Moments of peace after Virginia Tech tragedy

How does one respond? The magnitude of the horror defies rational reaction. One minute the worst thing on your mind is a tree that blew over in the previous night's wind storm. The next minute, Southwest Virginia is shattered.

For many, the response is immediate and intense. Those who knew the victims, those who were related to them, they suffer the worst pain. They weep, cry to the heavens and feel the unexpected void that will never be filled. A loved one is gone.

The rest of us, the thousands and millions, only can inadequately empathize. We impotently offer our condolences and support, all the while sensing that nothing will make it better.

And still we have to sort through it.

Living in America, where these sorts of tragedies are blessedly rare, we have not honed our emotional tools to cope. As if there were some way one is supposed to respond. "Supposed to" implies there is a standard reaction, but there can be no such thing for this kind of nonstandard situation.

When I visited Virginia Tech and Blacksburg over the last week, the tragedy hung palpably in the air, a shadow that dimmed bright sunlight and blossoming spring flowers, quieted the chirping birds and bubbling streams. It squeezed the heart and mind, leaving room for nothing else.

It will pass. It's hard to believe now that the New River Valley will ever return to normal, to the way it was just a week ago, but it will. Maybe it will take weeks, maybe months, maybe years. Someday we will remember what happened, pause for a moment as we walk past Norris and Ambler Johnston halls, but lives will go on. We will rebuild and recover because not to do so would be the ultimate defeat at the hands of a crazed young man.

Now, though, we must cope, each in his or her own way.

The day after the shootings, I returned home from the office worn down. Steeped in tragedy for two days, I couldn't take any more. I needed something normal.

Grabbing a shovel and donning gloves, I sat in the dirt of my garden and dug out the dandelions and wild strawberries that had taken over. The cats romped about the yard as I pulled weed after weed. It was my moment of serenity in a week that swirled with Discordian energy. It was my chance to do something for new life in a week of death.

Other people found their own ways to seek solace in the mundane.

Tech's campus golf course opened on Tuesday. Wednesday, the parking lot was full.

The sprawling media village with its dozens of satellite dishes was visible from the clubhouse. Inside, two men ate lunch and talked for a moment about identifying the victims, but their conversation turned to the strong winds that had damaged the course.

Four Tech students, two young men and two young women, paid their greens fees. They practiced for a few minutes on the putting green and teed off, joining other golfers making the rounds of the course.

Callous? Cold-hearted? Inappropriate?

No.

The heart can only stand so much without a respite.

The same went at the comic book store across the street from campus. Wednesday evening, people bought their books. A couple of young men debated the merits of various decks for their fantasy card games.

Old habits assert themselves when the mind does not know what else to do.

We have all been diminished. Though the world might seem to stop for a few days, it is the illusion of grief.

Familiar moments enable people to carry on. We must seek them to escape, if only for a little while, from the unbearable sorrow. In time, they will become more common.

We will never forget what happened Monday, but eventually life will return to normal. The New River Valley is too strong for it to be otherwise.