Though the book begins with a description of one of my personal dark nights (the Aurora theater shooting) that is not how I want it or me to be identified. The faith I had that night is the same faith that has been growing and lived out in my everyday life. Because many of you have come to know me through this tragic event, it is how I started my book. But I hope you will come to see that it’s not about one night; it’s about a God who is trustworthy and faithful to His children in ALL situations, even when it doesn’t feel like it.
Yes, that night was a traumatic one, with ripples that continue to impact. But according to Merriam-Webster, trauma is defined as an emotional upset. It is something that changes us forever, and it comes in many forms: divorce, cancer, bullying, chronic disease, abusive parents, job loss, death of a loved one – especially in tragic circumstances, and so on.
Trauma can cripple us with anger or paralyze us with fear and stunt our spiritual growth, leaving us broken and bitter.
Or it can be a catalyst for growth. It can draw us into a deeper faith and trust in Jesus, a better understanding of who the Prince of Peace, the Mighty Counselor really is.
I am praying that my story will encourage you in YOUR dark nights. I am praying that you, too, will come to see that Light always dispels darkness.
When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” John 8:12
Love and prayers, Marie with a
Copyright 2013 by Marie Isom
Dispelling the Darkness
By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. 1 John 3:16 NKJV
Looking back, I can see that the theme of the day was sacrifice.
They were mostly miniscule, barely perceptible sacrifices of time and money and food preferences, and they would have quickly been forgotten in the course of the normal, everyday living of a simple, nondescript woman.
But the early hours of July 20, 2012 were horrifically abnormal, and I would find myself considering the greatest sacrifice of all: laying down my life.
July 19th began as a deceptively sunny day. It arrived like a pig-tailed girl fidgeting impatiently on the front porch. “Can the girls come out and play?” She wheedled. I wanted to say yes; I wanted to give in and dig through mounds of once neatly folded piles of laundry in search of chlorine faded swimsuits and raggedy beach towels. Thoughts of lounging around the seldom crowded pool at Alyssa’s apartment complex were almost irresistible. But Michelle was scheduled to work at nine o’clock, and I really needed to do something about the empty refrigerator and pantry and wanted to do some job hunting. Instead of making plans for enjoying the cloudless summer day, I sighed and busied myself with mental to-do lists. Take Michelle to work. Search cook-books for Pescetarian recipes. Make a grocery list. Go to Sam’s Club and Sprouts. Put away laundry. Pay bills. Schedule a dental appointment. Check the Aurora Public School website for job openings. Text The-Boy-With-a-Cat-Named-Webster. Call the high school about registering Elizabeth. Plan some romance time with the HH. Just ordinary, everyday tasks. Had I known just how far from ordinary our next few days and weeks were going to be, I would have reneged on the sigh; had I realized we were about to encounter the blackest of nights that would forever change us, I would have ignored the to-dos altogether and reveled in the sunshine. The details of life, however, are not written out for us by an illustrious playwright; there was no well scripted foreshadowing of the evil that would shatter our mundane routine. That morning there was only sunshine. Glorious, abundant sunshine. So when Michelle hollered downstairs to me that she was ready to go to work, I sighed, grabbed my purse and headed out the door.
“At least we have tonight to look forward to.” My daughter grinned impishly before climbing out of the Focus. I watched her slim figure saunter away, youthful exuberance and carefreeness worn as casually as the towel about her neck. I watched until she disappeared into the old brick school building where she would spend the next three hours trying to persuade a bunch of unruly seven to ten year olds the merits of learning to swim. I let the car idle for a few more moments and wondered when exactly the freckle faced adolescent who loved Little House on the Prairie, building backyard forts with her brothers, cutting paper-dolls from old catalogs, and climbing trees had transformed into this long-legged, confident young woman. I sighed again. Nostalgia is such a funny companion; it arrives as an aching sadness dressed in delightful memories. Watching one of my children reach the cusp of adulthood has always been bittersweet; I love the deepening, transitioning relationships and a home full of noisy, energetic teenagers and young adults. But sometimes I miss the chubby arms and legs and incessant chattering, the mornings at the playground and afternoons teaching still pliable minds to sound out words and memorize multiplication tables. It has been a lingering and wistful farewell to bedtime stories and play dough and tents created with blankets in the living room.
