Safety demands more action from this mom

The bullet landed in a bed frame in the college dorm. I heard about that shot at close range during my first meeting with Moms Demand Action, another one of the ways I’m stretching myself to tell my story. Like the woman telling about the dorm accident, it was my story too.

But first I had to get to that meeting. I was running late. If you know me, that probably doesn’t surprise you. I was committed to the moms’ gun safety group, but I lingered before I left the house. Instead of casually flipping through a magazine and relaxing before leaving on time, I was cramming in as many to-do items as possible. I put those dirty glasses into the dishwasher, added food to dog bowls, and watered the wilting plants. You know, the important things in life that can’t wait.

Those last-minute tasks had me driving like a crazy woman to the meeting. I zipped through stoplights that just turned red, checking Google Maps and hoping to beat the start time. Google had me arriving a few minutes late. I remained optimistic about missing nothing, though. When does a meeting ever start on time? Google Maps was right about my ETA.

I have to park on a side street, but I’m relieved when I watch another woman cross the street, also arriving late. The Brentwood Social House is a pastry cafe. The front counter that usually displays croissants, muffins, and fresh baked breads is empty. The cafe is an old converted house, and the meeting is in one of the smaller rooms up front. A cheerful volunteer directs me to the sign-in table, points to an ice chest of cold sodas, and then tells me to take a free Moms Demand Action t-shirt and a wristband, too.

Meetings like this happen in public places. After sizing up the shirts I take in a chair in the middle of the room. All around me people are talking. The lady next to me is complaining about a bad smell. “Oh, its just a toilet backed up,” says her friend. I decide to ignore it by taking an interest in the artwork on the walls. It doesn’t exactly mask the smell, but the colorful, quirky paintings for sale are a distraction.

Finally a youthful mom with dark hair and eyes, wearing the bright red Moms Demand Action t-shirt, introduces herself and welcomes everyone. She then gives an update on the progress that’s been made. I’m listen but wondering how many of these people have suffered a loss like mine—or are they here because they’re passionate about changing a gun culture?

The guest speaker is dressed in purple. I notice she’s even wearing really cute purple pumps. She’s an attorney with the Texas Council on Family Violence, and her purple is for October’s Violence Awareness Month. She talks about how she got involved, her kids, and then shares statistics. Stuff I didn’t know, like 68 percent of violence perpetrators use a firearm to murder their female partner, 77 percent of perpetrators kill their partner in the home—and in Texas last year, 183 children lost their parent.

The statistics convince me I’m just a small fish in this big ocean of guns. I think about Jon’s death, and then the children who live in fear. The horror of losing a mom killed by a dad. I understand why some people don’t want any guns in the world. The attorney in her purple pumps confesses to being a gun owner. This is a match up for me. We both believe we can live in a world with guns, so long as there’s enough safety.

Moms Demand Action works to lobby for responsible ownership of guns in places where children, no matter how old they are, might be within range. They propose control, but we all know the group’s genuine goal is safety. We all have a desire for safety in common.

Finally, there’s a Q&A. I listen, but not really, because I’m jotting down notes for this blog. Suddenly the volunteer who checked me in speaks up. She says, “Did you all know there was a recent accidentally discharge of handgun at the Texas A&M campus?”

I hear a few gasps, and then someone who has a child at the school asks for details. It didn’t make national news, just the College Station Eagle newspaper. At this university, the second-biggest in Texas, a stray bullet from a Glock was shot through a dorm room. The owner, a licensed concealed carry holder, let another student hold his gun when it accidentally discharged. It eventually lodged in the bedframe of the room next door. It’s a miracle no one was hurt.

That’s the problem. Texas has campus carry laws and the guns can float through the dorm rooms. The university spokesperson said there was “minimal property damage.” Yeah that’s what we should be concerned about. I felt my blood boil.

Afterwards, I walked straight up to the volunteer of the group’s BeSmart program and linked my story with the one I just heard. People didn’t think that A&M gun was loaded. Like in Jon’s deadly accident, the guns can sit out in rooms with students who don’t know safety measures for guns. They know movies and first-person shooter games.

The lack of safety can be a trigger for gun owners. The practices and regulations from the school administration are full of holes, like the laws. My book helps my work as a safety advocate—a label I just started using because let’s face it, it fits so well with my mission to close up the holes. Every one of those holes might kill a son like mine, a boy who had the tragic misfortune to be in a room with college kids and an unsafe gun.

I told that volunteer to call me and tell me what she wanted me to do. I am willing and ready. I don’t have much experience in this yet. All I have is a family tragedy and a desire to keep other sons and daughters safer than my Jon was in that college town. A day with your friends who own guns is around every corner for every student. When that day comes, better education and the New Talk might keep tragedy out of range.

Do you have a story like this one? Something that happened with a handgun and a college student? Tell it, on Facebook or Twitter, or reply to me and I’ll forward the message. Hagtag your story #mystorytoo, so we can tell the world how much we need more safety.

 

 

Paying My Price of Discomfort

Have you ever signed up to learn something—and a day before you’re about to start the class you realize what a totally insane idea it was?

Yeah? My stroke of genius was the day I signed up for the public speaking workshop. I am super awkward on stage, in front of a crowd, or in a video. I get a knot in my belly, sweat all over, and usually laugh inappropriately.

But for some reason that I wasn’t quite sure of, I decided to take a two-and-a-half day workshop on public speaking. I think I was pumped up by the excitement I felt at the writer’s conference in July. Back on that day I looked in on a talk given by an ex-news reporter turned professional media consultant. Elli did this great presentation about how to handle an interview about your book. I loved her energy, her blue eyes, and the pocket phrases she gave us to use when answering hard questions about our stories.

