One Year Later (Pulse Reflections)

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A year ago this place was surrounded by police, FBI and special agents as the bodies were identified. A year ago families and friends searched desperately for their loved ones as we waited for that fateful list to be released. A year ago I crumpled in my shower as I wept for those families. A year ago I found myself questioning over and over how someone could be so filled with hatred for a community that he could sit in Pulse watching people dance, drink and love only to decide their lives were his to take.

A year.

It’s been a year.

I’ve come here multiple times. I’ve laid flowers, raised candles and prayed on an endless loop that the 49 angels would find their peace.

Yet here and now, a year later, it feels like no time has passed at all. It’s as though we’re right there again, in the midst of indescribable pain and heartache.

My heart is fractured, seemingly holding on by some unseen stitches. But I know what those stitches are made of. It’s love and kindness and empathy and hope.

It’s shown when there’s a line to donate blood or when a stranger offers me water or a hug.

Over and over again Orlando has come together over the past year. The LGBTQ community has more allies then ever before, and I hate that it took senseless violence to get here, but here is how we know fear and terror will never win.

Here, as we support and love each other everyday, is how we fight back and show that you cannot silence our voices, you cannot cease our connection to one another, and no matter what – no matter how many bullets rain down – you will never stop our Pulse.

This is Orlando.

 

#orlandounited     #orlandostrong   #onepulse   #rememberthe49   #loveisloveislove

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Six Months Later (Pulse Reflections)

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It’s 1:40 am. I’m in sweats and an old t-shirt. I almost didn’t go. I tried to convince myself that it would be the same if I went by myself in the morning, after my doctor’s appointment and before work. But my gut told me I was wrong. I made myself stay up and go to my car.

This time of morning the roads are empty, not a soul to be seen, and the blanket of hazy light produced by neon signs and old street lights hovers. I park on a residential street across from Pulse. There is a candle lighting and a moment of silence planned. It’s been six months since the attack. Six months. Once again, time has escaped me.

As I walk from my car across Orange Ave to Pulse my legs seem to turn to stone, dragging slowly behind me. There is a small irrational fear that tells me it won’t be safe – that maybe someone will see this as a perfect opportunity for round two.

“Just drive, you can always drive past it if you changed your mind,” I told myself. I forced myself to follow through on my commitment to attend. There are cameras set up on the street across from Pulse and the reporters are pacing – hungry for interviews. I go to the fence and begin to read the messages scrawled across the canvas – messages of hope and love. A reporter asks me if I knew anyone that was there that night. I tell them no and they move onto juicier prospects.

I turn the corner to go through the opening in the fence, and as I am scanned and patted down by security I’m not paying attention to the process. It’s the first time I’ve seen the doors of Pulse since before the shooting. A lump lodges in my throat. A circle is gathered in front of the building. They’re reading the names, the 49.

 