Having children was never on my original to-do list of life. God, with His wonderfully kind sense of humor saw fit to make me a walking advertisement for abstinence being the only sure method of birth control. He gave Scott and me not one, not two, but SIX kids in a matter of eleven years. (Though after the first three, we went through a brief phase of ”we’ll have as many kids as the Lord gives us” some health issues soon nixed that plan.) Although I was initially angry about a couple of the pregnancies, after each birth I was thrilled. My children have brought me a deep fulfillment and a greater joy than I could ever have envisioned. But parenting did not come naturally to me and I fumbled my way through much of it. Certainly we have had tumultuous times – seasons when I wondered if the heartbreak would ever end, parenting winters when I could do nothing but cry out for God’s grace, summers when I wondered if I would ever get this mothering thing right. Fortunately winters are always followed by spring; rain eventually soaks the parched summer ground and children are always, always worth the emotional costs. I finally found that when I cling to the Savior, He is capable of filling in the holes left by my parenting mistakes; I finally learned that the best way to parent is to let Christ transform me and then let Him love my children through me. It saddens me that it took so long for me to learn this. Soon there would be only two children left at home: sixteen year old Michelle and her spunky fourteen year old sister Lizz. The years seemed to have evaporated, leaving this lingering layer of remember-whens behind, and I didn’t want to waste the precious few seconds I had left with them under my wing. Still, they were startled when I offered to take them to the premier of Batman: The Dark Knight Rises, a movie they had been animatedly talking about for months. Originally they made plans to go with their older sister, but that July Alyssa was in the first trimester of her first pregnancy and the only thing she wanted to be doing at midnight was sleeping. So, surprising even myself, I volunteered. Such a small sacrifice, I told myself. I don’t particularly enjoy going to movie theaters. I much prefer a recliner and a book, or at least watching films in the comfort of my own home where I can sprawl out on the sofa and get a foot rub from my husband, the kindest man I know. I especially dislike action movies, probably because I have such a difficult time following along and am constantly asking my ever-so-patient husband what is going on. And I really, really dislike midnight showings. But parenting means making sacrifices; it means sometimes laying aside my own desires for the ones I love. Although I could never stretch my imagination far enough to think that I would actually enjoy the movie, I was certainly looking forward to spending time with my daughters and being a part of their happiness.
That evening as we sat around our large distressed table and devoured perfectly grilled salmon, fresh strawberries, a tossed salad and buttery rolls, the conversation turned to the night’s anticipated adventure. It’s funny the things parents learn at the dinner table. It turned out that Matthew, our recent high school graduate, also had plans to attend the premier with some friends, and they had already purchased their tickets online. It was nearly sold out, he warned us.
“Then you should go online and purchase some tickets for us,” I suggested to him, knowing how disappointed the girls would be if we weren’t able to go. Matthew, who is much quicker at any maneuvers on the computer than I am, agreed. I handed him my debit card and soon our little printer was spitting out a receipt from Fandango, instructing us to pick up our 3 tickets to the 12:05 showing of The Dark Knight Rises at the Century 16 Theater in Aurora, Colorado.
We were assigned to Theater 9.
Chapter One: A Dark Night
At 5:59 PM we printed out the receipt and then began clearing the dinner table and cleaning up the kitchen mess I inevitably make. I found it somewhat amusing that there was no trace of the Morey’s marinated salmon left and I smiled to myself while scraping bits of salad and strawberry stems into the trash can. Just a couple of years ago our kids had grimaced and made gagging noises when I mentioned my favorite Wild Pacific fish. Now most of the family loved it, but because of the high cost, it was a rare treat. I almost regretted forcing them to try it.
As soon as the dishwasher was humming, I decided to sit down and write a quick blog post about the new eating adventure Lizz and I were embarking on: a pescetarian diet. I titled the post You’re a WHAT? Parenting is All About Making Sacrifices…But Bacon?! It was a light-hearted look at giving up bacon and meat to support my daughter in her attempt at an almost vegetarian lifestyle, but I ended it with a serious reminder about the ultimate sacrifice that Jesus had made for mankind: the laying down of His life. At 7:08 I hit the “publish” button, with no inkling that less than six hours later I would also be willing to lay down my life for my daughters and relying on that sacrificial gift of Christ to give me peace in the midst of horror.
Fourteen year old Lizz was getting antsy and tried to convince me that 7 o’clock was not too early to head to the theater. I wasn’t persuaded and quickly nixed the idea.
