Flowers for Fireworks
It is hard to believe that just a few days ago my family and I went to a Fourth of July parade and found ourselves fleeing gunfire. It feels like a lifetime ago.
When I left my house in Highland Park, IL, this morning, I turned back after half a block. I was going to see the memorial where the vigil was the night before, and my hands felt empty. The daisies in my yard had just started blooming, and I meant to cut some of them, but then I thought about the alliums, those tall springtime bursts that look like fireworks, which after flaring purple fade to brown. I cut one flower each for the lives lost to a man’s violence, but I quickly saw they were fireworks, too, fireworks for the displays we—here and up and down the Chicago area as towns and cities canceled their displays in support and concern—did not get to see. As I walked to town, I saw the flowers in my hands as faded fireworks for the country we are supposed to be and yet somehow can’t seem to be—and alliums for the sparklers my kids did not light in our backyard, because I’ve never noticed it before, but an allium looks like an awful lot like a sparkler.
I’ve called this town home for six years, and we live near enough to downtown to walk there and drive these roads daily. Today, these roads that are usually so familiar have news trucks, those same trucks from whose vantage point I’ve seen my town still strewn with abandoned chairs and strollers left behind in chaos, and pride flags and American flags that refuse to stop fluttering in the wind off Lake Michigan that refuses to stop blowing. As surreal as it is to see the news cameras with their lights and microphones and mobile set-ups, a small corner of my mind is glad they are still here, glad because it means people are still paying attention, and people need to pay attention because this needs to stop.
I walk first to the Veteran’s War Memorial by the train tracks along Central Street, along what should have been the parade route, and I see people doing what people do in these times. Sobbing. Stopping to lay flowers. Sitting with heads bowed. FaceTiming with someone who knew one of the deceased—”there’s Jacki”—and telling her it was ok to cry.
I guess I break down when I see the individual memorials for each person. Unbundling the alliums, I lay one flower at each spot. They catch me on camera when I talk to a woman from a Milwaukee news channel and there are other news photographers taking my photo. Public grief alone won’t change anything, real change requires new and better laws—and a day later, I am thankful to see that the pictures of me kneeling to lay flowers come with the headline, “Federal background check system in spotlight after Highland Park shooting” on CNN and “Highland Park Shooting Reveals Limits of Illinois’s Gun Restrictions” in the New York Times. Being visible in grief is the one small thing I can do right now.
Eventually, I leave the memorial and start to wander around the perimeter that has been established around downtown. There are even more news cameras set up at the top of the hill by Green Bay Road looking east, the other major angle that’s been on TV, and I see the FBI and crime scene vehicles, too. Looking down the hill I see Gearhead Outfitters (that used to be Uncle Dan’s and in the news has sometimes simply been called the sporting goods store)—a wonderful establishment of which I am and will be a loyal customer. I hear their manager was a hero, helping people hide while horror rained down from his rooftop.
From that angle, I see, too, the parade’s review stand, the half-circle Fourth of July banners still flying. And all the stuff still on the streets. Folding chairs. We usually refuse to haul them to the parade as it’s too much to carry, and thank goodness this time we didn’t. Strollers we once would have had to bring when the kids were smaller. I cry again; this is the same corner where I turn left to go to the post office or the dentist, and yet how can it be the same corner when it so clearly not? From the end of the street where the police barriers are, I see the glass walls of the stairway down to the parking garage under Walker Brothers Pancake House, where I came for breakfasts with Ben and his family long before he and I moved here, back when we’d come to visit his grandparents in their apartment that is now just outside the police tape perimeter.
Next to Walker Brothers is the plaza where I have sat countless times and had ice cream from Dairy Queen or the gelato place across the street, where the big kids do crazy things on the stairs with their scooters and skateboards. There are circular benches around trees that are lit up in winter where kids like to play hide-and-seek when they’ve finished their ice cream, where, when the bullets stopped raining, when my husband came out from behind the pillar next to Dairy Queen, those hiding spots were the first places I thought to look for my children. Of course, being smart and living in a world of school drills, they ran, thank God, they ran.