Stanley Almodovar III, 23 years old

Amanda L. Alvear, 25 years old

Oscar A. Aracena Montero, 26 years old

Rodolfo Ayala Ayala, 33 years old

Antonio Davon Brown, 29 years old

Darryl Roman Burt II, 29 years old

Angel Candelario-Padro, 28 years old

Juan Chavez Martinez, 25 years old

Luis Daniel Conde, 39 years old

Cory James Connell, 21 years old

Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25 years old

Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32 years old

Simón Adrian Carrillo Fernández, 31 years old

Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25 years old

Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26 years old

Peter Ommy Gonzalez Cruz, 22 years old

Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22 years old

Paul Terrell Henry, 41 years old

Frank Hernandez, 27 years old

Miguel Angel Honorato, 30 years old

Javier Jorge Reyes, 40 years old

Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19 years old

Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30 years old

Anthony Luis Laureano Disla, 25 years old

Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32 years old

Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21 years old

Brenda Marquez McCool, 49 years old

Gilberto R. Silva Menendez, 25 years old

Kimberly Jean Morris, 37 years old

Akyra Monet Murray, 18 years old

Luis Omar Ocasio Capo, 20 years old

Geraldo A. Ortiz Jimenez, 25 years old

Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36 years old

Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32 years old

Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35 years old

Enrique L. Rios, Jr., 25 years old

Jean Carlos Nieves Rodríguez, 27 years old

Xavier Emmanuel Serrano-Rosado, 35 years old

Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24 years old

Yilmary Rodríguez Solivan, 24 years old

Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34 years old

Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33 years old

Martin Benitez Torres, 33 years old

Jonathan A. Camuy Vega, 24 years old

Juan Pablo Rivera Velázquez, 37 years old

Luis Sergio Vielma, 22 years old

Franky Jimmy DeJesus Velázquez, 50 years old

Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37 years old

Jerald Arthur Wright, 31 years old

 

I join the circle and stand with my head bowed. 2:02 rolls around and the silence starts, this is it. Six months ago, the first shot rang out at this time. The tears begin. Sobs break out around the circle. Couples hold onto each other as if their partner might dissolve and slip through their fingers. The full moon bounces off the silver paneling on the front of the building. My tears are rolling now, running down my cheeks and diverging onto my lips, I can taste the salt in them. The silence stretches. I look at the door; I imagine them clawing and fighting to get to this side of that door. I imagine their cries and pleas as they hoped for even one more second of life.

It was a fight the 49 lost. The minute comes to a close and members of the Pulse staff light candles on the ground. As the circle disperses we all move to gaze at the candles, they’re lined up in a Pulse line and behind each candle is a rainbow star with a name and age on it. My heart breaks all over again and I weep. This was such a monumental waste. I will only be here for a few more minutes, I am sure of it.

But as I turn away from the candles I bump into of my co-workers. We see each other and say nothing. We just fall into a bear hug. He lost his best friend in the shooting. We cry. He introduces me to his friend, whose twin brother was one of the 49. When he saw me crying, he enveloped me in a hug. I squeezed as tightly as I could – hoping he would feel my sympathy. We don’t let go. It seems to last for hours. When we pull away, I hold my co-workers hand. He doesn’t like being there. He doesn’t know how to process it all. He came for the sake of his friend.

I see another man on crutches with only one leg. My co-worker tells me was there, inside Pulse six months ago. I’m a wreck again. I spend the next hour talking with strangers and loving on my co-worker. The tears never leave my eyes and when at 3:20 am I get back in my car I sob all over again.

So much pain and heartbreak over hate, over caring about someone else’s sexuality. You would think after six months, I could fathom it, that I could apply some logic to it in order to make sense of it all.

But I can’t.  It still hurts like hell. It still breaks my heart. It still makes me weep. It still makes me furious. And maybe time will never heal that, whether its 6 months or 6 years, but maybe time allows me the ability to dampen my own grief in order to be there for a friend who barely knows how to express his.

Maybe time allows a certain reflection and acceptance. Maybe. I wish there were something more concrete I could say. No words seem to suffice. So I’ll conclude with this, my prayer for the 49.

 

God, I pray for the souls of the 49.

I pray you would keep them in your mist. That they would be given peace and love unending.

g.

For the families, I pray you would watch over them. Let them feel your comfort and love.

God, I pray for this country. I pray we can reject hate and fear of something that’s different from us.

God, bring understanding to this world so this will be the last time there is a six months after.

One Week Later (Pulse Reflections)

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As I write this my home country, England, is reeling for another terrorist attack. It was a little over two weeks ago that 22 people lost their lives in Manchester, an a little over a month ago that 3 people were killed in a similar incident on Westminster Bridge. Repeatedly in my life it seems like my two homes seem to mirror each other, and it’s heart wrenching that almost a year after Pulse England would be going through that sort of atrocity. I could go into politics and thoughts about why this is happening, but I’ll keep it simple. All of this stems from hate and fear. The only way to combat that is through love and forgiveness – as incredibly torturous as that feels.