“We already have tickets reserved so an hour will give us plenty of time,” I told her. ”We’ll leave just before 11 o’clock because I don’t want to spend more than an hour sitting around in uncomfortable theater seats before the movie even begins.” My kids often tease me that I have adult attention deficit disorder because I have a hard time sitting still for long periods of time, so the girls reluctantly agreed.
“Wanna go for a walk to make the time go by quicker?” Lizz turned to her older sister who nodded in agreement.
“You’ll have to go now and be home before it gets dark, I told them. “Or take Zeke with you.” Zeke, our mixed chocolate lab, didn’t walk well with anyone except Matthew so the girls opted to leave right away and assured me they wouldn’t be gone too long. Sometimes my children have complained I am too protective. It is one of the challenging aspects of parenting, finding that paper thin balance between allowing them freedom to grow while providing safe boundaries and protection. Two beautiful teen girls walking alone at night simply went beyond my idea of safety and this time they didn’t protest, knowing from prior experience it was an issue I wouldn’t budge on.
I watched the girls meander down the sidewalk, arms linked as they chatted animatedly. Once they disappeared from sight, I sighed and mentioned that I really wasn’t looking forward to the movie time.
“Hey, only Michelle Favela is riding to the theater with me, “Matthew told me. “We are meeting everyone else there, so I have plenty of room in my car for Michelle and Elizabeth. Our tickets are for theater 8, but the girls could ride there and back with me so you don’t have to go,” he suggested.
It was a tempting offer, but it didn’t feel right. Just go with your girls like you originally planned, something inside of me said. I will be eternally grateful that I listened to the small, quiet voice.
“Thanks for the offer, but I’ll go with them.”
Matthew shrugged. “Okay.”
Scott had to work at 4 AM the next day so he went to bed as soon as the girls returned from their stroll. For the next few hours I puttered around doing a little bit of laundry, reading and playing Scrabble on my Kindle. The time flew by for me but went agonizingly slow for one of my impatient daughters. Like typical teenagers, the two of them discussed what they would wear. Lizz wanted to display her affinity for the caped hero, so Michelle offered to loan her a tee-shirt with a Batman image on the front.
Finally, at ten ’til eleven, I told the girls we could leave.
“Do you have the receipt? And your credit card?” Michelle asked. I was notorious for losing things at the last minute and she didn’t want to get all the way to Century 16 before we realized we didn’t have the means for us to get in – a scenario that didn’t require much imagination.
“”Got ‘em,” I waved the Fandango receipt, grabbed my purse and Kindle and we headed out.
“I should have just let you ride with Matthew,” I told the girls half seriously, as I pulled the driver’s seat forward to accomodate my 4’11″ frame. I hate driving, especially at night and was glad the theater was only about ten minutes from our home. Michelle turned the radio station up to an ear-splitting level as I backed out of the driveway and we sang along with artists on K-Love. I decided to park in the north parking lot, which was on the side of the theater, rather than the one in the front because I am legally blind in one eye and have no depth perception. This makes it difficult to park in crowded parking lots. I assumed the side parking lot would have plenty of open spots but I was wrong. Even this lot was more than half full.
We entered through the front doors, just below the brightly lit, abstract art style sign boldly announcing Century 16. To our dismay, we were met with a long, winding queue. It turned out that we still had to wait in the same line as people buying their tickets. Our online purchase guaranteed we would have seats but it didn’t allow us quicker access. When we finally got to the teller, I handed over my credit card, which was quickly returned with three printed tickets. The time was 11:22. The smell of buttery popcorn was tantalizing, but the girls and I avoided the concessions, swerved to the right, and headed to theater 9, a very familiar place for my family members. Although small by many theater standards, I’m told it is one of the larger seating areas at Century 16. We rounded the corner into the dimly lit arena and glanced up at the old stadium style seats. We stopped abruptly. Once again we were confronted with people. Lots of people.
The place was packed.
Other than the very front, flat level rows of seats, we spied only one area that had three or more seats next to each other. The seats were a little less than halfway up and I quickly headed towards them. I let Michelle enter the row first and was about to pull my seat bottom down when a young man called out to us. “Hey, we were really trying to save this entire row for our friends.” He was pleasant but firm. I looked around and groaned.
