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After My Santa Fe: When Personal Tragedy Intersects with the National

After My Santa Fe: When Personal Tragedy Intersects with the National

Images of sobbing students and distraught parents had been all over the national news once again. It was May of 2018 and I had just moved back to Texas, a transition that was precipitated by my separation from my husband, who had cheated on me. I was ravaged with grief, my entire body gutted from the loss of my life as I had known it, and unsure of what my future would look like. A week after I arrived, a school shooting, in which ten people were killed and 14 others injured, happened in the small town of Santa Fe, six miles down the road from where I was living.

I was already sad that furry brown patches on the side of the road had been vivid swaths of bluebonnets two weeks ago. I was sad about everything, but now my pain got associated with Santa Fe. When I heard about the shooting, I just nodded “yeah,” even though intellectually I was aware my situation was about a 2 on the catastrophe scale in comparison.

I thought about tragedy from my quaint two-bedroom one-bath bungalow in Alvin, where I had grown up. The community is halfway between Houston and Galveston, mostly blue collar, and originally known for growing rice, strawberries, and flowers. It’s the hometown of the great pitcher Nolan Ryan. It’s not too far from NASA, where my father worked for 30 years. There’s an old residential district not two blocks from the high school where I had graduated, and that was where my house was now.

My husband and I had bought the place a few years earlier because I was making frequent trips from North Carolina to assist with care for my aging parents. Will had been as excited about the little house as I was. He loved my parents, was always eager to help with them, and they loved him in return. But it had been getting tiresome and expensive to fly down and stay two weeks in the Holiday Inn Express. The sweet Booth Lane house looked like a good investment.

I gathered lamps and end tables, dishes and mirrors. Will and I anticipated the fun of setting up cottage, almost like we were newly married. We drove a U-Haul-It van cross-country in order to furnish it with a dining room table and chairs and the 1940’s bedroom suite I’d inherited from my aunt.

We overnighted halfway, in Mandeville, Louisiana, just north of New Orleans. From our motel, we walked to a Cajun seafood restaurant we loved–shrimp etoufée and Chardonnay for me, beer and blackened tilapia for Will. It felt like a date. Afterward, I mentioned I needed something to read, so on the way back to our motel we sidetracked to a Goodwill store to find a book for the road. I’m always interested in spiritual thought, so I lit on Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth, which a friend had mentioned to me. It’s a New Age manifesto, an Oprah pick about how attention to our ego keeps us, keeps the world, from happiness and enlightenment. “Whatever the ego seeks and gets attached to are substitutes for the Being that it cannot feel,” I read as I paid my dollar at the register.

I continued to read parts of it aloud to Will as we drove the remainder of Interstate 10 towards Houston: “‘The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation. It’s your thoughts about it.’ Do you agree?”
“That seems so true,” he said, one hand on the steering wheel. “It’s all in how you frame things.” He turned his face to me and smiled.

After unloading everything and visiting my parents, we returned to our life in Asheville, but we hadn’t owned the Texas house a year before it proved its worth. My mother, who was in her mid-80’s, fell backwards over a tree limb in the driveway and fractured her sacrum. She was already struggling with a skin condition that caused her unbearable itching, and she was looking after my 94-year-old Dad, who had dementia, on her own. All of that had made her close to suicidal; she was relying heavily on painkillers, steroids, and wine.

We put our North Carolina life on hold and packed our luggage again. Upon arrival, we started spending every day at my mom and dad’s house, showing up at 7 in the morning, managing meals and the household work, driving them to doctors’ appointments, then collapsing exhausted at night in our little retreat a couple of miles away. It felt cozy, essential. We hadn’t purchased a television, but we’d cuddle up and watch Netflix on a laptop, then jump into the caregiving routine the next day. We couldn’t stay indefinitely, so we had started searching for someone to be a daily helper to my folks. In the meantime, we did what we could.

“Did you know your marriage was in trouble when you bought that place?” my mother asked me later. “You did, didn’t you?” In May of 2018 she was much improved, the skin issue solved and a slight nerve damage the only residual of the fracture. She didn’t buy wine any more, just drank a glass when I brought a bottle, dropping by for a mother-daughter happy hour.

“No, not at all,” I told her. I was astonished that this was the true answer. I’d never dreamed that the house on Booth Lane would be my escape, my refuge, but I was grateful now as I moved through the rooms. It had been built in the 1950s, but recently renovated. The siding had been replaced with aqua Hardiplank, which sounds garish, but the color and freshness made it the most adorable home on the block, in my opinion.

I sat in the living room and read or listened to music. The floors were the original hardwood, and my sister had helped me mine local thrift stores for additional furniture. I had organized seating with a plush green sofa and a pair of vintage cane armchairs with red tapestry cushions. They looked like something Barbara Stanwyck would have posed in for a film noir. A single woman, edgy and up for trouble. An antique print of the old roller coaster on the Galveston Island pier hung on one wall. I knew I might have to replace it; Will and I had honeymooned in Galveston.

Sometimes I lay alone on my aunt’s bed, clutching a wad of tissues. I was tempted to believe I’d been in a time warp. I’d been away, and now, decades later, I was back. I’d last lived in this town when I was seventeen and my life was beginning. Now here I was again, as close to tabula rasa as a woman could come.

That copy of A New Earth from the Mandeville Goodwill was on my nightstand. I blew my nose and picked it up. I flipped through, looking at headings like “The Pain Body” and “Carrying the Past.” I knew I was strong and resilient; I would find a way to go forward. I might be crying, but I wasn’t going to allow myself to wallow much longer. The thing I was most afraid of was that what had happened was going to change me in a way I did not want. I did not want to be broken-hearted or angry. I did not want to be a victim who went around reviling Will for the things he had done. I did not want to go around feeling an incredible sense of loss of companionship and love, of my very life history.

