In Their Own Words: Jennifer W. Spirko

Witnesses write about the horror and the heroes of the TVUUC shooting—and what came after

On July 27, Knoxville joined a short roster of cities synonymous with sudden, inexplicable violence: Columbine, Blacksburg, Omaha. The shooting of congregants at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church went beyond a nightmarish crime; it's become another sign of the times, reported around the world as a new example of what America has become. But there were many stories that day, and they ought to be told by the people who were there. Here is one of them. Read more essays and Metro Pulse coverage.

Jennifer W. Spirko

It has been a week since the world changed for us. I was in the TVUUC sanctuary during the shooting, along with my husband and 4-year-old son; my daughter was in the play they were to perform that day. Looking back, I remember a series of impressions that only make a narrative when I piece them together: My son's terrified face under a church pew. My daughter, who was to play the butler in the disrupted play, sobbing in her miniature tuxedo, her stage-mustache smeared. My father walking past me, a little blood on his cheek. An eruption of booming noise. The searing, acrid smell of gunpowder.

The sound and stench were the most vivid in the moment, as was my very sincere conviction, as I covered my screaming son with my body, that we were going to die. It was the most horrible sensation of my life.

When I returned to the sanctuary to look for my injured father, the visuals got more confused, and more disturbing. I saw a friend sitting immobile, her eyes staring whitely from her blood-soaked face. I saw a puddle of blood on the floor so large I had to step around it. I saw the police on a prone man, and a floor littered with shotgun shells.

It hit me later that morning that, with my parents, mother-in-law, and best friend visiting the church, along with my immediate family, just about everyone I loved best in the world had been inside that building.

My father was shot in the eye, and the doctors say he will lose it. My friend was shot in the head and neck, but she has begun to walk and talk again, to recognize her family, even to talk about work. Their healing will be difficult, but it has begun.

The rest of us have good days and bad ones. Unexplain-ed moods. Mysterious stomach pains. Weird dreams. Unexpected terrors. The counselors tell us this is all to be expected, that it could go on for months. Mostly, we do just fine, until the power flickers off, as it did Monday, and my kids scream hysterically. At a seminar this weekend, a man introduced his topic by yelling it from the back of the room. Meant as a jovial attention-getter, his shouts terrified me for long moments and left me shaking. Sometimes we're not just fine.

A few days ago, a 6-year-old girl told me and my son matter-of-factly about hiding under a pew: "There was a woman who was dead, and she had blood coming out." I was not fine; I was shaking, a hand crammed over my mouth to keep from upsetting these kids for whom the world is so concrete.

Set against that, the many, many examples of love I've seen in the past week. Strangers have sent supportive cards, e-mails and blog posts. Friends both recent and remote have gotten in touch to share their support, their good wishes and, yes, their prayers. I think of the people at the candlelight service who came out in a storm to show their love. I think of the churches and businesses who have shown up with food. I think of the beautiful paper cranes from Webb School. I think of all those sincere hugs from friends, acquaintances, and strangers. The balance almost shifted toward hate last Sunday, but I have seen evidence that tips it toward love. I will carry the fear and horror of that day forever, but I don't have to be ruled by it.

I refuse to despair. I remember all those shells on the floor, and I think we are pretty lucky. But still, the world is different now than it was. I am different.

Jennifer Spirko, Thesis/Dissertation Consultant in the University of Tennessee Graduate School, is a Blount County native; she lives with her husband, Rob (see "An Uncertain Ritual") and their two children outside Maryville.