I was staring out a rainy cab window when the phone rang on Saturday morning. It was my best friend who’s still living in Pittsburgh.
“Hey, I was just checking in to see if you and your family were all okay,” she said with exaggerated calmness. “What? Yeah, why?” I asked. “Oh, there’s an active shooter in Squirrel Hill right now. You should probably call your parents.” Those words knocked the wind knocked out of me.
It was Oct. 27. That morning, a 46-year-old man named Robert D. Bowers entered Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue with an AR-15 style assault rifle and killed least 11 congregants while shouting anti-Semitic slurs.
As an American, I’m used to news reports about mass shootings. But none ever happened so close to home. I know the Tree of Life synagogue well. I’ve walked by it countless times and was inside it for bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings and funerals.
I was terrified in a way I’d never felt before.
I’ve mourned for the victims of mass shootings before, simply because I’m human and shootings are always tragedies. But I’ve never felt panic and fear like that in my entire life. I made phone calls with tears streaming from my eyes. When the friend with me in the cab asked if I was ok I could hardly speak. “I don’t know,” I said and burst into tears in his arms.
Other mass shootings and tragedies have pushed the Steel City out of the headlines. But Pittsburgh still feels like it’s carrying a heavy heart. As a fellow Pittsburgher, I feel like I have to say some words.
The tragedies really started to hit home after the death of Mac Miller, or as I knew him, Malcolm McCormick. We weren’t close, but we had mutual friends and I often saw him at parties and teen hangout spots. It was painful to see Facebook statuses of friends reminiscing about times with Malcolm, but it was comforting to see all the support from my fellow Pittsburgh friends.
With my heart already saddened for the friends and family of a fellow Pittsburgher, the shooting happened at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill—the neighborhood Malcolm grew up in and where my friends and I used to hang out.
A week later I went to visit my brokenhearted hometown.
My dad jokingly called it the “Depression Tour” as we piled into the car to pay our respects to the victims of the shooting and to Malcolm.
It was freezing, but a line of mourners were embracing each other and tearing up by the synagogue. My family and I silently walked by the memorial. A prayer book was pushed over by the wind and hit my foot. Inside were prayers and blessings written by children with crayon—oddly enough, it wasn’t sad to read.
The children wrote about envisioning a world with peace and harmony. I held back tears, but it was beautiful to see people so close to tragedy looking for a brighter future together. The shooter hadn’t left any scars of hatred. There were signs made by Muslims, Christians, military persons and people from all over the world.
Next we went to Blue Slide park, where we all used to hang out, but also made famous by Mac Miller’s hit debut album Blue Slide Park. Though the makeshift memorial was gone, stickers that read “Mac” still lined the pole of the blue slide and children were still happily sliding down and the air was filled with laughter. I made sure to get my turn down the slide and while my friend and I rushed down the blue slide, I felt nothing but happiness surrounding me.
Something I recently read in Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull reminded me of Pittsburgh and how the city is dealing with all its recent tragedy.
“I don’t understand how you manage to love a mob of birds that has just tried to kill you.”
“Oh, Fletch, you don’t love that! You don’t love hatred and evil, of course. You have to practice and see the real gull, the good in every one of them, and to help them see it in themselves. That’s what I mean by love.”
I love you Pittsburgh. And all I have to say now is: go Steelers.