Of course I felt intimidated, considering my gigantic fear of public speaking. But during that panel discussion we were invited to name our fear—mine was Wiz—and I began to own it. Afterwards my burst of adventure to learn more about overcoming panic stayed with me. I went up to Elli and gave her my card, vowing to take her workshop later in the year.

I’m a competitive tennis player, so why not face my fear head on? The day before the class I finally decide to get prepared. I start with reading all the emails that have been sent to me over the past few months. There’s the email congratulating me on taking the course, the one about how much fun we’re going to have, and finally the schedule for the next few days.

In that last email there’s the mention of the word “spotlight.” I dig a little deeper, curious about what this means exactly. All of sudden I realize I’m expected to be presenting a 30-minute talk about my book’s message. Holy shit!

That fear knot in my belly reappears and now it’s triple the size. I decide to call the one person who can help me quickly put together a speech—my writing coach. On a side note, if you don’t have one these people I highly recommend it. Email me and I’ll give you his name.

My coach seems excited, but then again he’s been a theatrical actor. He tries to calm my massive knot, but nothing’s making that thing go away. We form a plan. He reminds me of a recent conversation, the one I had with a spokeswoman from Everytown for gun safety. “Didn’t she suggest you speak at the next legislative session?”

Yes she did. I decide this will be my spotlight. I will prepare a speech about gun safety and practice on the people in this workshop. It takes several hours. I know it doesn’t have to be perfect because that’s what Elli does—fine-tunes your message.

But still I don’t want to come across as unable to express myself. I am supposed to be a writer. So I write and rewrite well into the night. Randy makes dinner, brings me a plate, and sets it down on the desk in our home office. Afterwards I ask him if I can read my speech before I’ll share it with the group in the morning. He’s so sweet. He listens intently, gives only one change to the language, and then adds an extra boost of confidence to push away my doubt.

Finally, the big day arrives. Elli is all smiles, even wearing an ice cream bar skirt to loosen us up. Maybe ice bars would’ve been better than a skirt with them, but she knows how nervous I am. She picks on me, asking questions I don’t remember. Yes, I did get up in front of the class, and I did see a few black spots of dizziness. But luckily I was able to talk while I sat in front of my computer, and so I could control my shaking legs.

Bolstered by my writing, I didn’t feel completely broken. I was able speak slowly, take a breath, and look into everyone’s eyes. And as I told my story of loss and gun safety I noticed a few tears. I also saw one of the ladies in the class grab a kleenex.

After I finished everyone stood up and clapped. Of course, this was part of the support we all shared when someone was in the spotlight. I was then given the chance to ask questions. I needed to know if my story was compelling, and did my message need to be heard? How uncomfortable did it make you feel?

Elli said, “Leesa, of course you made us feel uncomfortable, but we need to feel that way. It’s your purpose. You want people to know what happened to you so they can prevent it from happening to their children.”

She was right. I love other moms’ children as much as I love my son. I didn’t write my book because it was something I was supposed to do. I wrote it because it was something I was called to do.

I love this line in an opinion piece I read by Michel Martin. “What might happen if, instead of demanding comfort for ourselves when we face our biggest problems, we accepted the discomfort as the price of living in a dynamic but complex world. What would that look like?”

My reason I took the class, and felt my awkward moments in the spotlight and that discomfort? I want things to change about gun safety. Discomfort gets the talk started that can change things for the better.

Empty Nester? 

I did it! I finally completed my memoir, At Close Range.

Days later I was in South Padre, visiting friends. The first day we all went down to the beach to catch some rays. As we walked toward the shoreline we noticed black tar in the sand. I could see it floating in patches in the water. Yuck! I decided then and there I’d be spending the rest of my vacation beside the pool. The rest of the group agreed. No one wanted to deal with the tar sticking to our bathing suits and bodies, or worry about using baby oil to remove it.

And so I found myself lounging by the pool instead. Although I couldn’t see the ocean, I could smell the salty air and hear the caws of seagulls. I was alone, but Randy and our friends would be down shortly. They wanted to wait until the afternoon sun had disappeared behind the building. But not me. I wanted to feel the heat and dangle my feet in the water of the pool.

I brought my iPhone to keep me company as I sat under a big umbrella sipping on a bottle of water. (I know what you’re thinking. Where’s the vodka? It was a little early, so I was hydrating first.) I sat at the pool and read a post on WordPress about empty nesters. I felt my nest had been emptied, too. Besides having a case of the baby blues over completing my book, I was about to be an empty nester again. Let me explain.

After a year of living with us, my 23-year-old son Keaton decided to return to Boulder and finish his college degree. He’s only got 30 hours of school remaining, and I have a feeling he’s moved out for good this time. It feels like when his older brother Jon stayed behind in Boone, North Carolina. We sat at a table at Applebee’s that summer, all four of us—Jon, Lance, Keaton and me. Jon talked about how much he loved the mountains and how it was time he got on with his life. Funny, he was also 23. That was 10 years ago.

Then Lance moved out seven years ago. He was also 23. He’s been living and working at his “career job,” as he calls it, ever since. Keaton left while I was in Padre. I know I’m going to miss him, but there must be some magic in that number 23. Young men, like my Jon, Lance, and Keaton, all have a phenomenon researchers say is a maturing brain. Age 25 is the marker where frontal lobes are fully developed. My life as a mother has shown me young adults are reckless I’m not worried about Keaton, though. We’ve had the talks about drinking and driving, and the other one so close to my heart—gun safety. But seeing his room empty once again this month will feel strange.  I wonder what I’m going to write about now that I’ve finished my book.

