Six months ago, at 11:20 p.m. on November 7, 2018, a troubled young man armed with a .45 semiautomatic pistol entered the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, California, unloaded more than 60 rounds of ammunition, slaughtered 12 innocent souls, and changed eastern Ventura County forever.
Because of my work in media, and because I somewhat specialize in Second Amendment issues, I’m quite familiar with how social media reacts when there is a shooting anywhere. I was quite unfamiliar, though, with how it felt to see these posts in my feed when the shooting took place in my community and at a place my friends and I frequented. As I referenced in a breaking news post that night (which I was able to write because I was still in shock), I went dancing at Borderline a few times a year, but a group of my friends went nearly every Thursday night.
Seeing these detached political posts from people thousands of miles away filled me with rage. I had Twitter open on one tab and Facebook on another. Looking back, I think I tried to keep my “writer” hat on for a while as a way to protect myself from pain. But then on Facebook I saw posts like this one from my colleague David Spady:
“Prayers needed for the kids and families at Borderline in Thousand Oaks. My son Tyler was shot at but not hit and is okay, several people were hit. Tyler ran to a house down the street and a family let him in – he is still there.”
Or a post from a church friend:
“Never want to get that call at 11:30 PM… What a long night it’s been. My daughter…and her friend…dance every Wednesday evening at the Borderline.
“They were one of the first out and are shaken up but safe. So thankful for those tender little mercies and blessings that come to us every day.
“You never think this will happen in your town.”
Or a post from a high school friend, Chanda, which essentially said (it’s since been deleted):
“Please pray for our Calvary Church family. One of our youth pastors, Noel, headed out to Borderline to dance after Wednesday night church. We can’t get in touch with her. We’re sure she will be okay, but we’re worried sick.”
Later that day we learned that Noel [Sparks] had been murdered by the gunman, and that Chanda was faced with the task of explaining to her young daughters why Miss Noel would never again sing “This Little Light of Mine” or “Jesus Loves Me “with them at church.
Politics had never been further from my mind. The thought of anything political turned my stomach.
Indeed, these are the times that try men’s souls. And when they do, we retreat to the people and places we know the best. In that spirit, I invited a lifelong friend, Bernadine, to go to with me to the vigil. We’d heard about a brush fire on the other side of town (which eventually became the devastating Woolsey Fire) but since we’d been through fires our entire lives and had never been evacuated, we figured we were safe.
Bernadine and I are both work-from-home single moms and didn’t have time to go buy flowers, so I cut roses from my garden and Bernadine brought battery-operated candles (no one wants ACTUAL flames during Santa Ana winds) and off we went. It took an entire hour to drive the five miles to the civic center.
We could only get into the overflow. Sitting on the floor, watching a live stream, we heard our outgoing Sheriff Geoff Dean (this occurred during his LAST shift) honor his friend, slain Deputy Ron Helus, and ask that “we reach out, we hold the hands of everyone in our community, and come together to move forward and overcome evil with good.”
As he finished, the people next to us asked if two girls who’d just arrived at the vigil could squish between us. The girls had been at Borderline during the shooting, they said, and had lost friends in the carnage. We quickly said yes, and the girls – still wearing hospital wristbands – sat next to us.
After Sheriff Dean’s speech the soloist started singing “Amazing Grace,” and the entire audience stood, turned on their battery-operated candles, and sang along. The girls next to us looked at each other with a panicked look on their faces, realizing they didn’t have candles. Before they could say a word, Bernadine and I gave our candles to them. They were overcome with emotion as we all sang – and wept – together.
Bernadine and I couldn’t hold back our tears either, our maternal instincts kicking in. We wanted to take away the pain somehow. My mind was racing, wondering what I could say or do that could possibly bring some kind of love or compassion to these young girls, who still have so much of life before them.
In what I can only describe as a gift of the spirit, I was given the words to say to the girl as the song ended. I approached one girl, held out the roses, and said, choking back tears, “Here. These are for you. After everything ugly you’ve seen today, I wanted you to have something beautiful to remember about this day.”
The four of us, who had never met before, embraced each other and wept. We told the girls we loved them and that we would all get through this together. I wept for their pain, for their lost innocence, and for the loss of their friends.
I don’t know the girls’ names, and I don’t know where they are today or how they are doing. Wherever they are, I hope they know that our
#ThousandOaksStrong community is still here to love them through the pain. I wish there was a happy, simple ending to this remembrance, but there’s not – only the knowledge that eventually love overcomes pain.