So my dear beloved England, the country that raised me and will also be my home – please love and forgive. Take your time to scream, cry, and grieve, but I promise you the only way to be whole again is to learn to love and forgive. I will not lie and say that I have wholly forgiven. Omar Mateen will always be a villain to me, but I refuse to let his hate and fear infect my community or myself.

I will be praying for you my dear England, with all I have. You are my heart, and I know during this time of what seems to be constant attack you will let your English spirit rise and take care of one another. I have no doubt you will see a better day. I love you.

In that sentiment, I have three posts left in regards to Pulse – this one, 6 months on and 1 year on. That’s how long it’s taken to feel okay, but the wound never truly heals. You just learn to accept it as part of your anatomy.

 

                        ———–

 

Yesterday I stood with 50,000 members of my community around Lake Eola, the heart of our city. We raised candles in honour of the dead, and the sight of those candles flickering around the lake was maybe one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I will not easily forget that sight.

However, today the US Senate blocked a bill that would prevent people of the terror watch list (like Omar Mateen) from buying guns. Why? Because lobbyists, and the NRA and the second amendment. As I drove home today, listening to the news on NPR, I thought about all the memorials around town. The photos of the dead filtered into my mind as well as the families and friends I saw crumple to the ground in crying heaps at the crisis center across from my apartment building as they read the name of their loved one on that fateful list.

I couldn’t tear the image of them weeping from my mind. I remembered my own tears as I collapsed in the shower the day after. I wept as I thought about the innocent blood shed and how, just four walls from my apartment those family members were having their hearts ripped out and for what?

Because one man hated the gay community so much that he thought it was his duty to kill as many as he could. And today, today I think about how all of this could happen again so easily in another part of the country because of this government. After all, didn’t we say enough after Sandy Hook? We all mourned, cried, and said our prayers were with those parents only to do nothing to actually stop another massacre happen and then it came to my city.

It’s disgusting. And then these politicians, like Marco Rubio, will be sure to visit the memorials to say their ‘prayers’ are with us yet they block bills that could prevent these horrors. So now another city, another community could go through this and that knowledge devastates me.

 

 

Five Days Later a.k.a 10 Reasons to Get My First Tattoo for Pulse

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#1 – The cost of the tattoo is donated to the One Orlando fund.

#2 – The pain I feel under the needle will serve as a reminder of the pain the victims and their families are going through. And as I feel that short term pain I will remember how blessed I am to not be suffering their fate.

#3 – The pulse line etched into my skin will remind me that every day I wake up with a pulse is a blessing.

#4 – The rainbow will remind me not to judge or be biased towards someone or a group of people because they live differently from me.

#5 – The rainbow will remind me to be brave and dedicated enough to live my authentic life.

#6 – The rainbow will remind me that love is love is love is love.

#7 – It will remind me of how I feel in this moment. It will remind me that there needs to be change in this country and I can be a part of that.

#8 – When, and if, my kids ask about the tattoo on my ribs I can tell them about this week. I can tell them that there is great evil in this world, but there is also great good. And beyond that simple fact, every day we wake up with a pulse we have a choice to choose love. I look forward to telling my children that they have that choice.

#9 –  “You realize, don’t you, that you are the temple of God, and God himself is present in you? No one will get by with vandalizing God’s temple, you can be sure of that. God’s temple is scared – and you, remember, are the temple.” – 1 Corinthians 3:16-17

This scripture is the one most church kids hear as the argument against tattoos. ‘Your body is a temple’ is drilled into your brain to cover a whole manner of sins. Yet as I’ve prayed about this decision I’ve come to the conclusion that this scripture essentially boils down to respecting your body and using it to honor God. Well, If God is love and that is his main attribute I am striving to emulate – then this tattoo, which to me will be a permanent reminder to choose love, will in turn be a permanent reminder to choose Him.

#10 – Choosing to get this tattoo at this time will remind me of how capable Orlando and the world is to come together and choose love.