I wrote 116 pages, 22 chapters and 54,982 words. I should feel happy, amazing even, but instead I feel sad. I know my writing coach would say, “Us writers, we are never finished with our books—they’re just completed.” Completed like in housework, I’d say. You can wash all the clothes in the laundry basket, but by the next day there will always be more to do. I know at some point my pages will look dirty, and I’ll need to clean them up. But for right now I’m done, and that has me sick with the baby blues.

I’m surprised I didn’t think about the emptiness. My book has been the child I’ve carried around with me everyday, and while I wrote it, I lived it. I’ve nurtured it and watched it grow. I realize it kept me connected to the memories of Jon. Now, I worry if this the beginning or the end of his story.

I hope it’s just the beginning. I’m waiting for one of the agents who I pitched at the Agents & Editors Conference to give me a new mission. I am pleased and surprised to say five of them asked for pages to consider representing my book. Of course, commercial publication is always a long shot, but my mother believes you can manifest anything. So, let’s all put our energy together and see me getting the perfect agent! I did meet a cute, bubbly blonde who told me I needed to “wow” her with my words. Well, that is my intention. But I don’t want to just wow her, I want to wow the world.

My nest looks empty today, but Jon has left me a kaleidoscope of memories— wearing homemade Halloween costumes, superheroes who ran through the backyard, and the deafening sounds of video games and music. As Lance and Keaton age I get a glimpse of what could have been for Jon. Sometimes I smile, and sometimes I cry. He gave me something as he left, though. I’m a storyteller thanks to my son, and I hope his story will save lives.

All I know for certain is that life will be different now. There is something new and different to create. I’m making a home in the world for my story of Jon, a place somewhere out there for the words that lived only on my laptop—and in my heart—until I came to complete my book.

A Forgiving Message from the scene of the Crime

Do you ever wonder if the universe is sending you a message?

That’s how I felt returning to the scene of the crime. I was at ease, for once, the first time I felt that way in North Carolina since Jon died. Boone was no longer a place like Death Valley. Keeping my footing was  sign that what I’ve done over these eight years since Jon died has strengthened me. On the plane Randy does the math, trying to calculate the last time I was there. “I think,” he says, “it was either 2013 or ’14.”

I’m not sure about my reply in the moment, but I do remember the timing. It was the year I sat barrel-to-barrel with the sheriff. Rominger was armed with her facts. I was using questions as weapons. No point in reminiscing about that, although I came away with answers.

We arrived at the Charlotte airport, all four of us. I chatted with the boys as we made our way to baggage claim, telling them about the activities I’ve planned. “Tomorrow we’re going zip-lining and then four-wheeling at Doe Park Mountain the next day.”

They seemed excited. Planning fun things to do has always made my vacations enjoyable, but having activities for our visit to Boone was different. This town was full of Jon memories and I knew I’d need distractions. Otherwise, I’d find myself living in the past.

When we reach the foothills, the temperature drops. Keaton rolls down his window and breathes in the fresh air. A few mile markers later I see the crop of Christmas trees, still there, all sectioned off and planted in cute little rows.

Randy nods, but he’s more impressed with the new Toyota dealership. He talks excitedly, telling us all about it. I think he’s strange, because after all of these years I know no one else who cares about dealerships as much as he does.

Soon after, we’re in town noticing other changes. The favorite burger shop gone, but there’s a new Publix grocery store, and the college housing has doubled in size. Then we drive by our old house with its long-range views and wrap-around porch. “The cedar-shake siding needs a fresh coat of stain,” I say. We still own the house, but it’s been leased to same person since before Jon’s death.

On the other side of town, closer to our dealership, and farther from the house where Jon died, we’ve rented a cabin. We pick up the key and drive past the road leading to that house. Like on all other visits, I keep my distance from the Dragonfly where he partied on that night, the road Jon lived on, and the pub where he read his poems. They are a mix of places where he was happy, the places that told me Jon was liked, comfortable, creative. Everyone was casual in those places, too. That was the Jon I knew.

My pace of planned activity started to grind on my boys. “Mom, we just wanna hang,” Keaton said. “I love spending time with you, but I want to be with my friends.” I was going to have to hang with my memories, those unwelcome thoughts, the sharp feelings.

Lance would hang out with his friend, too. I didn’t learn right away his friend was acquainted with Brett’s wife. That was an unexpected connection, a chain of evidence that could upset my balancing act. I learned about the links in the chain when Lance told me about them.

He didn’t have to share any of that. It was his business, his history with his brother and the people who were at the scene of Jon’s death. Lance came to me with the story of his visit, though. I was asleep at midnight when he called out to me. The master bedroom was on the cabin’s second floor. He must’ve walked halfway up the stairs, because I could see his shadow.

He said, “I met Brett’s wife.”

What are the chances something like that would happen? It’s the universe at work. We’d been around town for a couple of days and the only friends I’d seen were those I’ve made a point to see. I threw off my covers and rushed down the stairs after him.

Lance smirked. “I knew that you’d get up.”

Anxious to know what the news meant, I say, “Spill it.” So, here’s the skinny: Brett has gotten married to a girl Lance has dated once. She knows few of the details about what happened on the night Jon died. “Brett never talks about it,” Lance says, relaying her story, “and he has lots of anxiety,”

“I’m sure he does,” I gently reply. Brett’s in pain, too.

Lance says someone then suggested inviting Brett over. But Lance refused. Lance explained to the wife that he holds nothing against Brett, but her husband did lie.

Lance and I talked for a while about the gun, blame and responsibility. We share different opinions. Lance believes everyone was at fault the night Jon died. While I think everyone played a role, it was Brett’s responsibility to holster safety. It was his house, and more important—it was his gun.

