A little over two weeks ago, we got a text from my son Jack, who's away at college for his freshman year. He sent it to our family's group text, which includes his older brother (also away at college), his younger sister (who's in high school), and Tom and me.
The text trail is long, but here's the portion that made my blood run cold:
8:16 p.m. -- "We barricaded the doors."
8:27 p.m. -- "Reports say they are moving toward our building."
8:28 p.m. -- "Hiding under tables."
8:29 p.m. -- "Will let you know once it's done."
When I saw those words on my phone screen, I knew one thing for certain. The only thing scarier than getting texts like these would be not getting texts at all. Our son was hiding from an active shooter. Those three little texting dots were our lifeline – an electronic chain holding us all together.
Michigan State University was attacked Feb. 13. Our son was in a classroom with 15 other students when it happened. Everyone was ordered to shelter in place.
That's what his group did for the next three hours. Trapped in a classroom that didn't lock, they piled the heaviest furniture they could find to block the door. They turned out the lights, silenced their phones. They crouched under tables and texted their families.
Dot, dot, dot. Proof of life.
CNN began broadcasting hourly press conferences from the Michigan State University police. We hung on each word and texted our son the most accurate updates we could get. We sent him a photo of the suspected shooter. We begged him to stay put, not to take any chances.
We would've texted him all night. But after more than three hours, we got the news we needed. The shooter had been caught. Police said he shot and killed himself as they approached.
"Thank God," we said, letting out the breath we didn't realize we'd been holding. "It's over."
But it wasn't over for three families whose kids weren't able to send an "I'm OK" text. Arielle, Brian and Alexandria had already been killed.
These were good kids -- amazing students doing good things with their lives. They did nothing wrong. But now their families are forever changed.
Five other students were shot that night and rushed to the hospital in critical condition. We're still praying for their recovery. Their bodies and minds will bear this trauma for decades to come.
This kind of horror is not over for any of us. Deep down, we all know the next report is coming. It's just a matter of when and where and how many. It's a sick reality our society has not yet found a way to alter.
I won't get into the gun debate here but count me as one of the many Americans who believe we'll always have guns in our country and that we desperately need more commonsense measures to reduce gun violence. (One of the best discussions I've read on this subject is titled "A Smarter Way to Reduce Gun Deaths," written by Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times on Feb. 15.)
After our 18-year-old son was allowed to leave his hiding place, he went back to his dorm to find local parents already swooping in to take their kids home. We wanted to fly Jack home, too, but we left the decision up to him. He said the thought of crowded airports didn't feel safe yet. His roommate invited him to go to his family home about an hour away from campus, so that's where they went.
On Feb. 20, MSU classes resumed. But it won't be "normal" any time soon. These kids have been too close to the eye of the storm. They've seen and felt the damage left behind. They'll never again have the luxury of assuming it won't happen to them.
Take a minute to text your people today. Say what you need to say. This world is so often a broken place of random hate. It needs all the love it can get.
Gwen Rockwood is a syndicated freelance columnist. Email her at [email protected] Her book is available on Amazon.