Throughout most of the month of October in 2002, I, like most of the people living in the greater DC metro area, battled fear. Now, fear is not necessarily a bad thing and because of how fragile life is, it's somewhat of a given for most of us. Those of us who claim to have "no fear" are either lying or lacking the thinking abilities necessary to produce it.
I don't know when I first heard about the DC sniper, but I know when I first became afraid. It was the morning I'd heard he shot a middle school student. That made no sense to me. I think we'd all been looking for a pattern or a motive and this was when we realized there was none. We were dealing with a mad man who showed no regard for human life. I didn't take my three year old son, Sam, to preschool that day. Instead, we holed up at home, and watched too much TV. Fear won that day.
Soon after, I told my husband John that if he had to get gas, it was to be in the morning, at the gas station on the corner. I also told him to get in the car while the gas was pumping, and to hurry. I chose this station because there were no quick getaways, and it wasn’t on a major highway. In fact, throughout most of the ordeal I had convinced myself that our smaller town was far enough from the beltway that we were relatively safe.
I decided it would be okay for me to take Sam back to preschool. I never even got close to Michael's or Home Depot, but I figured I would be alright going to the grocery store. Mostly, I tried not to think about it. And I tried not to watch the news.
I’m not normally a big news watcher, but during this time I felt like I needed to know what was going on. So, I’d tune in for what was only supposed to be a few minutes. That never worked. They sucked me in. An hour later, I had no more knowledge, but a lot more fear.
The news made me more afraid. They can never report without exaggeration and although there is no exaggeration for senseless shooting, there should have been a time at the end of the story where the reporters told how many people were still alive and safe that day. They should have avoided graphics with sirens and background music you'd hear during a Wes Craven film.
One night before going to bed, I heard a man had been shot at a Ponderosa parking lot -- the shot came from the trees. The next day I watched as they showed us where they thought he'd been hiding out, waiting for the easiest target. Then of course, he’d made another quick getaway. I was sufficiently terrorized. People were being hunted like deer, from a stand in the woods. Just when we're most vulnerable and can't see any danger, Boom! We're taken out from behind.
That day I talked with a friend who'd had to go to Target. She carried both of her two year old twins and ran zigzagging through the parking lot, as she'd heard on the news that this was one way to be a less likely target. Some of our friends laughed when she told this story, but I could imagine myself doing the exact same thing.
Another evening, when John had gone to a meeting at church, I heard Sam scream in fear and pain. I was on the bottom level of our townhouse and ran up the stairs as fast as humanly possible, for a woman who was seven months pregnant. My first thought was "No, not in my house!"
When I made it to the second floor I couldn't find Sam. I heard his continued shrieking as I looked up the stairwell to the third floor, but couldn't see him. After what seemed like an eternity I saw the top of his head, lodged between the couchside table and the wall.
I managed to pull him out by the arms and asked if he'd fallen off the stairs into that small space. He said no. Apparently, he'd simply crawled back there and gotten stuck. Sam turned out to be just fine. He escaped with only a scraped cheek, and a new fear of small spaces.
After I hugged him and we calmed down, I started crying. All the fright I'd been trying to hold inside came rushing out. The emptiness it left was soon filled by a new feeling, anger. I hated this person, this animal, who made me scared to be alone in my own house.
Tuesday morning I awoke to a beautiful fall day in Maryland. I'd been really nesting the week before and was dying to go out and look at baby bedding. But I was really scared. I’d just found at the wounded bus driver, who’d been in critical condition, didn’t make it. I cried for the family he left behind, but I decided I could stay in no longer.
As we were driving to Kohl's, I summoned up courage in a rather strange way. I had recently come to the conclusion that I was the most vulnerable when I was getting Sam out of his car seat. I had tried unlocking his belt before I actually got out of the car, but you can imagine how uncomfortable it was to turn around from the front seat with my growing belly. I could not come up with any other options, so I was forced to imagine myself getting shot in the rear end as I bent over to get him out. I laughed at that. I know it's weird. But I thought to myself, if the jerk shoots me in the rear end, won't that be funny?
Well, Sam behaved himself in both Kohl's and Babies 'R' Us, so I was forced to keep the deal I'd made with him: "First we’ll go to the stores Mommy needs to go to and if you’re good, we’ll go to the park."
I searched the wooded area surrounding the park as much as possible before I put the car in park and turned off the engine. I was racking my brains to think of a scheme to get out of this. I finally decided that we had to get out of the car. Sam had spent so much time indoors and how many nice days would we have left this year? I tried to remind myself that I believed I’d be going to heaven, and it was better that the sniper take me out than someone who didn’t know Jesus.
We walked down the trail to the park. We made it safely. Sam played for about 30 minutes and we were perfectly fine, but I could not wait to get out of there.
On the way home I listened to a worship album and, though I’m not much of a “hand-raiser,” I found my hands in the air at the last stoplight before home. But, it wasn't exactly like my heart was filled with love and admiration. It was more like a command. God said, "I know you’re afraid, but I'm still God and I still deserve to be worshipped."
Wednesday morning at my women's small group our conversation returned again and again to the situation at hand. I told them about my trip to the park and tried to encourage them to keep on living normal lives. I didn't really believe it until later on, when we prayed together. Something like this came out of my mouth, "God, there doesn't have to be a sniper for us to not know when we're going to die . . . you're in control of that, not us."
I left there truly feeling like I could win the battle against fear. "God has not given us the spirit of fear," I told myself. I really felt victorious. Thursday morning I praised God when I turned on the TV. I knew our prayers had been answered.
Four days later, I attended a funeral for our friend Rico’s stepfather. He was murdered by a robber on Friday, the day after the snipers were captured. Rico and his wife Janis were in our nighttime small group. I read her Blog the week before, when she had written about her fear of the sniper.
I can’t describe the surreal feeling I had when I heard about this killing. You see, I had stopped being afraid on Friday. We took Sam to the movies that night and I felt so safe, almost like I was celebrating our freedom.
It wasn’t until Saturday afternoon that I heard about Rico's stepfather. In my mind, I know I’ll never be able to separate the events of the sniper from the tragedy of our friends.
On the surface the thing that binds them together is timing, but on a deeper level I think it’s that shock of the unexpected. Death comes whether we're afraid of it or not. It comes when we don't expect it and even when we do expect it, it still hurts. I believe that the grave does not have victory. But I’ve seen that, here on earth, death still has its sting.
I’ve prayed for comfort and peace for my friends as well as the unknown neighbors who suffered because of the sniper. There's really nothing else I can offer. There are no answers to their questions. There is only the assurance that we should live and love – and we should fight fear.
I don’t want to live the rest of my life hiding out. It’s useless because there’s no way to be safe from everything.
I learned from this experience that hiding does nothing to foster strength and bravery. Instead, bravery is found in truly living life, not merely escaping death. I find I’m braver when I take my son to school, when I go to the movies, or play at the park. And my strength is found when, no matter what’s going on, I worship the God who loves me.