Still, Lance’s refusal to see Brett again surprised me. He’s always stood up for the people in that room. We forgive Brett, though, so he can go on and live his life. What was the message the universe was showing me? To follow forgiveness, to show that I’ve changed—or both, maybe. The thing about messages from the universe is you don’t get to reply. I received the gift of Lance’s loyalty to Jon on that night. It was wrapped in that message he shared with me, as he told a gun owner’s wife we forgive him for what happened to Jon.

What are your thoughts on the responsibility of gun owners?

Wish me luck, Southern-style

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So next weekend is the Writers’ League of Texas Agents and Editors conference at the Hyatt Regency. I’ve spent the last three weeks adding new stories to my blog, like this one. Yesterday I sat at my desk and made a list of the panels and speakers I wanted to hear. Then, I familiarized myself with the agents and editors at the event. I narrowed my list down to the agents representing memoir. Finally, on a road trip to San Antonio I listened to the Writer’s League of Texas Podcast about how to perfect my pitch.

For anyone not in the writing world, a pitch is a few short sentences you say to convince an agent or editor to ask to hear more about your book.

My pitch sounds something like this: “My family all owns guns. I love them all—even though my son died because of a reckless gun owner. My story is how I survived. How they tried to call his death a suicide. And how I am learning to be responsible while I grieved.”

The last time I went to this conference my pitch was different. I was still in the writing stages, not quite finished with a first draft of my book.

This didn’t matter, though. I was nervous, really anxious at the prospect of talking to an agent. I mean the kind of nerves that leave your entire body shaking, and then have you laughing inappropriately. I have a great inappropriate laugh.

So there I was, laughing inappropriately at the conference last year during the welcome reception. Have I mentioned my outfit? How I spent all afternoon in my closet, trying on every blouse, searching for the best look with my white jeans? No? Well, I settled on a red tunic because the color enhances my skin tone. At Jon Powers’ school for aspiring models, we always knew our go-to skin tone matches. Makeup-counter kind of wisdom.

Armed with my fashion wisdom, I took my walk at the reception. While my outfit was cute, my pitching was not pretty. In the Hyatt ballroom I saw the lines of people waiting to talk to agents. All fighting for their 15 seconds of face time.

It was my first rodeo, my first writer’s conference. More like a three-ring circus, and I felt overwhelmed. I searched the crowd for my safety net—the people in my memoir workshop group. Ah, my supporters were there, huddled together. I joined them and ordered my first beer. Even my group pals could not make the bubbles of nerves go away. I needed to stay present, in the moment.

Memoirists WLT 2016A staff member of the writer’s league announces contest finalists, and my writing coach is recognized among the contestants. Anne, a writer in my memoir group, takes a selfie of us all. Then everyone wanders. I, on the other hand, remain next to my coach Ron Seybold, clinging to my Michelob Ultra. Ron points to a short woman leaning against a high top table. “She’s an agent,” he says. “Why don’t you go over and give her a try with your pitch?”

I’m hesitant but say, “Wish me luck.”

I introduce myself to the woman. I am trying to make a spot for her in my memory bank, and all I can come up with is she’s a Kathy Bates lookalike — the actress who played Annie Wilkes in the movie Misery. Annie was the novelist’s Number One Fan. I hope for that much while I wait to pitch. The agent is from New York, her response to hopeful-writer Caleb’s pitch goes straight to the point, and there’s no fluff.

Suddenly I feel sick. My heart races, and I have a case of the inability to speak. I ramble—saying things about losing my son, in a college town and guns. The agent holds up her hand and stops me. “Sorry,” she says. “But I can already tell you’re not for me.”

I secretly think, “Good, you’re not for me either.” I want to walk away but I don’t. I’m a competitor, the kind who doesn’t give up that easily. I pitch more, until she interrupts me. She says, “We don’t have to worry about those kinds of problems up north. Guns—those are a Southern thing.”

I look at her, not sure how to respond. I’ve never thought of guns as a Southern thing. But apparently this agent doesn’t know any book publishers who want to sell books in the South. Or something like that. I am flummoxed, but I smile. And laugh inappropriately.

I’ve learned how to do more than smile and laugh at this year’s conference. I’m not worried about rejections. They’re a part of every writer’s life. I spent the last year learning more about my story and how it can improve everybody’s life. Not just people from the South. If the agents at this year’s conference need to learn about readers and stories from the South, there’s no better place to do it than in Austin.

How do you authors prepare for your pitches for books? Readers, is there such a thing as an “only in the South” story about gun safety and the loss of a child? Tell me in your comments below.

 

 

 

Rally: part 2

At the #wearorange rally we’re laughing at the silly orange costume pieces. Susan replaces the orange tutu and funny little party hat on the table next to the band of orange hair that I was wearing. We walk away talking. Susan’s going to post a picture of us wearing the gear on social media. The volunteer who took our picture hears Susan say this and points to a poster with a list of websites we can include in our posts. We make our way back to the table and our purses.

Susan posts the picture to her Instagram and Facebook accounts. She tells me that I was tagged in the picture, and that she’s added a comment: In support of my friend Leesa and in memory of her son Jon.

I love this and decide to put the picture on my new Twitter account, my @leesarossaustin account so new that I only have four friends. As I upload, Susan calls out, “Ah, we’ve already had some people like our post.” I laugh. Not because I’m surprised by the quick responses but because I’m not sure if my four new friends will respond. Susan laughs at my novice social network. In times like these, at a rally for gun safety, it’s important to keep a sense of humor.

The afternoon sun peers through the trees and I start to feel hungry. About this time the wait-staff starts to bring out several trays, setting them on the table in front of us. Hooray, free food. There’s a tin filled with chips, another with queso — and at last, slices of BBQ sausage. We proceed to the table and as we say in Texas, “make a plate.” Tables that were once empty are now full, and people are wandering around looking for places to sit.

