What It Means To Still Be Breathing // lessons learned from vegas and the rocks.

I’m glad it was me, I’m glad it was me, I’m glad it was me. 

My sweet Allie would have asked to attend that concert because she likes country music. If she’d been with us, odds are we would have been there. Maybe we wouldn’t still be breathing.

Emmy is strong and sharp, but also sensitive. Odds are she might be annoyed I’ve said that, my friend, but I know it’s true. I’m the oldest of three sisters. It’s deeply rooted in me to protect both of them, to try and battle away the darkness of this earth from touching them directly. I feel a responsibility to keep my little sisters safe. I’m glad it was me in Vegas, not them.


October 2, 2:15 a.m.

Darling, you should be able to walk through your days safe and sound. I pray that you never experience the very second when you know something's not right. Chairs were flipped into slot machines, a stampede towards the doors, primal fear etched on human faces. Others shouted that they'd heard gunshots. I didn't hear any but I believed them. We walked briskly to the front door, alertly looking backwards and forward and sideways, then weaving into the crowds of people on the sidewalk all moving in one direction. Instinctual. Go with the crowd.

"HANDS UP, KEEP MOVING TO THE BACK LOT," the police officers sternly and urgently shouted as they held long rifles. Hands up, my dad, stepmom and I moved to behind a parking garage with the crowd — a confused school of fish. I couldn't breathe for I don’t know how long. They said it was happening a few blocks away but you just didn’t know if there were more hiding in the shadows, staring down your body with a gun pointed at it.

An older woman was separated from her friends, afraid. I told her she could stay with us. She looked at me with grateful, kind eyes. We lost her at some point but she found us later and she gave me a warm hug. She’d found her people. I never asked her name. I wish I would have.

Nobody really knew what was happening. Rumors of somebody shooting an automatic weapon into the crowd at a Vegas country music festival. We now know that was the gut-wrenching, teeth-gnashing, horrifyingly evil fact.

There was a sense of shocked camaraderie built on a foundation of fear and panic, as we all checked the news trying to figure out what was happening. We contacted our loved ones and sat in the parking lot into the night. We were safe a few blocks away, but my heart lays shattered and broken. I'm crying for the dear humans who aren't alive anymore. I wish I knew your names and your stories and the laugh-lines on your faces. Pray unceasingly for this violence to cease and to let light prevail over this world's shadows of slithering evil.

I'm safe now. There was blood on our hotel's elevator floor. I didn't sleep very well.

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When we returned to Nebraska, I needed time at home. I slept until noon, which I never do. I’d planned to make the two-and-a-half hour trip that day to make it back to work, but my body didn’t make a move towards packing my car. I stayed another night because I felt safe under my mom’s roof.

I tried blocking out the images haunting my mind with memories of the awe and wonder I felt when hiking up Zion’s dusty red rocks. The air was the freshest I’d ever breathed.

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I breathed slowly, patting my dog and providing her with too many treats. I sat on the chair in the dining room, feet not touching the floor because that reminded me of my shoes slamming against the Vegas Strip’s sidewalk, eyes constantly on my dad and stepmom. I couldn’t lose them in the crowd. I was safe in my childhood home, where my mom made me muffins and graded papers, where my dog barked at anyone walking outside. It was safe.

Flashbacks rudely popped into my mind. Looking urgently around the flashing Vegas lights. Praying wordlessly that monsters weren’t hiding in the shadows with guns pointed at us. We didn’t know where they were. We had no idea what was happening.


My dad called me one day last month to say, “Make sure you get off work. We’re going. I bought our tickets.”

We took the trip for a creative inspiration journey. Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, the Hoover Dam and Vegas called our names, promising an adventure of beauty to us. And oh, the beauty. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt as alive as I did hiking up a canyon to discover the Emerald Pools.

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I sat in my car on the driveway of my childhood home for twenty minutes. I didn’t want to go back to the place where I work and live because I felt safe where my dog was on the other side of the front door. My eyes lingered on the steering wheel and the key in the ignition. Rattled breathing made me lightheaded and my shaking hands gripped the steering wheel. I don’t cry often but the occasional tear welled against my eyelashes. I finally left but my heart clenched in anxiety. Each passing car made me jump.

The first time I went to the grocery store was after I’d been back in normality for a week and a half. I was putting the trip off for as long as possible because the store’s maze of aisles made me anxious. I gripped the shopping cart tightly as my brain constantly calculated how closely I was aligned to the front sliding door. The exit. I watched nearby humans’ hands carefully to make sure they weren’t reaching toward their waistbands to pull out a gun.

