Her Mother's Story!

TUESDAY, APRIL 20, 1999, started like any other school day in our house.  At five forty-five Brad, my husband, left for work, and a little later I got up to wake the kids.  Getting teenagers out of bed is always a small battle, but that Tuesday was especially difficult.  Cassie had stayed up late the night before catching up on homework, and her books were all over the kitchen table.  Her cat's litter box needed attention, too, and we were running late with breakfast.  I remember trying not to lecture her about all the things that needed doing before she left for school.   About seven-twenty Chris kissed me good-bye, or at least gave me his cheek, which is what it's gone to lately (he's fifteen) and clattered down the stairs and out of the house.  Cassie stopped at the door to put on her shoes - her beloved black velvet Doc Martens, which she wore rain or shine, even with dresses - grabbed her backpack, and headed after her brother.  As she left I leaned over the banister to say good-bye, like I always do: “Bye, Cass.  I love you.”  “Love you too, Mom,” she mumbled back.  Then she was gone, through the back yard, over the fence, and across the soccer field to the high school, which is only a hundred yards away.   I dressed, made myself a cup of coffee, locked up, and drove off to work.

  Around lunchtime I got a call from Charlie, a friend, asking me if I'd heard about some shooting at the high school.  I said no.  I tried not to panic, for one thing, it didn't seem like anything Cassie or Chris would be involved in.  Probably just some kids facing off in the parking lot, or a drive-by on Pierce Street.  For another, my coffee buddy, Val, and I had just picked up lunch at a local market, and we were ready to eat.  Besides, I had always thought of Columbine as a safe school.  Wasn't it?  I decided to call Brad, just in case he had heard anything.  Brad was at the house when I called.  He had left work early and gone home sick.  When he picked up the phone, I told him what I had heard, and he said he had just gotten similar news from Kathy, a friend at work.  Brad had also heard several pops outside, and one or two louder booms, but he wasn't too concerned.  It was lunch time, and there were always kids running around outdoors.  Probably just some prankster setting off firecrackers.

After I hung up, Brad put on his shoes, went out to the back yard, and looked over the fence.  There were cops everywhere.  Back in the house he turned on the TV and caught what must have been the first news bulletins.  Shortly after that the first live coverage was aired.  All at once the pieces came together, and he realized that this was no prank.   My eyes were still glued to the tube, but I knelt at the corner of the couch and asked God to take care of all those children.  Naturally, my thoughts were focused on our kids, on Cassie and Chris, but at the same time, in the back of my mind, I was sure they were both okay.  It seems that if something were to happen to someone so close to you, you would sense something, feel something.  I didn't.

The next thirty-six hours were pure hell.  By the time I got to Columbine, hundreds of desperate parents and relatives, police officers, bomb squads, reporters, and onlookers had already descended on the area around the school, and complete pandemonium reigned.  Enough facts had emerged for us to know the seriousness of the situation, but the details were disjointed, contradictory, and confusing.  All we knew for sure was that two unidentified armed gunmen had gone on a rampage through the school, mowing down students and boasting as they went.  Everyone was frantically looking for someone.  People were crying, praying, hugging each other, or just standing there stupidly, staring numbly as the whole chaotic scene unwound around them.  Many of the families with children at Columbine were shepherded to Leawood, a nearby elementary school, to await word from the police as to their safety.  Others of us were stuck at a public library, because Leawood couldn't take any more people.

It was like a battle zone.  Soon lists of the injured and safe were being printed out and distributed.  In between scanning the latest updates, I ran breathlessly from one cluster of students to another yelling for Cassie and Chris and asking if anyone had seen them.  Searching the school grounds itself was out of the question, of course.  The whole campus was cordoned off and surrounded by an eerie ring of rifle-carrying SWAT teams.  Chris showed up early in the afternoon; he had fled to a neighbor's home near the high school and finally got through to Brad, who was stationed by the phone at home.  Brad reached me on my cell phone.  Immediately I breathed easier.  Thank God.  Now we only have to look for one child.  But the relief did not last more than a second or two, as my thoughts raced back to Cassie.

Where was my daughter?   Though hundreds of fleeing students had been loaded into buses and driven off to safety in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, others, like Chris, had escaped the mayhem on foot, and in some cases it was hours before their whereabouts were confirmed.  The injured, many of them unidentified, had been rushed off in ambulances, and dozens of others hid for hours in closets and classrooms throughout the building.  Some, we found out later, were lying alone bleeding to death.

Around five o'clock those of us still waiting for news of our children at the public library were told that one last busload of students was on its way from the high school, and we should go over to Leawood to meet it.  Brad and Chris had joined me earlier in the afternoon, and immediately we jumped into the car and drove toward the school as fast as we could.  Although our destination was only a few blocks away, it was a terrible drive.  Nearly every street near the high school had been barricaded, and the few that were still open to traffic were clogged with TV trucks and vans from every media outlet in Denver.  Overhead, TV helicopters clattered, and in front of us and behind us sirens wailed.  My heart was pounding so hard, I could hardly bear the anxiety.