No one seems brave enough to ask us to share our table. The picnic table has plenty of seats. I decide to check my deodorant, making sure it hasn’t worn off. Hmmm—I smell fine. I wonder if it’s a different scent. Am I giving off the odor of someone who might not belong? Are people picking up the scent of gun owner, like a hound smells rabbit?

Finally, there’s a voice asking about an open seat. I look up from my second helping of chips and queso. It’s a woman wearing no make-up, or a bra, and her eyebrows could use a good plucking. She’s holding a lunchbox. I hate to be judgmental, but I trade a look with Susan.

Bobbie sets her lunchbox on the table. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a 50-ish woman carry a kid’s lunchbox. It’s monster box, and by that I mean it’s in the shape of monster—green googly-eyes. They stare at me. This woman starts talking before she completely sits down, asking if we were here last year. We respond no. I get a strange feeling Bobbie’s about to tell us a story. Maybe it’s the way she leans in once seated or that both elbows were on the table.

Susan and I continue to stab at the slices with our eco-friendly wooden forks. We learn that last year’s rally had a small group of protesters opposing the group—all men. “They stood right over there,” she says pointing to the entrance of Schultz’s garden, “wearing their guns in holsters.”

I pretend to look shocked. I’m thinking about Lance, my gun owner. Wondering how Bobbie’s story might go if she knew my son collects guns. Susan and I share a look; she’s got a concealed carry handgun license. No need to upset the monster lunchbox, so we remain silent. Bobbie’s eyebrows jump up and down as she talks about guns. Then her brows furrow. “You know what I did to those protesters?”

I shake my head no.

“I removed my shirt and gave those men something to look at!” I did notice those breasts sag in her orange cami tank when she first walked up, but knowing she let them hang unclothed made me stare harder. I tried not to picture the old wrinkled things hanging down to her waist in the wind, but there it was. Pulling off your cami top isn’t a part of rallying, is it? College-age boys are reckless, that much I know. Jon died in a college town.

I pull the trigger on that thought. I can be a supporter like I’m a Pets Alive no-kill supporter, with my credit card. I let today be different, though. I keep my top on, but I am here in a crowd. Among some kooks, people who bring the spice in the BBQ. The meat is me, people who lost somebody and dress appropriately.

I look past her, finding distractions in the DJ and her music selections, the elderly lady with her cute little poodle, the mother strolling her toddler. But Bobbie continues to talk. “I was like those college students who handed out dildos. Were you there at that rally?”

No, but I know what she’s talking about, a protest on UT’s campus when the debate started over the campus carry law. It allowed people to carry guns into classrooms. Some students protested by handing out dildos. Their slogan was “Fight absurdity with absurdity.”

I’m filling the time before the speakers recalling my gun experience. Adults under the age of 25 are impulsive. Handguns should not be allowed on campus. I barely have time to re-load my fork with a piece of sausage when Bobbie opens up her monster and hands us some stickers. I offer pictures of them here because I’m kind of unsure if WordPress allows the saucy language from stickers representing Betsy Riot, a progressive neo-suffragist group. Even after I Google this at the table I’m not sure what that label means.

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I’m gonna put it out there, the NSFW slogans: “Lick Pussy, Not Guns,” and “Fuck Your Guns.” I look over the stickers and then a “Betsy,” as they call themselves, starts to unload a full-on anti-gun message. I squirm a little and look for another slice of sausage. Betsy wouldn’t approve of my Lance.

Bobbie is compelled to get closer to the stage because the mic is not working well. I move up too, because maybe I’m moving closer to being a supporter who goes beyond a credit card. But I came to Schultz’s and its sausage slices to be heard, hoping I might share my story how a lack of gun safety took my son from me. It’s too simple to say “no guns” and shout over your monster lunchbox. I keep this to myself. That I’m here at all is my breakthough for today.

The next speaker tells us her son died only nine months earlier. Brave, daring, I say to Susan. I don’t think I could talk in front of a crowd even now. The speaker begins to cry and finishes her story. Another woman was shot herself, she tells us. All women here, so far. The tears come easily.

It’s hard to lead this kind of passion, I learn. The local Everytown organizer tells the crowd she’s stepping down, handing the reins over to another woman. The organizers prompt us into a group picture, something they assure us they’ll post to Facebook and Twitter. Where there are a lot more than four followers. After today, though, I’m among a bigger crowd.

I know how to volunteer. I extend my commitment by doing that, and the motivation has to begin somewhere. The rally day can mark the start of that. The event is also another kind of investigation for me, the next phase of my Nancy Drew work. I can discover kindred souls, getting to know people who’ll want to listen to my story.

Could my family rally to take aim at #Everytown?

Missing the rally would’ve been okay, really. I woke on Saturday with doubts about whether I should go. What kind of people will be there? Extremist, anti-gun supporters? I didn’t sign up to spend my Saturday with kooks. I wanted to go with family, even though they all own guns.

When I signed up for the Everytown for Gun Safety rally in Austin, it sounded like a good idea. The orange t-shirts from Everytown arrived on my doorstep just in time. Friday morning my whole family became poster children. Keaton sent me his picture from work—hugging his dad, the two of them posing for the picture. He works for Randy like his brother does, but Lance couldn’t be in the picture. Lance had a mild case of shingles. He called, though, to say he was feeling good enough to meet halfway between his house and mine. I met him to give him a shirt, watch him put it on, then captured it with the iPhone. I felt better already, standing there with my gun owner. I wanted him to be with me the next day. If anybody got too rowdy, Lance could have my back. Without using a gun. I hoped.