“But there aren’t any other spots with three seats together,” I contended. “Except in the very front.” I let the tone of my voice plead the full argument for me; there was no way I wanted to have to stare straight up at the screen for two hours.
“Aw, c’mon. We don’t even know if everyone is coming,” another young man called out. “Let ‘em sit there.”
I lifted up a silent thank you to the Lord as well as an audible one towards our unidentified advocate and plunked myself down between my two daughters. I pulled my Kindle Fire out of my suitcase sized purse and turned it on, intent on passing the next forty minutes lost in the written word. I have a love/hate relationship with this handheld bit of modern technology. The Kindle allows me to carry books – including the Bible – everywhere I go, but I have never been able to get over the sensation that I am cheating on my local library and book stores. There is nothing that can compare to turning the pages of a hardbound book, or the crinkly sound of the protective plastic covering on a borrowed literary masterpiece, or the liberal use of highlighter on words that touched my heart. I love “real” books, but find trips to the bookstore and library are getting fewer and further between. It makes me kind of sad, and sitting there I resolved to change that.
I read the same sentence three times, yawned and glanced around. The movie crowd was energetic and noisy. I noticed that several people were wearing what I considered outlandish, attention grabbing Batman-themed costumes. I knew I wasn’t going to get any reading done. I was too tired and there were too many distractions.
A young couple approached our row. Lizz was on the very end, I was in the middle and Michelle was on my left. There were two or three empty spots between Michelle and the young man who wanted to save the seats for his friends. The young woman asked if the seats were taken. I decided to check with Mr. Seat-Saver before we scooted down and let them have the aisle seats, but when I turned back to respond, the couple was already climbing past me to sit next to Michelle.
Finally the little video clip reminding movie goers to turn off their cell phones silenced the crowd for a few seconds. I was not prepared for the enthusiasm of midnight movie goers. Throughout the previews for a new TV series and a few upcoming movies, excitement permeated the air. I even found myself joining in during The Hobbit clips. The festive voices continued to mount and reached a boisterous climax when the preview for Superman: Man of Steel filled the screen. Cheers erupted and a few people competitively yelled out the name of Spiderman.
The moment the feature film Batman: The Dark Knight Rises began, my eyes were glued to the screen. My rapt attention wasn’t because I was infatuated with the movie but because despite the booming surround sound volume, I couldn’t really figure out what was going on. The noise and non-stop activity that continued onscreen for the next fifteen or twenty minutes simply cemented my dislike for action movies. It felt chaotic to me. I squirmed in my seat. Suddenly there was a popping sound followed by sizzling noise and I saw something go flying across the room, smoke trailing from the object. My girls started to cough and people shouted out their anger and disapproval at the interruption. I was flabbergasted by what I assumed was some sort of special effects prank, but I quickly turned my attention back to the movie. I still hadn’t figured out what was going on in the movie and didn’t want to miss anything important. Out of the corner of my eye I saw some flashes and heard more popping sounds. I kept my eyes on the film. Suddenly the theater was filled with shrieks and cries and other universally understood, heart-stopping sounds of panic. Next to me, Michelle and Lizz began screaming.
“What’s happening? What’s going on, Mom?”
Suddenly it hit me. That dark figure some fiftyish feet directly in front of us was a man. Or a woman. With a gun. The shots were rapid and nonstop. The sound of terror is impossible to adequately describe, and looking back, the moment was eerie and surreal, like a nightmare that I couldn’t rouse myself from. My vocal chords were paralyzed but all around me were the voices of terrified people.
Get down! Get down! Michelle and I finally screamed at the same time. We gave no thought to the filth that carpets a movie theater floor and quickly dropped to our stomachs in front of our seats. I pulled Lizz down with me.
Omigosh, omigosh, Lizz is right on the end of the aisle! My mother’s heart froze. If the shooter comes up the aisle she is the closest to him. The possibility of a bullet going through my fourteen year old daughter at close range sent a jolt through me as though I had actually been struck. I lifted myself up and threw my body over hers, praying that my tiny frame would be enough of a cushion to save her life should we receive a direct hit. I was sweating and terrified and my body was completely taut, anticipating a bullet in my back at any moment. Our faces were down and we had no idea where the shooter was; in fact we didn’t know how many gunmen there were. I don’t remember being affected by the chemical that we later learned had been released, but both of my girls were panicking and choking and unable to catch their breath. The screams and cries of the wounded, the terrorized sounds of people trying to make sense of the senseless, the quieter but equally traumatic whimpering noises would reverberate in my mind for days and their echoes will be heard for eternity. I’m not sure when the emergency sirens were set off but the high pitched screeching sound added to the horror.