 

                Those are my reasons, and I don’t think I’ll ever regret this decision (a year on and I love my tattoo). Besides, if this time has proved anything it’s that we never know when our time is done. And when it is our bodies will fade into nothing, so it might as well stand for love while it’s here.

The Day of: Quebec Coffee

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It’s dark, but not as dark as I feel right now.

Sitting hundreds of miles away, I’m surrounded by Canadian hipsters sipping their artisan coffee while absentmindedly scrolling through Facebook.

I’m sure they’ve seen it; another mass shooting in the USA.

Another madman with a gun.

Another American tragedy.

But they can’t know that this one, the worst in US history is less than a mile from where I call home.

Where I’ve danced and had a few too many.

Where people I love, the ones that make me smile and laugh through a thirteen hour shift, feel safe and accepted.

But here in Quebec City, these coffee patrons have no idea how it feels to watch your world crumble while you’re so far away, so unable to help.

For them it’s just another image on their screens.

They can’t comprehend the churning of my stomach or the panic in my chest.

They can’ know that as they scroll through their feeds – liking cute selfies, adoring wedding photos and digesting other trivial Facebook news – I’m screaming on the inside.

(Written June 12th)

 


 

At 6 am on June 12th my sister messaged me to tell me about the mass shooting. I spent the first two hours following up with all my friends, who I knew went to Pulse, making sure they were safe. After I heard back from them all, confirming their safety my brother and I went to a coffee shop down the street from our hostel. As I sat in that coffee shop and watched all the images of Pulse on TV I felt completely heart-broken. I held in my tears, knowing that these people sat down at their computers couldn’t understand the weight of what I was feeling. Not that they wouldn’t be sympathetic or understanding, but there was no way they could feel the hole boring its way through my chest. This, illogically, made me angrier; I wanted them to feel what I was feeling. I wanted to scream at that. To stand up and yell ‘how can you just sit there, while people are dying?’ It wasn’t until a few days later, when I began to process my emotions, that I understood the irony in that feeling. After all, only a little bit ago we had witnessed the Paris attacks and I had gone about my day, while people in Paris were feeling what I was feeling now.

We left the coffee shop, wandered around Quebec City and somehow it just felt wrong. It felt as though I was disrespecting the dead by being in such a beautiful place, by not being in my city to mourn, to help somehow. As we wandered, my sister kept me updated on the news. She told me how the death toll had risen to nearly fifty. Every new piece of information felt like a dagger to my gut. The entire day I felt restless in my skin. I wanted to be at home; I wanted to help, even though I had no idea how. I needed to be with my city. I needed to see Pulse, and the distance between Quebec and Orlando felt like a universe away. Pulse was somewhere I had danced and been drunk with my friends. I was supposed to go to Pulse with a couple of co-workers only the Tuesday before, but I had gotten out of work late and couldn’t go. I had spent many a night, a little too tipsy, in the bathroom where the hostages were held. As the day continued we avoided telling people where we were from. It was too raw to say. We were afraid of the looks, of the awkwardness, of the anguish the confession would bring. At the end of that day, which barely felt like a day, we took an Uber to the airport. The Uber driver wanted to know where we were from, my brother said it, ‘Orlando’. I held my phone in my hands, like I had been doing the whole day, waiting for any new pieces of information. I didn’t want to hear his reaction.

He apologized, and asked if we knew how many had been hurt. I told him we were hearing conflicting reports. He was nothing but sympathetic and concerned, but every word he spoke grated against my skin. Not because of anything he was saying, but because of the subject we were discussing. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want it to be real. As I sat in the back seat and gazed out of the window, he told us about a shooting that had happened at a club in Montreal and how thankfully how a couple of people were hurt. He told us that guns were what scared him about America. “Me too,” I whispered under my breath. When we arrived at the airport he handed us our bags and wished us peace, as difficult as that might be.