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But his support this weekend was just wearing that shirt in public, a quiet protest. We met in a parking lot next to a shopping center where two highways meet alongside Bull Creek. I parked near a grove of oak trees. One of the symptoms of shingles is sensitivity to light. Lance showed me his blisters from his virus. They’d all scabbed over. I handed him his orange t-shirt. He puts it on, and in the shade of the trees I take a selfie of the gun owner I love.

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I drove home and posted pictures to Twitter, signing off with # WearOrange. I felt a warmth creep over me. My family was standing with me, posing for pictures. I wear my orange for Jon, and I wear my orange to say no—it’s my own version of Wear Orange: no more recklessness of gun owners. I suspect others at the rally won’t make any room for gun ownership. I have a family who’d disagree on that point. Is there room for my compromise?

At dinner that night, I sat across from Randy, still wearing our t-shirts. We’re at Flores our favorite Mexican restaurant. We sip on margaritas and dip chips into the salsa. I tell him I’m nervous about going to the rally by myself tomorrow. I say this while staring down at my plate.

Randy is a good husband, the kind of guy who wears a t-shirt because his wife tells him to, even when he’s not sure about all of what it stands for. I see empathy in his eyes. He asks, “Do you want me to go to the rally with you?”

Yes, yes I do. I feel a sense of relief. We make a plan: he’ll play an early round of golf, and then we’ll go.

The morning of the rally I have plenty of time to prepare. It’s also a while to think. Maybe the rally isn’t such a good idea.  Randy doesn’t really want to go and he’s only doing this to make me happy. Why do I want to go? I think about the gun control extremists that might be there. Am I going to be bombarded with anti-gun semantics? How do I stand up for myself, or must I say nothing at all?

I move through life as an observer, asking questions like that. I’m the woman who sits in the back of the room, quietly watching others. I don’t like to rush into anything. I take my time, better to scope things out. There it is. Scope. The language is so infused in our lives.

I open my MacBook, check my mail. There’s a message from my girlfriend Susan. It says, “You should have let me know about that rally. I’d walk with you if you decided to go and wanted a friend with you.”

Hallelujah! Randy can be out of the range of fire. Susan’s a good rescuer—she speaks her mind. Not the woman sitting at the back of the room. I take a long shower. Then fix my hair, then add some make-up, and then put on the t-shirt. I wear the one from yesterday, because I only bought enough shirts for the family. This one will have to do, but first I check the armpits for that smell. Years ago I was a student at the John Robert Powers modeling school. Lesson #23: (I think) never, ever wear a shirt twice. But in this case—a girl’s got to do what a girl’s got to do. I slap on an extra rub of deodorant then check myself in mirror. I am ready for the rally.

I drive to Susan’s house to pick her up. She wears a plain orange t-shirt, and blue-jean shorts. We try to decide on the best route to the rally point, Austin’s Schultz’s Beer Garden. Legendary liberal hangout, I’ve heard, so of course it’s there, right downtown. Susan says how surprised she was that she didn’t hear anything about this rally. She’s right. Other than the text message from Everytown I haven’t heard anything, either. There’s been nothing on the radio, TV or any news Web pages I saw. Why is that? Are only the people contacted signing up for Everytown’s cause? Will the crowd’s belief system be that all guns are bad and should be destroyed?

I have a lot of questions and I know where the answers will be. I’m an observer and I consider how that kind of person behaves at a rally.

Downtown Austin is abuzz with people and cars parked on both sides of Martin Luther King Street. A street named after a man who was gunned down. We see groups walking together. I ask Susan if she thinks they’re going to the rally.

“No, none of them are wearing orange.” The t-shirts can’t be the only thing to wear, though. There’s not as many as I hoped.

Then we notice a girl getting out of a car. She’s has on a blue gown with a matching cap. We realize it’s a high school graduation, just a few blocks away. Thousands of graduates in the citywide ceremonies. Something to compete with the rally.

Susan asks, “Why would they hold a rally on the same day as graduation?”

“I don’t know, but if this turns out to be lame we’ll leave and have lunch.” I don’t know if I like the way that sounds, but I don’t want to have dragged Susan down here for a bust.

I drive along the street with Schultz’s on our right. We peer into the backyard beer garden where a small group in orange shirts gather around a table. Parking isn’t a problem, either. We find a front row spot in the garden. I wanted it to be crowded, rowdy with protest. Where is the celebrity? People Magazine had a Julianne Moore. We’re cool enough in Austin to draw somebody who’s People-grade.

The women at the table are volunteers. There’s a sign in sheet, and a poster board with names of lost loved ones. We sign the board with Jon’s name and then Susan and I sit at a nearby picnic table. There aren’t two dozen people in the garden. I wonder how many people really care about safety. Susan point at a lady taking pictures of protesters, each of us who will pose for her. At the photo table, orange costumes are draped out for us to wear. We begin to dress ourselves in the some of the gear, all of it orange. Susan puts on the orange tutu, and I pin on an orange hair band that reminds me of a Whoville residents’ hair. We’re laughing at a rally. I didn’t expect this. Rallies have speakers, don’t they?

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This one will have a someone speak who’ll make me glad it’s Susan next to me. Not Randy. At least Betsy Riot doesn’t go topless. But she’ll undress some real feelings. After all, I wanted something more important than just lunch.

#WearOrange

#WearOrange: June 2nd and 3rd.

 

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I’ve never gone to a rally of any kind in my life, nor do I consider myself an activist. Then I received a text from Everytown for Gun Safety. I felt compelled to act.

I clicked on the #WearOrange link and found that there was an event coming up in my hometown of Austin. I studied the page, and began to sign up. I fill in boxes, entering my name, address and phone number. I was ready to submit. Then I squirmed in my seat. Do I really want to do this? Am I really ready to support an anti-gun organization?

I closed the page.