Finally, we got to Leawood. Jumping from the car, I craned my neck to look first one way down the street, then the other.  No bus.  We waited.  Minutes passed, and we kept checking and rechecking the street.  Still no bus.  Finally, it dawned on us, there was no “last busload” coming.  I was beside myself, distraught beyond words.  Up to that point I had still hoped for the best, but now?  I felt deceived.  Not intentionally, perhaps, but deceived nonetheless, and so bitterly that it almost choked me.

I tried to convince myself.  She's always been resourceful, and might have found a good place.  I just hope she's not hurt.  Or, it's better she's hurt than dead.   Weeks later we heard the police were certain that all the missing were dead as early as eight o'clock that evening.  They had accounted for everyone else.  But because they didn't have positive confirmation, they hadn't said this, and so I continued to grasp at straws.  Maybe she's hiding somewhere.  If she's injured she can at least be helped.  But she's got to make it through the night, or at least until somebody gets to her.

Hope is really the only thing that will keep you going in such a crisis, even if it's a thin shred.   By nine-thirty I couldn't stand the tension any longer, and since the police were not giving out any new information, Brad and I decided to go home.  It wasn't that we felt like giving up; that wasn't at all the case.  But what was the point of hanging around Leawood the rest of the night?

Back at the house Brad climbed on top of the garden shed in our yard.  He wanted to see for himself what was going on in the school.   Standing on the roof of that shed I could see the whole school.  Using binoculars I could even see right into the library windows.  I could see the yellow letters stamped on the blue coats of the ATF men.  They were walking around in there, heads down, as if looking for something.  I couldn't really see what they were doing, but I guess they were stepping over bodies, looking for explosives.  Later we heard that they found dozens of bombs.

Around ten-thirty or eleven there was an explosion from the direction of the high school.  We rushed up the stairs to Cassie’s bedroom to see if we could see flames or smoke or anything else from her window, but we couldn't.  Nothing but blackness, and the low red and blue flashes of police cars and fire trucks on Pierce Street.  It must have been a bomb detonating.  I was shaking with fear and dread.  What if Cassie was still alive?  Gradually fatigue overtook me, and I tried to go to sleep.  It was impossible.  Every time I closed my eyes, a new nightmare would jolt me awake.  Again and again I saw Cassie.  Cassie huddled in some dark closet, wondering if it was safe to come out.  Cassie lying cold on some hallway floor, bleeding to death.  Cassie crying out for help, with no one to comfort her.  How I longed to hold her, to stroke her head, to wrap myself around her and hug and cry and laugh and squeeze her tight!  The agony of her absence, and the emptiness of her room, was almost more than I could take.   I had taken Cassie's pillow from her bed, and as the tears came I hugged it and buried my face in it and breathed in her scent.  Cassie's scent.  My baby's scent.  I have never cried so long, or so hard.

Around three-thirty in the morning I finally got up and dressed, and Brad walked with me down Polk to the corner, where the first sheriff's car was sitting.  Thinking the driver might have something new to tell us, we asked him several pointed questions, but he only hemmed and hawed.  Finally Brad said, “Look, just tell us the truth.  We have reason to believe that our daughter is still in the school.  Is anyone in there alive?”  The driver answered, “Okay, I'll give it to you straight.  There is no one left alive.”   Desperate as it seems, I was still not ready to give in, even then.  There's always a chance she's hiding in a closet somewhere, I told Brad, or that she's one of the injured who wasn't accounted for at the hospital.  You never know.  They think they have their facts straight, but that doesn't mean they do.

It was twenty-two hours later, on Thursday, around two o'clock in the morning, that my defenses finally collapsed.  The phone rang, and a woman from the coroner's office told us what we had been dreading, though expecting, to hear.  They had Cassie's body.  Now there was nothing to do but admit that our daughter was really gone forever, that she would never come home to me again.  But how can a mother do that?  I wept again, as I had never wept before.

From what I have since been told, it must have been about eleven-fifteen that morning when Cassie walked into the high school library, backpack on her shoulder, to do her latest homework assignment.  Another installment of Macbeth for -English class.  Crystal, a close friend, was in the library too.   Sara, Seth, and I had just gone over to the library to study, like any other day.  We had been there maybe five minutes, when a teacher came running in, yelling that there were kids with guns in the hall.  At first we were like, “It's a joke, a senior prank.”  Seth said, “Relax, it's just paint balls.”  Then we heard shots, first down the hall, then coming closer and closer.  Mrs. Nielsen was yelling at us to get under the tables, but no one listened.  Then a kid came in and dropped to the floor.  There was blood all over his shoulder.  We got under our table, fast.  Mrs. Nielsen was at the phone by now, calling 911.  Seth was holding me in his arms, with his hand on my head, because I was shaking so badly, and Sara was huddled under there with us too, holding on to my legs.

