I Know Them Well Through My Mortality


I Know Them Well Through My Mortality


My mortality, there it is, right there in my mind. I feel the fear of loss of life. How close proximity to death, to my own death, I have come.

At first, as I discovered the reality of the killing that had happened at Virginia Tech, where I work and rarely teach, I wondered how is it that I'm 1700 miles away in the Dutch Antilles in the Caribbean. Why aren't I in the middle of the chaos in Blacksburg? Was it some higher power that kept me away for a reason? What might that reason be? How might I serve the purposes of that higher power? Is this a sign that I am to leave Blacksburg for some new life, somehow directed by this force now taking root in the separation between me and the horror happening in Blacksburg? Or am I the person who is to watch from afar the early trauma at VT, to return to be some help as the witness? Is this somehow directing me to strengthen my commitment to a mission of creating a world of connection by empowering acceptance and authenticity in myself and others? What can be my purpose from this point on?

Then I felt a pull. What am I doing here in the Caribbean when I'm losing my connection with the people I care about and love in Blacksburg? Might I stop my vacation now and return to be of some support? And I felt confused by the countering push back. No, who am I to think I can be of any help to those I don't even know. And what about my own sense of sanity and well-being, wouldn't that suffer if I cut off my vacation to respond to something I can not even begin to grasp?

When confronted with people offering sympathies because they discovered we were from "there", I tried to empathize with their need to express their horror at what being from that place must be like, and their wish that they could be of some help. I wonder if it might have been clear had I said, "I appreciate your disgust and sadness, because I get that you want this to have never happened and wish you could somehow be of help to those who are suffering, and maybe you're afraid that it could have been you or your children or loved ones?"

Coming back - one week after the tragedy, the horror, and the constant media coverage pointing fingers, honoring the dead with stories of their lives and their heroism, and showing the color in the lives of those who survived, while making decisions that stimulated feelings ranging from pain to elation, refusing to respect the needs of those experiencing loss and creating opportunities for a sense of community and connection to others who may share similar experiences - I wanted so badly to connect to my friends and colleagues who had a more direct experience with the pain. I wanted to be of support. I wanted to be caring and yet, I feared saying words or taking actions that would trigger disapproval from others. That's my characteristic fear, so it has been a challenge for me to accept myself and allow myself to make mistakes.

Arriving in Charlotte at our car, I picked up my cell phone messages which I had not heard since the phone had been left in our car at the airport, expecting that we wouldn't be able to have much use of these phones in St. Martin. As expected there were messages from many friends and one relative I hadn't heard from in several years who said, in an apologetic fashion, that she just had to call to see how I was, of course she and the others calling didn't know that I was no where near the tragedy that unfolded that week. Immediately upon arriving in Blacksburg around 11:00 PM on Sunday my wife and I wanted to see the 24/7 visual happening at the 33 Hokie Stone memorials. We didn't stop. We just drove by without stopping. I was scared at this first encounter with the people who I didn't know but who had deep suffering as the result of the massacre. Finally when we arrived home I checked my email, glancing at the 650 messages to see what important notes might be embedded among the usual pomp and circumstance of everyday email. Sleep came quickly that night after our long journey.

The next day I took my time returning to work, knowing that this was the first day back for many others as well. After only a short period of looking more closely at what became increasingly apparent to be many concerned email about my well-being from all corners of my life, as well as some brief sojourn into Myspace where I noted in my regularly frequented group, Knowledge and Wisdom, that I had returned, I walked to the memorial service happening at 9:45 AM, exactly one week after the shootings that killed 30 people in Norris Hall, a building which I frequented many times in the first seven years of my work here at VT, and where I had known many faculty who had their offices on the floor where the killings occurred. I felt some solidarity with the many other people I saw, mostly students, but faculty as well, walking towards Burruss Hall and the Hokie Stone Memorials where the service would begin. I was half-way across the Drillfield when the first bell tolled to start the service and trigger the release of the first white balloon for the first person who died. I stopped in my path. Thousands of others in the Drillfield, around Burruss Hall, and all over campus, became silent and motionless as 32 more balloons and an occasional firing of guns honored those who died. After the ceremony, I took the time to walk around each of the memorials and look at what had been left for the victims. Mostly just taking in the thought that these people were connected to hundreds of people, and those hundreds connected to hundreds more. Yes, I was beginning to feel the sadness myself, and beginning to experience a connection.

The rest of the day had me responding to hundreds of email, trying to get done work that needed to be done, and talking to those with whom I wanted to connect. Today was more of the same until I connected this afternoon with a colleague who considered one of the dead a close personal friend. That brought the death so much closer, though giving me a chance to offer my support as best I could. Then I had another awakening to the pain, when I was told that a good acquaintance of mine had been shot in the arm. I remembered seeing him on the news on the 16th and thinking he had been hurt. There were at least 29 people other than the 32 dead who had been abused by the killer before he killed himself, and that was even more connection to pain and death. That's 62 people. If they each had 100 people who would consider themselves family, friends or close acquaintances, just those directly affected would amount to 6,200 people. If each of these people has another 100 people to which they are family or friends or close acquaintances, the number rises to 620,000 connections to the pain caused by that single gunman. That's a lot of pain, and then I think of the tens of thousands who have died in Iraq, and I realize the pain doesn't seem to have an end.

Sometime this day a thought came to rest deeply in my awareness: I could have been one of those people who were killed. Just before sitting down to write here, this awareness brought up my fear of death. Yes, I could have been in those classrooms. I had been given a list of professors who are outstanding teachers, and in an effort to become a better teacher myself, I have been intent upon visiting the lectures of these professors. With fear of a real, direct connection to the horror of the past week, I checked that list, and none of them were those who had been killed on 4/16/07. However, the killer could have chosen a different time, a different room, a different day, a different building. In fact, another killer could chose a different time, room, day or building. I could have been in one of those classrooms. Or I could just die.

That's what it's all about for me. I'm fretting my own mortality; the mortality of this body that I call myself. Yet I sense something coming from this, and maybe this is what a higher power had in mind for me: that my death is no different from the death of those who have passed with this massacre, and my life is not only no different from theirs, but it is no different from anyone's. In the deepest and most profound sense, our lives and deaths are the same, and I am deeply connected to everyone. As such, I died with and as horrifically as those who died on that fateful day at Virginia Tech. Yet I can never die, and those killed are still here with me today. I know them well.


Tom Caruso




Tom Caruso




Tom Caruso, “I Know Them Well Through My Mortality,” The April 16 Archive, accessed June 29, 2022, http://april16archive.org/items/show/86.