I considered again the school shooting that had just happened. Santa Fe was no more than a wide place in the road going toward Galveston. The town’s namesake railroad runs parallel to Highway 6, which is dotted with dilapidated convenience stores and the occasional bank. But the sprawling high school was relatively new—a signal of growth and hope for the community. The very words, “Santa Fe” meant “holy faith” in Spanish. I had traveled past it many times and could envision how it had looked from the road that day, overrun with police and the news media and parents anxiously seeking their children. To date, this was the third mostly deadly school shooting, ranking just below Columbine and Parkland, Florida in casualties.

The seventeen-year-old boy who had caused all this disaster, Dimitrios Pagourtzis, had actually lived in Alvin, but commuted to Santa Fe. He had broken into his father’s gun cabinet and taken a rifle and a .38 revolver to school under his long cowboy-style duster, much like Dylan Klebold, one of the shooters in the Columbine Colorado massacre in 1999, had worn. The situations were similar; both boys were outsiders, tender-hearted kids gone vengeful and hard from bullying who’d decided to make themselves understood. “Another one bites the dust,” Dimitrios was heard to say, and then “Surprise!” as he pulled his trigger. Dylan committed suicide; Dimitrios was captured and later declared incompetent to stand trial. Eventually he was remanded to the North Texas State Mental Hospital for treatment.

I followed the case with interest. Even though the circumstances were horrific, I found I could not say this boy was “bad.” I was leaning toward saying it was just a tragedy in which the real culprits were guns and teenaged meanness and lack of counseling and support. He had done it, but there were reasons behind it. Not that that made the parents and families of the victims feel any better.

I had spent a great deal of time constructing a story about what had caused Will’s cheating. In the aftermath of the ruin he’d made of our marriage, we learned the probable origins of his infidelity was abandonment by his father and enmeshment with his mother, who treated him as a surrogate partner.

I had focused on this explanation connected to his childhood trauma and abuse so that I did not have to hate him, hate him viscerally in a way that at times made me want to harm him. What if, I thought now, what if the bastard had been a liar, self-serving and neglectful? I wondered if I could see that without internalizing it or wondering if I’d done something to cause it. Maybe I could acknowledge he had done all these harmful things and not try to explain or rationalize them away. Was it possible to be at peace without concocting some extenuating narrative?
On the one hand I wanted to say he was a monster who confessed terrible and selfish things. I mean terrible things. He had slept with a Korean prostitute. He had had sex in the woods with the wife of one of our daughters’ track coaches while the kids were at practice, then met her several more times at a motel. He had told me he was going back to his office to complete some work, but instead met a woman there among the metal desks and had sex on the carpet under the fluorescent lights.

He had presented himself as available to at least two of my friends, kissing and caressing them, one in a church kitchen, one under a walkway near her garage. Just a little better place to hide and he would have had sex with them both, but the women were able to remember that he was married to someone they knew. They put a hand to his chest and invoked my name. These are only a few examples of his transgressions, the tip of the iceberg.

I wanted to believe that he was just broken; as a boy he had learned to lie and to seal himself off from real feelings as a defense mechanism. In his way he loved me and wouldn’t have done the things he did if his childhood had been different. I had located the wife of the track coach and told her I knew what had happened, and she told me how she’d been sexually abused as an adolescent. She and my husband had never exchanged stories, but bodies recognize each other, and connect from a place of similar trauma.

I called one of the old friends who had hooked up with Will. She was a judge these days. She was surprised to hear from me, especially when I said that Will had confessed what had happened between them. She told me then how her father was an alcoholic who had beaten her with a strap until finally the family kicked him out. When she’d gotten married, she was unsettled with her husband, and had cast her eyes around. She had worked through her issues, she said, and hoped there wasn’t going to be any need for her family to find out what had transpired. No, I said, I just wanted to talk to you.

These are some of the truths I know now. Will’s decisions may have been trauma-informed. But nevertheless, when I got to Texas, I was struggling with PTSD betrayal trauma and ready to divorce him.

Eckhard Tolle reaffirms the miracles that can happen for people who have gone through wrenching loss. You die from it, you have no choice– but you go on. You come back transformed, or not at all. I was on the cusp of that resurrection. I was figuring out how to end my marriage in a particular way, as a next step in my personal growth, not as an amputation done out of spite and fear. I was aware of my thinking and determined to not let negative thoughts ride me. What Will had done was not suddenly more or less than it ever was; I had not all at once lost something. I was in fact on the verge of finding something new and amazing, but I didn’t see that yet. It was all too recent, so I was letting the information about his past act as a weapon which wounded and impinged on me.

As I walked from room to room in my little house, I felt held in the space it offered. There was a shelf over the kitchen sink and I had put a collection of antique blue Mason jars up there. I knew they were breakable but the light from the morning sun brought out the aqua color and the bubbles in the glass. I was reminded of the mountains near Asheville where I had first had them. The color matched the siding on my house. I would not let the story of what had happened in my marriage attach to me and make me miserable. Those events were in fact an invitation for something valuable to emerge.

Surely that’s what the loved ones and survivors were facing in the aftermath of the school shooting. The death of a child, especially, would bring unbearable anguish. The pain was sure to wipe away a person’s sense of meaning, of self, of joy. Some people might struggle for years and never get over it. But eventually, Tolle writes, the greatest loss often does “give way to a sacred sense of Presence, a deep peace and serenity,” even in the face of life-altering devastation.

My own hero’s journey after pain started at that little house on Booth Lane. And having gone through it, I’m more connected to the many Santa Fe’s still happening every way we turn.

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