Today, I am glad they have downtown closed off. I am not ready to walk that far. At the police barrier, looking down what is aptly named Central Street, I am at the liminal edge along the town’s axis. The Highland Park I knew blurs with the Highland Park that so recently was, and yet the memorials that frame the ends of this street reveal the Highland Park that we will yet be.
For now, I can’t look down this street without seeing all that I cannot unsee, like the fact that my kids wanted to sit by Dairy Queen so that they could get ice cream during the parade, and I’d told them we could get ice cream no matter where we sat, even if we sat on the intersection with Second Street, across from where Uncle Dan’s is, where we’d originally been thinking we’d sit this year. Thank God we sat down by Dairy Queen. Thank God my children sat in front of the curb, ready to grab candy after two years of no parade, not knowing this was a good place to be ready, instead, to run. Those twenty or thirty feet were the difference between life and death.
And I’m not ready to walk by the wrought iron tables and chairs on the plaza, the ones with a diamond pattern that gets imprinted on my arms when I try to dodge the sticky places left by other peoples’ treats, the tables and chairs that people who think more quickly than I turned over to use as cover from the sound that turned out to be bullets, the tables and chairs I dodged past as I tried to find a hiding place, running past my husband as he hid behind the support pillar. When I saw there was nowhere else to run, I dove for the brick wall by Dairy Queen as someone else turned over a table and my long dress tore on it, the ripping sound clearer then in that second than all the sounds of screams.
When you stand looking east towards the train tracks, from the spot where the second memorial has sprung up, you can’t see the spot where I hid. It’s back there behind the review stand, the spot where I lay on the ground while a man (who reminded me of the nurse who once held my hands during surgery) kept saying “Stay down, stay down” while his wife clutched their toddler to her body and behind me a woman screamed and sobbed in panic and I looked at my husband, our eyes meeting from ten feet away as I called out “where are the kids!” and he shouted back, “I don’t know!” and then I remembered the part about how you’re supposed to be quiet in case the perpetrator is looking for people who are alive to shoot and I shut my mouth and tried to look for my kids without raising my head.
I don’t know when the shooting stopped, and I don’t know when the second volley came, or if I was already hiding by then. Those minutes are a blur. I know I saw the hats of my husband and my father-in-law looking through the plaza for our children. The man next to me was reminding me, “we have to stay down until they come and tell us it’s okay to go.” I dimly recalled things about locked doors and police coming through to let people know when they could leave, but we were outside and my children had been somewhere over by the curb and I stood up and walked over to where my family was and saw, in awful detail, that people had lost their lives or were fighting for them as helpers called for EMTs. I started calling out, too, leaving the plaza and walking back toward what would be our usual route home, calling our children’s names all the while.
Today, at the top of Green Bay looking down the road, I say a prayer of thanks for the lives of my children. That my eldest ran and didn’t stop running until she reached her friend’s home. That my youngest found a family who stayed with her and helped her realize she knew their child’s cousin, and that she then saw a dear family friend who took her in and called my husband, who called me, and I went to their home and held her close. We left to head to another neighbor’s home, where by then I had heard our older daughter had gone with her friends, and we met my husband and his parents and on the way and then we were all there together and shaking.
There are flowers, too, at the second memorial at the top of Green Bay Road, and prayers in Hebrew printed on a sheet next to a Catholic devotional candle. This street now transformed is held along its axis by the memorials and flowers at each end, held in prayer, held by a community coming together, held and surrounded by the need for all of this to change. The classic scholar of myth and ritual Mircea Eliade would be struck by the symmetry of it all. I add another spray of allium fireworks here, too. It’s not much. It’s something. There is more that can and should be done. This is all I can say for now, and it is perhaps by way of being with those of you who are following from afar. So much needs to change, but for now, all I have are flowers.
Emily Ruth Mace is co-editor-in-chief at KtB. She's a freelance editor, writer and religious studies alt-academic with an interest in religious liberalism and life at the borders of traditional religion and spirituality. She holds a Ph.D. in Religion from Princeton University and a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. In addition to KtB, her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Mama, Religion Dispatches, the Chronicle Vitae, and others. A one-time bicoastal resident of California and New England, she currently lives outside Chicago, and can be found online at emilyrmace.com and Tweeting occasionally at @lemilym.