Editor’s Note: Kirsi Goldynia is an editor for CNN Opinion. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Sometimes when the world feels like it’s moving too quickly around me, I close my eyes and think about my four-year-old self.
I’m in the back seat of an old, blue Astrovan with my brother beside me and my parents up front, steering us through a maze of familiar roads. The sun is shining and the air is just chilly enough for the whole family to be bundled in puffy coats; mine is hiding the green and white jumper I wore every Saturday we spent at Spartan Stadium.
As we’d wind our way through Michigan State’s campus, I’d look out the window in wonderment. On the left we’d pass Munn Ice Arena where I took ice skating classes. Just up the road was Jenison Field House where I spent weekends learning to swim and do gymnastics. And there was the old music building where I took violin lessons. It had ivy crawling up its red brick exterior and I had never seen anything more beautiful.
At last, we’d hop out of the car and walk toward the sea of green and white, and the sound of a drumline beating in the distance. My mom would scoop me into her arms so I wouldn’t get lost, and I’d take every opportunity to high-five the other fans we passed on the way into the stadium. On rare occasion, I was allowed to run around the field before the game and talk to the football coach (though even as an adult I haven’t worked out how my mom orchestrated that).
On game days when the energy was palpable – and on quiet evenings in the summer when I’d sit outside the MSU Dairy Store licking an ice cream cone – Michigan State’s campus was the stuff of childhood dreams. I was safe in this community where we looked out for one another. I had space to run and play, to grow and imagine and learn.
Life eventually led me away from Michigan State – but it led my parents, both of whom received graduate degrees from MSU in the ’80s, back to their alma mater. They each work for the university, while I live some 600 miles away in New York City. Since moving away from home, those childhood memories have moored me to the place where I grew up, where life felt simple and the world felt kind.
On Monday night, when news broke that there was an active shooter on Michigan State’s campus, I clung to those memories.
It was past 8 p.m., but knowing that my mom often stayed late at work, I checked her shared location on my phone. She was in her office, right down the street from IM East, a sports facility where gunshots had been reported.
I texted her, hoping that she would respond immediately that she was safe and securely locked down. To my immense relief, she did.
“I will text you as soon as I get out,” she said. “It will be fine.”
But as I read her words, I wasn’t sure it would be fine. And as the night progressed and we came to realize the extent of the tragedy that unfolded, it became clear that it was anything but fine: three lives were lost, five people were wounded and many thousands more were indelibly changed having borne witness to a mass shooting.
In the early hours of Tuesday morning, once the shooter had been confirmed dead and I had watched my mom’s location track along her familiar route home, I breathed a sigh of relief. But the ordeal didn’t feel over. Now, more than a day later, it still doesn’t feel over.
Spartans have long prided themselves on being a community. Founded in 1855, MSU initially enrolled just 63 students who were taught by five faculty members. Since then, the student body has ballooned to around 50,000 students, and there are over 5,000 members of faculty and academic staff. Despite the Spartan community’s vast size, it remains tight-knit. Whether you are a student, a faculty or staff member, or a little girl in green and white at a football game, you are part of the fold. But on Monday night, Spartans became part of a larger community made up of the growing number of people whose lives have been touched in some way by a mass shooting. And with induction into that community comes a laundry list of how-tos we must reflect on:
- How to grieve such a senseless tragedy.
- How to return to life in a place that once felt like home – a school, church, campus, community center – but now feels sinister.
- How to cope when the memories that once put your mind at ease now look foreboding in the rearview mirror.
- How to best support one another while we try to make sense of it all.
The list feels endless. I think about the words Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer spoke on Tuesday morning – “Our Spartan community is reeling today” – and I wonder if the “reeling” ever ends and, if it does, what comes afterward.
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There are clinical answers to these questions, guidance in the lived experiences of previous mass shooting survivors and their families, and the traditional wisdom that time heals all wounds. But as we wait and hope for that healing to start, we must contend with the fact that, inevitably, more people will soon be a part of this growing community of loss.
I wonder if the kind of blissful memories I made as a child, unencumbered by fear, will even be possible for generations to come.