SideLines: Mourning those we never knew

It didn't hit me at first.

Not to be disrespectful, but I didn't know any of the victims, although I know someone who knows someone who did. I suppose most of us who live here can say the same thing.

Five years ago last Thursday, I was returning home from running errands and I turned on the TV. To my shock, every channel was reporting a shooting on the campus of Northern Illinois University. Six people were killed, including the gunman, and 21 more were wounded. It was, at the time, the fifth-deadliest university shooting in U.S. history.

Actually, the thing I remember the most happened the day before. I was giving blood in a mobile unit at my church. I was sitting next to my new minister, and we were discussing, of all things, the shooting at Virginia Tech and how we didn't know what the world was coming to. "It can happen anywhere," I remember him telling me.

How little did either of us know.

Last Thursday, I stood outside in the cold and wind, covering the fifth-anniversary memorial service outside Cole Hall, where the NIU shooting took place. While others were being stirred by the remarks of Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and retiring NIU President John Peters, I was busy recording their comments and looking for pictures.

It wasn't until it was over, when almost everyone had gone and the only ones left were a handful of security guards, maintenance people and media photographers, that the whole thing really began to sink in.

For me, Peters had the most poignant line when he said, "We must learn to cherish one another, because tomorrow is not promised to any of us."

Maybe because I'm getting older, or maybe because I've lost people close to me, it's a line I can't get out of my head.

Looking around last Thursday, I was struck by something else. Now that the police tape and the wooden boards are gone, Cole Hall isn't the same, ominous-looking place it was right after the shooting. In fact, if you didn't know what happened there, it looks pretty much like any other building on campus.

I can't imagine what it must have been like in that classroom. I never liked school, but it was one place, like home and work and church, where I always felt safe. It never once dawned on me that something tragic could happen there. Especially on Valentine's Day, when red is supposed to symbolize love and romance, not blood and broken hearts.

Instead of gloom, however, there's this sense of triumph in a way. Not over what happened, but over the way the community has rallied together and grown strong from the lessons learned from it.

As I was walking back to my car, I overheard a college-age woman utter what has become the unofficial battle cry of this generation: "This is happening too much. It's got to stop."

It was essentially the same message the President of the United States made in his State of the Union address two days earlier.

But until someone can come up with a way to disconnect mentally-disturbed people from semi-automatic weapons, I don't know how we can avoid similar, future memorial services in communities we've not yet heard of.

All we can do is remember those who are gone. Even if we don't know their names, we can still feel their absence.

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