Before signing I wanted to learn more. I went to the Everytown homepage, read their agenda. They support background checks and want to prohibit domestic violence abusers from obtaining firearms. Okay, I can agree with that. They also want to strengthen penalties for gun traffickers, plus help pass laws to require safe storage of firearms in hopes of preventing accidental deaths. I sit at the website and remember my own story about accidental gun death.

Penalties, laws, check and check. When I first signed up to receive Everytown texts, preventing gun accidents was the main reason. I believe Jon would be alive today if people were responsible and could be held accountable for storing guns safely.

I wonder if that’s cause enough to be attending the rally, though. I decided to submit the form. But afterward I had second thoughts, wondering how many of the people attending will be gun owners, or how many will have a son like my younger son Lance—a boy who collects guns and supports the Second Amendment.

As I’m thinking about this Lance walks in the door, followed by my younger son Keaton. It’s Memorial Day. Sure, it’s a holiday to honor people killed in action. I wonder if there’s ever going to be a day like that to honor gun violence victims.

 

Maybe that day is coming after the tragedy at Sandy Hook. On that day I sat glued to the television watching young mothers sob over the loss of their children. I tried to fathom what was happening, but I felt the loss for my son all over again. He died at the hand of a gun, an accident that was ruled a suicide, a ruling that was a mistake. Jon had been gone three years when Sandy Hook hit us all. I couldn’t block out the images of those mothers and their pain on that day. Children should outlive their parents.

My first impulse after Sandy Hook was to write President Obama. What I received back looked more like a fan mail reply, and so that waste of letterhead ended up in my trashcan. It became one more thing to change my values, though. I believe in the safety that police and deputies must ensure, belief in a compassionate God. The tragedy at the school on that day sparked me, as well as a lot more people. We can’t count on anyone in power to do everything that matters. We must rely on ourselves, working together. Otherwise, like I did, we’ll get the auto-reply of the Sandy Hook Response Letter.

After Sandy Hook I did some research, trying to figure out who could speak for me, or just with me. In those months after Jon’s death I hated guns. I wanted them all confiscated, destroyed and melted down to a disposable liquid. I lost my son to the recklessness of a gun owner.

But my hatred for guns subsided when Lance announced his desire to collect guns. Guns are a part of our culture. Even with what happened to Jon, I will always be a mother of three. All three of my boys grew up in our home of guns—cap guns, BB guns, paintball guns, air-soft guns, and hunting guns. One of them now collects firearms.

I asked my new collector to wear his orange this week. My box of Everytown shirts is on my doorstep today. Lance said he’s glad to wear a shirt, because he’s a gun owner with a sharp eye for safety who knows the bulls-eye is responsibility. He may not join me at this weekend’s #WearOrange rally. But he knows there’s more we all can do to end gun violence.

Mother’s Day

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An excerpt from my memoir At Close Range, the story of my journey to a reckoning over the accidental shooting death of my oldest son Jon

Like all of those other holidays since Jon’s accidental death, I feel a shortness of breath and sweaty palms long before the actual day. This day of celebration comes with an added suffering, though—I wonder how I can be considered a good mother. No matter how many cards my two surviving boys send to my heart that day, I know I will always be a mother of three.

I find myself afraid of the day’s tradition because I carry secret shame. I wasn’t there in Jon’s time of need. I was 1,100 miles away when my child died. I feel the guilt escalate with every page that comes off the calendar leading to my special Sunday. This will be another, deeper first.

I’ve been admired by my children. I keep boxes in which I store their handmade cards, decorated with colorful yarn and white paper plates with finger-painted handprints. These cards from earlier Mother’s Days carry sweet and short poems that exaggerate the praise of motherly deeds. I don’t deserve that. On this First, my guilt stays private, even to the people I love the most.

My guilt is my secret alone. Randy and the boys have managed to put this mistake on the death certificate aside. They say it’s a piece of paper that doesn’t matter. They already know the truth. I am not in that place of certainty. I am still on trial and the evidence is most personal on this Mother’s Day. It’s a holiday all my own, a day I’m supposed to feel good in a way my other family members do not. I feel different today, not special. I fear I am the one to blame the most for this First.

The day for mothers arrives too early to me. I need solitude. Fortunately Randy is a weekend golfer. The sun barely has time to rise over the fence, casting shadows in the oak trees before he kisses me good-bye.

“Happy Mother’s Day,” he says. “I’ll finish my round early so I can make brunch for everyone.” Not everyone, I think. My heart is an egg carton with one missing. One plate will be empty at that brunch.

Randy has a reputation for making the best scrambled eggs. He learned from his grandfather, something no one else in our family can duplicate. You cook scrambled eggs slowly, he says, and he adds milk and Velveeta. I wish for something I might add to enjoy this brunch. It’s joy, I guess. And it’s up to me to find that joy, after all. I will just play for the next point in this match.

While Randy is on the golf course I attend Unity Church with my mom. I have been going every week since Jon’s death. I offer prayers as some sort of atonement. Most Sundays I leave the sanctuary with a warm fuzzy feeling, but afterwards the pointlessness settles in. I sit in the pew, week by week, and am not sure what my belief is anymore.

But my mom loves Unity and no matter what I believe, I go to please her on this Mother’s Day. I drag myself to my mirror, putting on my favorite tinted lip-gloss, blush, and mascara but the reflection doesn’t lie. I realize all the make-up in world can’t hide a mother in mourning. I try to change my mood as I head out the door to meet her.

In typical Unity fashion our morning starts with a meditation. The minister tells us to picture all the mothers we can think of and surround them in a heart-space of pink, radiating a light of love. Later, there’s a sermon that praises all women of the mystics, and again the overall theme is love.

Mom pats my hands before we leave, and looks at me with her bright blue eyes. “Wasn’t that wonderful?”