Then Eric and Dylan came into the library, shooting and saying things like, “We've been waiting to do this our whole lives,” and cheering after each shot.   I had no idea who they were.  I only found out their names afterward, but their voices sounded scary, evil.  At the same time they seemed so happy, like they were playing a game and getting a good kick out of it.  Then they came up to our table and knocked a chair over.  It hit my arm, and then it hit Sara on the head.  They were right above us.  I could hardly breathe, I was so scared.  Then they suddenly left the room, probably to reload.  It seemed like they had run out of ammunition.  that's when we ran for it.  We dashed out a side door of the library, an emergency exit, and made it just before they came back in.

Crystal lost track of Cassie once the shooters entered the room, and there are conflicting versions of what she was doing.  One student remembers seeing her under a table, hands clasped in prayer.  Another says she remained seated.  Josh, a sophomore who spoke with me a few weeks after the incident, did not see her at all, but he says he will never forget what he heard as he crouched under a desk about twenty-five feet away.   I couldn't see anything when those guys came up to Cassie, but I could recognize her voice.  I could hear everything like it was right next to me.  One of them asked her if she believed in God.  She paused, like she didn't know what she was going to answer, and then she said yes.  She must have been scared, but her voice didn't sound shaky.  It was strong.  Then they asked her why, though they didn't give her a chance to respond.  They just blew her away.   Josh says that the way the boys questioned Cassie made him wonder whether she was visibly praying.   I don't understand why they'd pop that question on someone who wasn't.  She could've been talking to them, it's hard to tell.  I know they were talking the whole time they were in the library.  They went over to Isaiah and taunted him.  They called him a nigger before they killed him.  Then they started laughing and cheering.  It was like a big game for them.  Then they left the room, so I got up, grabbed my friend Brittany by the hand and started to run.  The next thing I remember is pushing her through the door and flying out after her.

One of the first officials on the scene the next day was Gary, a member of our church and an investigator from the Jefferson County sheriff's department.   When we got to the school they divided us up into seven teams of investigators.  All of the victims who had been killed had been left in place overnight, because the investigators wanted to make sure that everything was documented before they collected the evidence.   As soon as I entered the library I saw Cassie.  I knew it was her immediately.  She was lying under a table close to another girl.  Cassie had been shot in the head at very close range.  In fact, the bullet wound indicated that the muzzle was touching her skin.  She may have put a hand up to protect herself, because the tip of one finger was blown away, but she couldn't have had time to do more.  That blast took her instantly.

The gap between April 20 and the present grows a little wider with every passing day, but the details refuse to fade.  Sometimes the images surface so vividly, it seems like it all happened yesterday.  Doctors say the brain forgets pain, and that may be so.  I am not sure the heart forgets.  If there is any reassurance to be found in the recesses of the mind, it may be in those happy, simple things that held us together as a family during the last week of Cassie's life.  Though uneventful in themselves, they are strangely satisfying to hang on to, and comforting to replay.

A few weeks earlier Brad and I had taken the kids up to Breckenridge, a nearby ski resort, for spring break, and because we still had unused tickets, we had decided to let Cassie and Chris take a day off from school (something we “never” do) to make use of them.  So there they were, going off to Breck on a Thursday, and as I watched them leave the house with their snowboards, I stood there thinking how my brothers and I had never done anything like that, and how special it was that my children were close enough not only to get along, but to enjoy each other's company in an activity they both loved.   Friday they both were back at school, and Saturday was prom night.  Cassie did not have a date, nor did her best friend, Amanda, but both girls were determined to have a good time anyway.   We couldn't go to the prom because we didn't have dates because we're losers, but the place where my mom works was putting on this big banquet that night at the Marriott, so Cass and I decided to dress up and do our hair and be beautiful and go there instead.  We had the greatest time.   Late that Saturday night Cassie called me from the Marriott to tell me what a good time she was having with Amanda and her mother, Jill, and to say that she was planning to stop off at the house and go to the after-prom at the high school.  Next thing I knew she was rattling through the house with Amanda, banging the drawers as she looked for a new set of clothes, and telling me she thought they'd be home early, because they weren't sure how it would go.  As it turned out, she got home at six in the morning.

Monday was Monday.  Cassie was behind on her homework and had tons to do, because she'd been playing all weekend.  Normally she babysat for friends of mine, but this week they didn't need her, so we all ate together, which isn't unusual in our home, but not something we do every night.  After dinner she stayed up with her homework.   Looking back on that last evening of Cassie's life, I still see her sitting there in the kitchen.  She hadn't done her chores yet, and I'm sure I nagged at her.  Now that she's gone it's painful to admit.  So is my belated recognition that our relationship, though generally good, was not ideal, not that night, nor any other.  But it's too late to agonize over what could have been.  Perhaps the cruelest irony of losing Cassie the way we did is the fact that she never would have been at Columbine that day in the first place, had we not tried to rescue her by pulling her out of another high school, the one where she had begun the ninth grade, just two-and-a-half years before.  Of course, at that time our relationship was frayed almost beyond repair, and it felt like a minor victory every time we got her home from school in one piece, let alone into the kitchen for a mundane event like a family meal or an evening of homework.  But that's another chapter.

Copyright 1999 Plough Books.  Copied from msnbc.com/news.

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