We walked through the airport, my brother wearing a purple hoodie and an Orlando City hat (which was completely unintentional). Facebook asked us to check in safe, due to us both being located in Orlando. We did, but not being there felt like we were cheating. When we finally made it on the plane, my brother and I were assigned seats on opposite sides of the plane. I tensed as I sat down, knowing that Orlando would be the topic on everyone’s tongue. Sure enough it was and when the Canadians in the row next to me began to discuss Orlando, guns, the military and Trump I remained silent. I looked out of the window and wished for time to speed up, to be back in Orlando. When we landed, the plane had to taxi and an older couple were clearly impatient to get off the plan. Nathan, my brother, was stood right behind them, and as my row was at the front they were stood in the aisle next to me while we waited to disembark.

“We have connections to make,” they grumbled and a fellow passenger asked them where they were heading. “Oh, back home to Pensacola, FL,” they responded and the man winced and said “Oh, Florida. Did you hear about what happened in Orlando?”

“Yes, we did. It’s a real shame but we’re from the panhandle. Things like that don’t happen there. We’re much nicer up there.”

I glanced at my brother – who I repeat was wearing an Orlando City hat – and he could sense my frustration.  Didn’t they see how insensitive that comment was? Also the shooter wasn’t from Orlando, he had driven from Port St. Lucie to Pulse to carry out the attack. But even if he was from Orlando, what difference did that make? A tragedy was unfolding in my city and these people had the audacity to brush it off with the apparent ‘niceness’ of the Panhandle. What was Orlando then? A hive of hate and sin? If I hadn’t been in so much mental turmoil I might have spoken up, but I knew if I did I would break down. So I held it in. I bit into the side of my cheek, as I had done many times as a child to keep myself from saying something, and focused on that pressure in order to push their comment as far away from me as possible.

The plane doors finally opened, the older couple rushed off to their connection, and I let go of my inner cheek – tasting blood mixed with salvia. We stepped off the plane, rushed through the airport, and stepped out to the pickup area, feeling that rush of warm wind that is so particular to Florida.  Our sister picked us up and warned us that we would have to go a long way home because the entire area around our apartment complex was blocked off. As we drove through the streets from the airport to our downtown apartment we discussed what we knew so far. The shooter was from Port St. Lucie. He had been shot by police after a hostage standoff in the female bathroom.  The death toll had jumped from 25 to 50 with countless more in the hospital. An emergency response center had been set up in the senior center directly behind our apartment complex.

The drive was exceptionally long, but that small inconvenience was insignificant in so many ways. When we finally arrive in our area it was akin to a war zone. Police cars, sirens and flashing lights filled the entire area. FBI, homeland security and SWAT trucks clogged up the roads. Helicopters flew overhead and I could feel it, the tension in the air. We had to park in a random spot because the parking spots for our apartment complex were in the senior center’s parking lot – which was filled with government/police cars, and media outlets setting up with reporters. There were so many lights, so many sirens. The emergency center was right at the end of our complex. The only way to be closer was to be in the center. We walked past officers, who had surely been up all night, to get into our building. I’ve never experienced anything like it. We entered our apartment, and turned on the TV to the local news station, which had been live for almost 20 hours at this point. You could see the exhaustion and heartbreak on the reporters faces. They switched between the reporter stood on Orange Ave, (which on a regular day would be four lanes deep with traffic) who was as close to Pulse as the FBI would allow and a reporter who was stood outside the senior center, at the end of our apartment building, where family and friends had begun to gather to find out if their loved ones were alive.

The reporters talked about how they hadn’t identified victims yet because their bodies were still laying on the floor of Pulse, with their phones buzzing as loved ones tried to reach them. The reporters assured us it was protocol – that the FBI had to gather evidence etc before they could begin to identify and move the bodies. They told us there would be a conference in the morning, where more details would be shared. They told us they weren’t going anywhere. That they would stay live throughout the night and their hearts would be with us. There was a connection throughout the city that night. Everyone could feel it. We were united by grief, loss and heartbreak. And resting underneath that concoction of confusion and pain was the undeniable sense that this city, our Orlando, would never be the same.