Photo by Elliot Whitehead (@elliot.whitehead / whitehead.works)
I was struggling to write an article about a traumatic breakup with my yoga studio when my daughter called to tell me there was an active shooter at the neighborhood grocery store we frequented almost daily for 25 years. I abandoned the prose (which no longer mattered) and hopped online to learn what I could from live news reports and social media.
It got worse and worse. I stumbled on a live video, then switched it off when I saw bodies. We heard rumors of six people dead. Then the official report: 10 humans gunned down, some of them as they were bagging groceries and helping customers navigate the self-checkout system, as they had so many times for me.
I told my kids to be prepared because surely, we would know at least one victim. We did.
Teri Leiker was a fixture at our King Soopers, and she made a difference in my life. She was always smiling, visibly happy about making sure my groceries were bagged properly. We made small talk. When I was crabby (admittedly too often), she tried to cheer me up. I could measure the depth of my bad mood by whether she was successful or not. She usually was, at least briefly.
When you go to a place for 25 years, the people there become like family. Teri wasn’t the only worker at the Table Mesa King Soopers who seemed to love her job. I used to joke that the workers there never quit and never aged. I didn’t realize, of course, that we were all aging together, as oblivious to the wrinkles and gray hairs on each other as we were to our own.
I mostly hated the time I spent there, to be honest. When I was a working mom, Sunday afternoon meant piling my cart high with carefully planned and selected food to feed my family all week. It was the first place each of my kids rode their bikes to without me or their father to accompany them (and I was a nervous wreck both times). When they went off to college, I wandered the store aimlessly, completely perplexed about how to feed only myself and trying to figure out what single people eat. I imagined myself spending purgatory pushing a cart through those aisles, indecisive and desperate for sustenance, buying Beef-a-roni because it was there and reminded me of my childhood.
But this isn’t about me. It’s not about any of us who rush to publish when tragedy strikes. I was annoyed, at first, that so many of my friends posted on social media about their relationship to the store, how many times they’d frequented it, how it could have been them or their loved ones. This isn’t about you, I wanted to say, because sometimes I try to bury my sorrow in unjustified righteousness (and it never helps).
It’s about all of us, of course. My community is suffering shock and grief after this shit that plagues our country—the shit that could never happen here—came to our town. We don’t know what to do with our personal grief, our broken connections. Some find comfort in comments full of prayers and heart emojis. Others will join physical vigils, some more political than others, and find solace in the solidarity. I’m going to one tonight because I can’t be the person who grieves alone—not for this one.
We will light candles and cry and probably hug (even though we’re not supposed to). We will honor 10 dead souls, and we’ll promise never to forget. We’ll debate gun control and maybe talk a bit about mental health, post more thoughts and prayers and emojis. Then we’ll do nothing again and watch in horror as history repeats.
And when it does, at a shopping mall or a school or on a random street in the next town that will be forever remembered by a massacre, people like me will rush to put words to the unspeakable and offer up their affiliation with the scene of the crime as a reminder that this could happen anywhere.
The shock. The grief. The words that make no difference. This is life in America.