At one point, shortly after we hit the floor, there was silence from the gun and I began to hope the nightmare was over. But the silence was short-lived; the shots, like obnoxiously booming fire crackers, began again and went on and on. I was completely freaking out, certain that this was it, that this was how my life was going to end, on a dirty theater floor, my body weight crushing my daughter. Crying and shaking, I began to whisper out loud, at first just speaking the name of Jesus over and over. Suddenly a peace that transcends human understanding swept over me. I realized that I was ready to die. I didn’t relish the idea of physical pain and hoped if a bullet struck, death would come quickly, but I was confident that the moment I breathed my last breath on earth, I would be in the presence of the Lord Jesus and my heart actually quickened at the thought. Death was not to be feared! This realization strengthened me to continue praying out loud. Honestly, I don’t remember the exact words I spoke but my petitions called on the name of Jesus for peace and protection for everyone in the theater. I prayed for the shooting and carnage to stop. I repeated the name of my Savior over and over, while at the same time, in the back of my mind was the macabre question of what a bullet ripping through my flesh would feel like.
I’m not certain how much time passed – it could have been five minutes, it could have been thirty – before the seemingly endless, rapid fire shots stopped. I sensed Michelle getting up and turned my head in her direction. Others were clamoring to their feet all around us.
“Run!” Michelle screamed and took off. I pushed myself off Lizz and yanked her to her feet. People were trying to make their way to the exit door that was behind us and screeching at us to run, pushing and shoving in their panic. I had no idea where the gunman was, no clue as to whether there was only one. I couldn’t see Michelle and scrambled in her direction, pulling Lizz behind me, shouting my sixteen year-old’s name. We caught up with her as soon as we got through the exit door and I grabbed her hand at the top of the staircase. The light outside the theater was blinding. We stumbled down the stairs and I frantically cautioned the girls to keep their eyes peeled for more shooters and to run, run, run! The adrenaline was flowing and all I could think of was getting my girls to safety.
As we sped through the lobby, chaos and pandemonium were rampant and I kept thinking this can’t be happening, this can’t be happening. My mind was split in a dozen directions. Were Matthew and his friends safe? Why was I running with only one of my new Crocs on? Please, please don’t let one of my girls be struck. Was this the act of some revengeful, slighted lover? Could we make it to the car? Was there more than one gunman? Were there more shooters outside? We still didn’t fully comprehend what was going on. People were screaming and running and a few were bloodied and I think that is when the shock began to set in; up until that point, we had been in the dark and couldn’t see what was going on.
We followed others out the front door and I didn’t even feel the pavement on my bare foot as we sprinted towards the parking lot and our car. When I spied our little red Focus with the scratched left side, my consuming thought was to get the girls inside of it so they would have some protection against flying bullets. There were several police cars in front of the theater, their lights flashing in an eerie rhythm with the emergency alarms. We could hear the wail of more sirens in the distance.
Out of breath, I dumped my purse onto the trunk of my car and frantically searched for the keys. Seconds later, the clicking sound that signaled unlocked doors caused me to once again lift a thank-you, tears streaming down my face. I tossed, my purse and its contents into the car and screamed at the girls to get in.
“Call Matthew! Call Matthew and make sure they are okay!” I was whimpering and shouting at the same time. Michelle fumbled with her phone and moments later relayed that my son and his friends were indeed safe and also heading home. Meanwhile, Lizz made several attempts with shaking fingers to phone her daddy. I could tell from her end of the conversation that when she finally got through, he didn’t understand her cries. “But we’re okay. We’re okay,” she kept repeating, persuading herself. I started the car, turned on the lights and sped out of the parking lot. Just a minute or two later we passed a chain of police cars – probably fifteen or twenty, a flashing snake making it’s way towards the Aurora Century 16 Theater.
I drove with one hand, the other covering my mouth as though I could hold in the whimpers that kept escaping. The girls were mostly silent, their minds trying without success to process all that they had seen and heard. In my hysteria, I thought of the gruesome irony: this night which was supposed to be a bright spot in our mother-daughter relationship had become the darkest night we could ever have fathomed.