Sleep didn’t come easy because the tch tch tch tch tch sounds careened around in my otherwise empty mind after hearing the shooting sounds playing repeatedly over the airport’s TVs. I haven’t watched the news since the second day of October. I think the reporters have probably moved on by now, but the news is all too much for me to take in. It’s too much.
 

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A note written for myself and to you.

Darling, you cannot live with Fear as your main companion because pleasure ripples down his spine when he tears open your chest. He cracks apart your ribcage with clawed hands and grabs your heart as he leers, breathing slowly in your face. The chains he slaps across your body keep you from moving and dancing, and he seals your eyes to conceal the light.

Darling, you cannot let Fear do that. Acknowledge he is there but demand that he leaves you alone. Close the door on him and lock it tight. He will knock again and again and again but don’t give him power over your sweet self.

You must wring the beauty out of each breath but don’t let the cloth run dry. You must let beauty linger. Don’t miss out on the drops of joy and creative sparks, because Fear wants you to be oblivious to that. If we let Fear live with us, we’re not living.  


Still processing. Still anxious. I don’t think that night will ever leave me. But in the most twisted way, that night in Vegas was a gift. I try to preach bravery as best I can, but I learned abruptly just how fragile life is and how unexpectedly it could be over.

I’m not trying to be morbid, not at all. If anything, I’m trying to remember that each and every moment I am given is the most precious gift — an opportunity to dance and tell people I love them and to do the things my soul aches to do before I leave this earth.

That night was the most terrifying span of time I have experienced. I was scared that I might die. But I was more fearful that I wouldn’t get a chance to talk to all of the people I love most one last time because most of them were sleeping. I was more fearful that I wouldn’t be able to stand on the platform one more time to shout into the noise of the world that each human is seen, worthy and brave. I was angry at myself for the lack of progress I’ve made in writing my book because I feel so strongly about the message I crave to give as a love letter to my readers.

I wasn’t sure if God was going to call me home. I didn’t want to die and I craved more time. I was kept safe. And now I’ve firmly realized my responsibility to get my knees dirty and do the work.

I’ve spent a lot of time this October with my eyes staring at nothing. I fear that my heart is growing too apathetic, too numb because the pain gnashing around the entire world seems to be cracking into my bones and rooting there. My brain and soul are still processing what happened. I’m dealing with the guilt of being traumatized by the event, even though I never had those guns pointing in my direction. But I was close enough.

My breathing has been slow and my heart still feels like it lays in a mosaic at my feet. Each day, I drag myself out of bed, pick up a piece of that mosaic and nestle it back into my body. I can’t let Fear crack my ribcage because I have work to do, even though the flashbacks provide distraction. Eyes forward. Knees on the ground to do the dirty, good work of loving and writing and breathing life.

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This earth is meant to be explored and we’re not meant to be locked inside our homes because of fear. I refuse to stay inside. My dad and I hiked to the top of a canyon in the name of seeking the Emerald Pools. We climbed over boulders on a trail with steep drop offs to find a lush oasis among dusty red rocks. Greenery and foliage somehow found it possible to grow through dry cracks of the canyon’s walls.

The rocks and cliffs give way to the wind and the rain, changing ever-so-slightly. Second by second, millions of years. A story that will still be told long after we are called home.

I felt alive, I breathed intentionally and listened to the wisdom from the ancient rocks that made me feel small in the most profound, beautiful way. This earth is brimming with natural, wild beauty that God created for us to take in awe. A masterful architect and artist who renders us speechless, who I’m sure smiles when our eyes dance around and try to take in all we can. To remember all that the dusty red rocks presented.

You must go. You simply don’t know when your eyes won’t open again so you must see the natural, wild beauty with your own eyes. Make a list of what you feel an urgency to go accomplish. You must go. Your hands must move.

Please, tell people you love them. I woke up the morning after it happened with countless missed phone calls, text messages and comments on my social media. Words from people who mean the world to me saying that they were crying because I was safe. That meant the world to me.

Promise me this, I beg you. Breathe from this moment on with more intention, grace, and never for granted. Call off hesitation and fear. Live with a lion’s heart and fire in your eyes.


“I will always keep you and your sisters safe. All of you are very, very precious to me and have so much to offer this painful world we seem to live in. My prayer each night is that you all find your way on the path of your dreams. I’m just along for the ride because you all have fulfilled my dreams. Each one of you has made me very proud to be a father and comforter, protector and cheerleader. We survived the whole ordeal because God has much bigger plans for us. We were not called home this time and I will take each day from now on to let people know how much they have to live for. Even in the worst of times, we wake up each day to do what is right and touch all of those around us in positive ways. I love you and miss your laugh already.”

- Dad

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