One of the reasons my parents moved us to Thousand Oaks when I was in the fourth grade was because it was such a safe place to live, and that has continued to be true.
Mayor Andy Fox has called Thousand Oaks the safest city in America in interviews since the shooting. If there were a picture in the dictionary of “American suburban life,” it would be of Thousand Oaks, with its rolling hills and oak trees, its luxury car dealerships and shopping malls. I found all that safety stifling when I was growing up, so after college, I didn’t return like some of my childhood friends did. I said “I’ll never live in the suburbs again,” and that has proven mostly true – until my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer in October 2016.
I tried to persuade her to move up to Lake Tahoe with me, but she wasn’t having it. She had lived in Thousand Oaks for nearly 40 years, and she wanted to die there. In the months I lived there with her, I walked with my dog through the manicured neighborhoods, passing the gated communities in Sunset Hills, returning to her community where all the stucco houses look exactly the same. In the fall, a murder of crows caw from the sycamores and in the spring, bunnies hop across the greenbelts.
I drove the familiar roads, past my elementary, middle and high schools on my way to pick up my mother’s medications and shop for her groceries. I strolled through The Oaks Mall, lit with holiday lights and decorations, looking for gifts. When my mother felt well enough, we would go to the library and local park together, watching the ducks and the turtles, looking for the beauty in the world. And we found it.
Last year when the bank called to tell me the sale of my childhood home was complete, the escrow officer said, “Congratulations!” I started to cry. And like all people who surprise others with their unexpected tears, I apologized, saying, “It’s just really hard.”
And although I shouldn’t have done it, a few months ago when I was back in town for my high school reunion, I drove by our house, the house I didn’t know I loved until it was gone. It felt like the end of an era, but my childhood and teenage years – roller-skating and track meets, hiking in Wildwood and ice blocking on the Sunset Hills golf course – they are still there in the Thousand Oaks that lives in the dwelling place of my memory.
This is all to say that the safety of Thousand Oaks may have felt stifling to me when I was a young person, looking for adventure beyond my parents’ house; now, after the killings of 12 people have made the community’s name a household word, I see that I relied on it – even if I wasn’t going to live there, something about knowing it was there was important to me. My first kiss was in the parking lot of The Oaks Mall. The friendships I made at Thousand Oaks High School have lasted into my adulthood. Both of my parents died there.
The mayor of Thousand Oaks said Friday that if this can happen there – meaning the Borderline Bar mass shooting, where those 12 people died – then it can happen anywhere. I always already knew that, or at least I thought I did when it happened in other places, places that were close to home, but not home exactly.
If my mother were still alive, she would be watching the news on its horrible loop, getting up only during commercials. She’d be checking in with her friends from the local hardware store where she worked, because some of her young colleagues frequented Borderline. I would tell her to turn off the news, and she would shush me, saying, as she often did when she heard about people who died suddenly: “And they didn’t even have a death sentence.” What she meant was that she had been given three months to live after being diagnosed with cancer, and she herself had accepted this death sentence. During every month she lived after that, and she was still there, sitting on the couch, alive, she would ask when she heard of sudden death, “It’s incredible, isn’t it? No one even told them that they were going to die.”
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But here in America, we’re all living with a death sentence, one we also have come to accept. Death awaits us at movies and nightclubs, at our elementary schools and colleges, in our synagogues, our mosques and our churches. The very thing that some of us argue keeps us free and safe – our right to own guns – has become our terminal diagnosis, and we can’t escape it, not even in the safest city in America.