July 20.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

There are several misconceptions that can result from sharing a story like ours. One that strikes me in particular is, knowing that our family has faced and overcome certain mental health issues, people assume we get to move forward without further crisis.

There may be a mistaken assumption that struggles are over, communication and relationships are flawless and forthcoming, and there is a big red bow tied around our lives, like those commercials where people give bow-topped new cars for Christmas gifts. (Just where is that universe anyway?!? I might like to live there.)

In families where teens are in an extended time of crisis, their parents and siblings can and often do develop issues and concerns of their own. We have certainly experienced that. And we have also learned the truth that no one gets a pass.

One trauma does not exclude anyone from the next. This isn’t necessarily good or bad. It’s simply life. Yes, it can be frustrating and feel unfair. But, as with everything, we get to choose how we approach, resolve, and integrate these circumstances that are life.

The following piece, split in to two posts, was penned on August 6, 2012 about two and a half weeks after what has since become internationally known as the Aurora Theater Shooting.

*****

“Mom, I thought we were going to die.” My daughter tells me this as I gently delve further into the as of yet not-fully-shared story about my girls’ time in Theater 8. Theater 9 was where the gunman began his rampage, and the pops and smoke my daughters and many others mistook for firecrackers were in fact bullets and chemical ‘smoke’ coming through the wall.

At first they were annoyed. “Oh leave it to some idiot at the Aurora Theater to shoot off firecrackers during the midnight Batman premiere. It figures.” But as some people began to get restless and others got up to leave, they were a little confused as well.

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(Photo Source: www.mlive.com via Google Images)

I read an online account of a young man who stopped to help a girl who was shot in the jaw by bullets and/or shrapnel from gunshots fired from the theater next door. I learned from his story that there was potential for so much more destruction.

I am paraphrasing from memory, but it seems this man got up to leave Theater 8 after the bullets came through the wall. He happened to pass a stranger, the girl who had been shot, and (his mother must be so incredibly proud) he was taking her and her friend out to find help.

They made their way to the doors leading out to the lobby, but when he started out, he saw what he thought might be the gunman in full regalia heading towards Theater 8. He closed the door, holding it shut, even against the sound of someone banging on the outside of it. (The gunman? Someone needing help or refuge? At the time he could not know, though he obviously believed it was someone who meant harm.)

At this point, the kind stranger tells another theater patron to pull the emergency alarm. The story I read did not tell the details of what else he did or how/when they finally got out, but they did. Or maybe it did tell, but I don’t remember. I had to stop reading and watching.

My daughters tell me that someone started yelling out to the moviegoers in Theater 8. “I don’t work here; I’m just a patron. But there has been a shooting, and there is a gunman in the lobby. Don’t go out there. It’s not safe.”

I’m not sure if I would have believed it. It makes sense to me that it could have been the next part to a stupid prank that began with the ‘fireworks’ that sounded a few moments ago. Because really, it’s a midnight movie, not a battleground. Someone just has a sick sense of humor. I could have thought that had I been there. Definitely.

My girls made the decision to try the emergency exit. They and the others who wanted out were told, “I saw someone out there. It might be a shooter. Don’t go out there. It’s not safe.”

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(Photo Source: Google Images)

There was no way out. They were told that no escape option was safe. They made their way to seats near the front of the theater. “Some people scooted in for us, and we crouched down on the floor between the seats.”

This is when I got a phone call.

I had only been sleeping for about 20 minutes (curses on my night owl tendencies), so my mind was in that dizzy place between wake and sleep, and I recall stumbling across the bedroom to find my ringing cell phone sitting on the floor next to my purse.

“Mom! Someone set off fireworks in the theater or something! We were just trying to watch a movie and someone does something stupid, and now we …” I really can’t recall the rest. My youngest was having a panic attack, and became irritated because I was repeating her words back to her as I tried to make sense of them, and as I tried to awaken my half sleeping self.

She was fighting the anxiety as her voice strained and she held back the sobs that nearly always accompany her panic attacks. This made decoding her words even more challenging.

To try to calm her and stem her frustration with me, I said, “Sweetie, I am having a really hard time understanding what you’re saying. I’m just repeating back to you so I can try to make sense of it. I’m really not trying to anger you.”

“No, Mom. It’s me.” My other daughter was on the line now. Her sister had thrust the phone at her in frustration. She tells me some of the same things I’d already been told, and explains that they are crouched on the floor between rows of seats. What? This is something I cannot process. I simply cannot wrap my head around it.

Even the fear that starts within me is somewhat muted, somewhat confusing and surreal. I am thinking, “Why is there no theater staff in there taking charge? Why is some stranger saying there’s a gunman? Who knows what’s true here? They better refund those theater tickets or give them passes for a free movie after this.”

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(Photo Source: Google Images)

(Yup. Straight to the bottom line; that’s me. But I knew my girls had bought their tickets days earlier and had been waiting excitedly for this night. We had even bought Mountain Dew in the color changing Batman can! I was angry that some jerk had played a joke and ruined it for everyone. And I was slightly conscious of the fact that there really may be a gunman in the lobby.)

The movie was blaring in the background as we spoke. Dialogue and music swelled, but there was also an exceptionally loud sound my mind was trying to comprehend. They told me they were on the floor hiding between rows of seats, but this noise suggested they were outside instead.

“Are you standing next to an ambulance? It sounds like you’re standing next to an ambulance. What is that awful noise?”

“It’s the emergency alarm in the theater, Mom. It’s going off.”

“Oh. It sounds like you’re standing next to an ambulance.”

Very intelligent response, right?

Which led to the next comment, “Mom, it’s too loud in here to try to talk. I’m going to hang up now.”

This is the time, I later learn, when she was pretty sure they were going to die.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013