When I went to bed last night, the news of the killings at Northern Illinois University had spread across the entire world, with reports on CNN and articles in newspapers from Britain to Australia. I wanted to write something, anything, in prayer and in mourning, but I could not and cannot sort through the flooding thoughts, feelings, and memories.
You see, DeKalb was my home -- well at least one of them -- where I lived and raised my children for ten years, where we buried their father not quite two years ago. Kishwaukee hospital -- where the victims were first taken and from which the most critically injured were helicoptered away, no doubt to Rockford -- was where my daughter was born and where my son, at age 5, stood outside with me on a cold wintry day, with the wind whipping around us, watching a helicopter take his dad to another hospital, where they discovered glioblastoma and promptly performed surgery to remove a tumor the size of a golf ball.
DeKalb is also where some family and many friends live (including my stepson and his mother, who works at N.I.U.) and where a great many more used to live and work, among them those who were teaching assistants, some now professors elsewhere, who could have been standing in front of that class. The N.I.U. campus is as familiar as the back of my hand. I was briefly employed there before my son was born, later did some research projects at the library for other jobs, and spent a great deal of time there as just part of everyday life, taking my children to and from pre-school at the Child Development Lab, my daughter's ballet lessons, plays and ballets at the theatre (recalling an extraordinary performance of "Waiting for Godot"), music, especially the incomparable Vermeer Quartet, visiting friends who worked there as teaching assistants, and taking all of our kids to events like the festival in the King Commons, where everyone was dancing and singing along with the steel band.
What does all this have to do with the tragedy that occurred yesterday? I do not know. I cannot make any kind of sense of it. How could I or anyone? Six people are dead and some others critically wounded. All as a result of an explosion of violence, seemingly from nowhere, in the midst of an otherwise ordinary, sleepy February afternoon geology class, in one of those large lecture halls with students very much like my son, who is a freshman on a SUNY campus. Parents must be grieving, along with friends, family, and fellow students. I simply cannot imagine what it must be like for any of them.
And yet... I can imagine, cannot stop imagining the place. Cole Hall is right there, quite literally in the middle of all my memories. It is between the buildings where my children attended pre-school and the Commons, near the path my kids took so often and loved when the teachers would take them to the grassy banks on the side of the Commons close to Cole, where they loved to lie down and roll down the banks. Sometimes when we went walking there, I would let them roll down, too, to their hearts content.
So today, the morning after, I am there somehow. I got up early in the cold dark dawn, drove by Kishwaukee Hospital, down First Street past my old apartment, past the Lutheran church where my children were baptized and their dad's funeral was held, past Mike and Melody's old apartment, remembering her death (from a car accident, driving to Rockford for Walmart) and funeral as well, driving to the Episcopal church two blocks away, where Mike and Melody and Lori and Mark (all Lutherans) and I and all our kids filled the back pews on Christmas Eves, where we had other funerals, for Fr. Max, who barely got to enjoy his retirement, and for Chris, a high school junior, crucifer, bright and wonderful kid (also died in a car accident). I park the car there and walk down Normal Road, as I have many times before, feeling the cold and the eery silence. And then I come to the Library and the Commons, across the street from my old office at the Law School, and I walk to the snow-crusted embankment, which I know will be soft and grassy come spring, and where little children may still roll merrily to the bottom, jump up, and go back to the top to roll down all over again. And I look up and try to walk forward to that place where some children, 17 and 18 and 19, were sitting quietly listening to an instructor telling them about ocean science, and, suddenly, in just a minute or two, were blown from this earthly life to only God knows where. But I stand, frozen to the spot, no longer able to think or feel, wondering if I dare try to pray.
I know this all happened. I know it is very real to those who were there and all those who love them. Yet somehow....... in tears yet, it is still beyond my imagining. Lord have mercy.