On June 14th, two days after the shooting, the Pickford Studios crew arrived in Orlando and spent the afternoon at the memorial.
I have nothing original to say.
Mourning does not inspire novelty.
And there is nothing particularly unique about grief.
And as for a description of the actual Orlando shooting memorial itself: it is, tragically, exactly what you picture in your mind’s eye. It is precisely what we have all come to expect. We have seen this so many times that its predictability hits you like a sucker punch—if you were foolish enough to expect that this shrine might be any different.
Fifty souls dead from a mass shooting do not exactly prompt fresh, new ideas.
And that truth is, strangely enough, both enraging and comforting.
Enraging because we have had this conversation about a hundred times too many times.
But comforting because that unoriginal, unifying feeling—the sense that everybody around you is feeling the same thing that you are feeling—is about the only thing that makes all of this bearable. You are not alone. They are not alone. We are not alone.
That said, here are my impressions of the Orlando memorial.
The air is palpable here, and it drapes over you and around you like a heavy woolen quilt. And I have made enough trips to Florida to know that this is much more than the miserable humidity. There is something else hanging in the atmosphere. I will not be so “out there” as to suggest that it might be ghosts or spirits, although I suppose that is a possibility. Nor will I assert that it is some collective negative energy; so much pain felt by so many in one small contained place—be it the agony of the victims, or the heartbreak of the survivors—that such emotional turmoil might surely creative a collective energy of its own, one that can be sensed even by strangers visiting to pay their respects. But I cannot claim with certainty that it is dark energy, either. However, I do know this, with utter certainty. For everybody around me now, today, and for every person who visits this memorial, it so crystal clear to all of us, just how much raw pain has been experienced here, and I believe that the sheer knowledge of that creates this invisible weight.
As for everything else? It is, as I said, wrenchingly predictable: lots of rainbows. Thousands of flowers, in hundreds of bouquets. Stuffed toys. Candles. Pictures. Prayers. Secret messages to the dead, shared with the living. And then, the odds and ends. How could one look on these things without getting choked up? Toys. Favorite T-shirts. A CD. A cold beverage. Perhaps my favorite—a giant disco ball.
The presence of children here is particularly chilling. It may seem to some like a strange thing to do—to bring small children to a place of so much death and mourning. But you can hear the conversations, and clearly, there are many parents who have decided that children are never too young to start hearing about the horrible wages of hate. And some children are here for more than that. I mentioned that there were rainbows. There is more than one memorial; there are three really. And one of them started as a large rainbow ribbon, a giant recreation of the lapel ribbons. It is probably twenty feet long. But perhaps most touching is the rainbow chain. Large, long strips of colorful paper sit in stacks next to a row of Sharpies and double-sided tape. Mourners write their thoughts on a strip, loop it through the end of the chain, and tape it, making the chain one message longer, one heart stronger. Maybe 70 feet long now? It seemed urgent to get one’s feelings out. I am sure this will end up in a museum, as part of a memorial. I sit down next to a little girl, about ten, who is hoarding the glitter markers and taking her time. She looks up, reads my question in my face. “My cousin,” she says, “I cried for a long time.” And then she goes back to writing her glitter message.
But there is one sight that is more compelling than anything else: a big man in an orange t-shirt sits cross-legged on the ground, staring at a picture. It is a photograph of Amanda Alvear, a beautiful young lady. Really, to me, she is more of a girl. Younger than springtime, from the looks of her picture. She smiles out of the gold frame. I sit with him. He tells me she was his best friend. His body racks with sobs. After a few moments, I leave him to his private grief, but I notice that over the next hour, many people see him sobbing, and sit down next to him to hug him, give him comfort. And yet, I find myself embarrassingly aware of this sad fact: it is we who need him, more than he needs us. Because everything here—the pretty flowers, the warm glow of the candles, the colorful toys, the personal chachkies, and of course, the abundance of rainbows—seem, counterintuitively, all about life and love and happiness. And while many messages here talk about strength and survival, and love outweighing hate (#OrlandoStrong), this is fundamentally a place that is all about death. And it is such a deluge of deaths, so horribly wrought, brought to so many who were so young, that none of us can quite believe this is real.
But the sobbing man in the orange shirt makes it real. This, he has done for us.
And my last thoughts of the day were—ironically, eerily—presaged by Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician elected in California, only to be shot down in the San Francisco City Hall by a sick and hateful man. It was as though Harvey Milk could hear echoes thrown back from the future, of an endless debate that shows no sign of abating:
“It takes no compromise to give people their rights...it takes no money to respect the individual. It takes no political deal to give people freedom. It takes no survey to remove repression.” ― Harvey Milk
We suspect that the shooter might have committed this unthinkable act because he lived with people, and in a culture, that does not accept homosexuality—and that the unnecessarily and arbitrarily imposed fear and shame which the shooter may have felt, and lived with every day of his life, might very possibly haven driven him to this. And the pain of that possibility is almost unbearable, especially in light of the fact that so many families of the victims had lovingly accepted the fact that their loved ones were gay. Partners were accepted, human beings could walk in truth, and life was celebrated all the more fully.
We know that the public conversation prompted by this is acrimonious and complicated. We know that legislation is urgent. We know that steps must be taken to protect all citizens, in one united nation. But the more important lesson of today, of this trip to Orlando, of this trip to this tragic shrine, is that it takes no law to be kind. It takes no Executive Order to be tolerant. It takes no act of Congress to show compassion.
We must only make up our minds and our hearts to do so. And I can tell you, after today, that when we do that—that is the best part of us. That is the most magnificent height to which our species ever can or ever will climb. And for what it is worth, there are 49 angels watching, waiting.
And their expectations are high.