Reflections on Tragedy
It was date night.
My wife Lisa and I decided to go to our favorite Cuban restaurant in downtown Orlando. This restaurant is close to where both of us have worked, and a about half-mile south of the scene of the Pulse nightclub shooting.
Lisa’s cousin was a regular at Pulse, and lives across a small street from the club. You can see the club clearly from his porch. His house became a place of refuge for club employees and patrons escaping the unfolding tragedy. Fortunately, he was not in the club that night, but several of his friends died and a couple more are still hospitalized, battling their injuries.
Our route to the restaurant took us past the club and the hospital where most of the victims were treated. While eating, we decided to visit the memorials at the scene and across the street from the hospital. Like just about everyone else in the world with a television, we followed this horrific story as it unfolded in our city. We knew it was Orlando, and we knew where it was, but we hadn’t been there yet so I’m not sure it had fully hit us. There is a degree of separation that your television provides.
This is where things got fuzzy.
I’ve been a television sports or news producer for 30 years. What this means is that while you don’t see me on camera, I’ve worked with some of the best and most talented reporters that you do see. Together, producers and reporters create and shape the stories, and probably your opinions of those stories, through copy writing and the editing of the images you see. Together, we’ve covered just about every major news or sports event you’ve seen over that time. We’ve covered presidential elections, shuttle disasters, tsunamis, hurricanes, 9/11, Super Bowls, World Series, and Stanley Cup Finals to name a few. We were the ones who tried to build the bridge between the story and you the viewer, doing our level best to minimize that degree of separation to bring you as close to the story as possible.
There are a lot of responsibilities that come with being in this position. Journalists should best be described as pursuing compelling accuracy in their storytelling. One of the unwritten rules of the job is that you have to put your emotions on the shelf and deal with them after the event. You don’t cheer in the press box, even when your favorite team wins a playoff game in overtime as your favorite player scores the deciding goal. You learn to bottle up your own emotions as you’re telling the stories of folks who just lost loved ones or all their worldly possessions in some unspeakable tragedy or calamity, until all those stories are told.
There’s a time to cheer and a time to mourn, but for the journalist, that time comes after the reporter has signed off from covering the story for the last time. You become robotic in nature, cranking out story after story, checking the boxes that you’re covering every possible angle along the way. Your story doesn’t matter. You’re the storyteller. Your joy waits. Your pain waits. Sometimes the pain never gets dealt with. Trust me, it happens. Please don’t think that the people presenting you the news aren’t deeply affected by these tragedies. We are. I’ve seen things and covered stories that I’ll never forget as long as I live.
Lisa and I pulled into a parking lot near the club, running into her cousin as we got out of the car. We both hugged him, and we chatted for a bit. We then made our way across the street to the Pulse memorial.
What’s left of Pulse is now surrounded by a chain link fence covered in canvas. The club is protected by members of city, county and state law enforcement. Instead of investigating though, they’re now quietly ensuring that the memorial is not tampered with.
The memorial is powerful. The flowers, pictures, handwritten notes and signs remembering those who died are a sight I pray I’ll never forget. But there was something else that really struck me. It was the people. There were members of the gay community together with hardened bikers, folks old and young, diverse backgrounds, milling about, crying softly, hugging, praying.
Lisa and I lingered for awhile. I prayed a bit and we quietly moved up the street to the memorial near one of Orlando’s biggest hospitals. The backdrop is a small, manmade pond surrounded by a walkway weaving through modest landscaping and guarded by a small fence. There are crosses there for each of the victims. All are covered in handwritten notes, flowers, ribbons, pictures and other tokens. There’s a separate memorial closer to the main street made of signs, stuffed animals, flowers and long ago burnt out candles.
There were also people. All kinds of people. Again, several races, lifestyles, and about as complete an age spectrum as possible. I guessed some to be family members, judging by the way the just sat in silence and stared at a specific cross, vision blurred by tears streaming from their eyes.
That was when the picture came into focus.
These are the people who lost loved ones in a senseless tragedy and are left picking up the pieces while the world watches. These are the people whose stories we were bringing to you while we put our emotions on hold.
I found myself watching an older woman. If I had to guess, she was the grandmother of the young man who’s picture she was blankly staring at. She sat motionless, except for her tiny hands massaging a cross. She took no notice of me, and I didn’t approach her.
The cycle of life had been broken, and her world sure looked shattered. She’s staring at a picture of a young man who should’ve outlived her by decades. Instead, she’s the one mourning a young life cut short, seeking solace in her faith.
It broke my heart to watch her pray, but heartened me that she was praying. I found myself, hands loosely clasped in front of me, praying God’s comfort for her.
Then, I realized my vision was blurry and my hands were a bit wet.
So that’s what it feels like.