The morning of November 13th, 2015 a few friends and I hopped on an ICE train to the Paris. We spent the day touring the city and the night trying to figure out how to get back to our rented apartment as the City of Light was being attacked by eight Islamic State terrorists. (You can read the details of our night here.) It is one of those times that will be forever frozen in time. The colors, smells, sounds…they will remain vivid in my memory. I no longer think about it every day, but today I can’t help but reflect on that night with solemnity in my heart and in solidarity with the good of the world.
Three months is what it took for me to stop thinking about that night from sun up to sun down, to finally be able to hear European police sirens or see their flashing blue lights without jumping, to stop obsessively checking the news, and to stop constantly measuring out the distance of 2 miles as I drove. It was my first experience with tragedy, and over the last twelve months it has settled deep into my bones and changed me in subtle ways.
When I look back on that night I don’t focus on where my friends and I were or what we were doing. I think about what was happening to those innocent people while my friends and I laughed and enjoyed our time together. I think about the hours we, and everyone else around us, were in the dark about what was happening just down the road from where we sat sipping French 75s and martinis. I think about earlier that day, passing so many Parisians and wondering if any of them died that night. The people I locked eyes with on the subway. Those we sat next to at the outdoor cafe where we drank hot chocolate and ate croissants. The lives that were taken that night haunt me, no doubt. They were you and me, fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, children. For a long while I struggled with not being able to do something. I wanted to help in some way, to do anything to help the families of those left behind. At some point I realized that the best way to honor those that were slaughtered that night is to just live. To start dealing with the things that had caused me heartache, kept me too busy and too checked out to really just live my life because those people can’t anymore. It was because of them that I started to dig deep and deal. The process is ongoing, but I am far different than I was a year ago.
Remnants of the event linger in its wake, and I suspect they always will. Sometimes something completely out of the blue happens, triggering memories along with deep emotions I didn’t know were even there. It’s pretty unnerving because it feels out of my control.
May I be vulnerable and honest for a moment?
In May of this year one of my friends who had been in Paris with me was about to move, and so we all decided to go out dancing for one last night of fun together. Bright lights, five dance floors, great music. We were having a blast, laughing and dancing our asses off to some stellar music. It felt so good to release everything in the heat of the summer night.
At one point we moved into a room with the largest bar and each got a drink. At the end of the bar was a raised platform for people to dance on. I remember looking up and seeing men of Middle-Eastern descent dancing in a way that was quite different than any European at the club. Immediately a photograph I had seen on the news months before flashed over my memory. It was of Salah and Brahim Abdeslam, two of the terrorists responsible for the Paris attacks, partying it up at a night club in Brussels just months before murdering 130 people. Partying it up alongside the very people they wanted to blow up. It was just a flash, but I couldn’t think. I was hot with anger. I just stood there staring them down. I didn’t know why I was profiling those men when I didn’t even know them. I didn’t do things like that. But all I could feel was anger toward those who had caused terror that night. Anger I thought I had let go of long before. I was connecting the men up on that platform to that feeling. It wasn’t fair, but there it was, up in my face, in the sweat on my brow, in the stare I gave them as they waved their arms to the music. It bothered me all night like a pestering clothes tag rubbing against the back of my neck, but I didn’t say anything to my friends. The next day I was agitated, withdrawn and short. My husband knew something was wrong and finally asked me about it that evening. I threw it all up there on the kitchen floor: the anger, the shame, the confusion. He listened in love, as he always does, and reassured me that I was not crazy or a hateful person; I was harboring anger. It is an inevitable consequence of witnessing terror and the violent victimization of the innocent, and I was using those men as a scapegoat. No longer was this kind of terror limited to the flat surface of a television screen. It was up close and personal and had an entirely new meaning. Thankfully, after talking to my husband I was able to slough off all the anger and leave it there on the floor with the dust and bread crumbs.
The Paris attacks added another facet to life for me, bringing into my understanding a new hue of gray that I didn’t know existed. It is a life experience I refuse to forget and will always respect. Today I got out the newspaper that I bought at the train station the day after the attacks as we tried to get out of Paris and looked at the images inside. I rubbed my thumb over the tattoo that we all got in remembrance. Once again I read the bios of all of those who lost their lives that night and meditated on the fact that I am here, in this time and place, for a reason. I am here to love, I am here to live, I am here to be. I am here.