It was the mother of a wounded Virginia Tech student who provided an emotional connection of understanding to my husband during my deployment five years ago.
I woke up this morning to my radio news channel announcing the fifth anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre today, and it brought forth a bittersweet memory that’s not really mine, but I hold it as dear to my heart as if it all happened to me.
It happened between Martin and someone we just refer to as the “Virginia Tech Mom.”
The Virginia Tech shootings happened about a month before I was scheduled to deploy to the Middle East. I remember following the initial reports online that day, when CNN uploaded grainy cell phone videos submitted to them from students there on the scene. This was before Twitter, obviously, before YouTube really became the resource for footage like that.
Having been in high school in the late 90s, when it seemed like there was a school shooting somewhere every semester culminating with the Columbine shootings my senior year, the news of a school shooting was not shocking. Of course, learning the details and about the loss of 32 lives was horrifying and tragic, especially when we learned that the shooter and countless victims (both those killed and injured) were from our area.
But as it goes with major news stories that don’t really claim any real personal investment, Martin and I never thought about it beyond the headlines, especially as we were focused on our own situation: my involvement with the war in Iraq, which was peppering the news with scary and tragic headlines on its own.
I was gone in the Middle East for a few months when she walked into his bank.
She was a new client, and she needed to cash some checks and make some changes to some personal accounts. As Martin was the first available finance manager to assist her, he approached her and led her to his desk.
Initially, the conversation was a pretty generic exchange of information. As Martin plugged away at the computer, though, he realized the mother was making some changes on behalf of her daughter. More questions were asked. More information was given.
As it turned out, a few months before, the daughter was a college student in another part of the state before a gunman walked into her classroom and shot her at her desk, along with several other classmates. Her daughter survived, but many around her did not. She was critically injured, and had to wait in that classroom for hours before medical assistance was able to reach her.
Now, she was back home with her mother and on a long road to recovery.
Maybe it was because he knew about the Virginia Tech shootings. Maybe it was because this woman spoke with him so easily. For whatever reason, Martin opened up to this.
He shared that I was deployed and my news team had also survived a recent surprise mortar attack that required my team’s broadcaster to be medically evacuated by helicopter for his injuries.
Thus, what would have probably been a simple 15-minute banking appointment evolved into something much longer than that.
The two of them talked about how awful it is to send a loved one off with the reasonable expectation that they would return safely, only to discover that something terrible can happen in a second.
The mother admitted she worried if her daughter would ever be the same again, having witnessed all of that, and Martin agreed he worried about the same thing with me.
They spoke of what’s it like to appreciate the flood of support from the community, but to be embarrassed and uncomfortable with it, too.
They shared the frustration of not knowing all the details of what happened, and being scared to watch the news anymore.
Martin spoke of how powerless he felt watching me walk away from him and Miss C at the airport, and knowing he couldn’t stop me from leaving. The woman spoke about watching her daughter struggle with physical therapy, and feeling the rage that all of it was beyond her (the mother’s) control.
Throughout the conversation, Martin worked to complete all the woman’s transactions, and when they were done, he walked her out of the bank.
Then, my stoic German husband had to step away and collect himself before returning to his desk.
All during the deployment and for a long time after, Martin never opened up to me about what it was like while I was gone. He, of course, shared that he missed me, but assured me he didn’t worry as long as I was writing. In a letter, he briefly mentioned meeting the Virginia Tech mother, only saying it made him feel weird to hear the mother talk about what happened to her daughter. Only a year later, when I was going through all my deployment paperwork and rereading the letters we’d sent to each other, that I remembered and asked him for more details.
Martin saw his client every now and then over the years, but never exchanged more than greetings and passing updates about her daughter. Now that he’s no longer working at the bank, there’s no way to find out how that family is doing this anniversary.
But I am thinking of them, of the young lady who got shot, but especially of her mother. I’m sure she wouldn’t remember that conversation with my husband, but I do, and while I know she was probably sharing with Martin as a way to vent some of the emotions she was experiencing, she actually allowed my husband to articulate a lot of what he was going through at the time, too, something that does not come easily for him at all.
Her strength and grace in such a situation was — and continues to be — very inspiring.
I never think those kinds of encounters are merely coincidence.
I hope on this anniversary that Martin’s client, the Virginia Tech Mom, and her daughter — and all the people who were affected by the shootings there — have come to a place of peace now, and that life has moved in a positive direction for all of them.
We’re definitely thinking of all of them.