I nod for the sake of not spoiling the moment, but her attention has already been redirected, because mom’s a celebrity at Unity with a congregation of friends. A group of women comment on her youthfulness, and how she looks likes my sister and not my mother. It’s a comment that can drive me nuts. But I realize it’s also a compliment.

I make my way up the aisle as she talks and I turn to look back at her. Mom has aged with grace in spite of her heartaches. She doesn’t run or hide when facing life’s difficulties, pain and uncertainty. She lost her brother to kidney failure and weathered that sorrow, and now she’s lost her grandson. I have someone to model while I feel my way through this first Mother’s Day after I’ve lost Jon. Maybe she’s put her pain aside. I walk back and notice her blush as she revels in the attention from her friends. I don’t want to stick around, so I tell her I’ll see her at the house for brunch. I kiss her cheek and walk away proud, hoping I’ll share more than her youthful complexion.

When I walk through the door, fresh flowers and cards sit on the bar that separates the kitchen from the living room. Randy’s cooking while the boys are milling around upstairs. They both lean over the stairwell shouting down, “Happy Mother’s Day Mom. Love you.”

“Thanks guys.” I smile. “Your Mimi will be here shortly.” I look at the cards, Randy’s handwriting on one, and the others from Keaton and Lance. But I can feel a piece of my heart missing. Randy walks and gently kisses my cheek.

“What’s that for?” I ask.

“You just needed it,” he says, walking back to the kitchen.

We all need love in the midst of sorrow, and I learned to make my own on Mother’s Day. I noticed my younger friends on Facebook displaying the same sappy Mother’s Day creations my children made. It hit me hard. I didn’t feel like a part of these traditions, but I wanted to show the world I was loved.

I went to my closet and opened Jon’s keepsake box and dug right down to his School Days book. Inside were pictures of him from kindergarten to middle school, and in between each grade was an envelope where I placed report cards and other icons. I had not looked in that school days book in many years.

When I pulled out the pieces from the 7th grade, I noticed a crinkled, sheet of folded white, blue-ruled paper. I unfolded his message from middle school.

Dear Mom,

Of all the millions of things I thought to give you this was my best idea. Although it is worth nothing, it’s from the heart. This is a reminder that when I am a horrible kid, you’ll remember this present, and know you’re the best mother I could ever have. I love you and always will, even if I’m my maddest at you, I hope you can forgive us for all the bad things we ever did. YOU ARE THE BEST MOM EVER! You help me when I am sad. You soothe me when I’m mad, I’ll always remember your forgiveness.

P.S. It’s a little early. Happy Mother’s Day!

As I read this something inside me changed. I’m getting a gold star like on a kindergarten report card. For so long, my hopes and dreams died with Jon, even though I had two other children who needed and loved me. I posted that letter on Facebook, not even bothering to wait for my friends to Like it. Instead, I frame it for myself.

 

The First Christmas Is Hardest

christmas-ornament-701309_1920Seven years have passed, and today like other cold December days I feel I am in A Charlie Brown Christmas. My soft sigh of “Ugh” goes unnoticed. Nobody lets you hate Christmas. Nobody wants to hate it, either. Not me, a mom who made Christmas a big “Love You” to her boys. Then I lost one but had to go on smiling—for my other boys, my husband, my friends. Holidays slap me in the face again and again. It was hard at first. It was my holiday Firsts after Jon died, like Christmas, that were the hardest.

In that first holiday season I am lost in a blur of grief and a fog of what to do. My husband Randy does his part to help me get started, and he does it first. He brings in the Christmas storage boxes from the garage and climbs into the attic for the artificial tree. One by one he places them in our Austin living room. There sit two storage tubs filled with stockings, my collection of Santas, the garland, lights, and a wreath.

I take a deep breath and sit down in front of the tubs. The remembering and nostalgia carry me back to what I’ve lost. Memories fly at the speed of Santa’s sleigh—Jon’s needlepoint stocking, the hanger that holds a picture of him that will now never change from year to year, never grow older like his school photos once did. In another tub rest Jon’s special ornaments, the ones Randy’s stepmother’s Sue gave as gifts each year. When Jon was born she bought his first ornament, porcelain baby booties.

“I’m going to buy him an ornament each year,” she said. “Until his 21st birthday.”

“Why stop at 21?”

“Because I think it will give him a good start. After he gets engaged, he can take those ornaments when he starts up life with his fiancée. Once he has his own Christmas with someone special, they’ll have 21 ornaments to start with.”

Today, the first Christmas since his death, a piece of my broken heart is packed with each of those ornaments.

I am stung by the years of the collection, by watching Jon grow up and slowly staking his claim on the stocking with Santa in cowboy boots, or the jolly old elf swinging a golf club. But there are other ornaments too—a cross symbolizing our faith, and a red, white and blue ball for our country after the 9/11 attack.

Those booties she bought Jon on that birth day are still stored in the original box, his name written on the bottom along with the year: 1985. He was only 23. No more ornaments will come from Grandma Sue. Now no one will ever receive those ornaments to start a family.

I hang the last of Grandma Sue’s ornaments on the Christmas tree and feel the stress building. I am not over his death, sudden and stunning, an accident with a gun. It takes all my energy to stay afloat and live my quiet, secret lie of celebrating Christmas.

Don’t get me wrong. I love driving by the houses in our neighborhood, seeing the red-ribboned wreaths, the strings of Christmas lights, and the golden mechanical deer. I love the smell of a freshly cut evergreen and Nat King Cole’s crooning about chestnuts roasting on an open fire. But no matter how long it’s been, holidays will never become easier without my son. So now I work on my walk to a different Star of Bethlehem—one that shines with grief as well as joy.