Traveling for a month interviewing survivors of gun violence is heart-rending. It means immersing myself in people’s pain and, on this trip, in the terrible grief of parents mourning the loss of their children.
Since early April, I’ve talked with people from many paths of life, from inner-city moms in Charleston, South Carolina, to young adults in Orlando, to parents in gated communities of Parkland and colonial clapboard homes in Connecticut.
On the road, I stayed with friends from various times of my life. Best idea ever.
After a dozen interviews in Charleston and Orlando, I visited my friend Mandy in Vero Beach, Florida. We talked about books and writing, and went to the movies. I dove into the Atlantic. She and her husband took me up the river on their large, pristine boat — teaching me the challenges of docking. She took me to a tiny coffee shop, and one night we dined at their country club. While doing laps in the pool, my mind conjured up survivors I’d met.
Then on to interviews about the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. Hard to be next to the depth of those parents’ losses. Afterward, I stayed with Hope, a family friend in Miami. We walked her dogs, swam, caught up on our families (our mothers, mine 92, hers 90, have been in the same book club for 60-plus years and live in the same retirement community) and talked work, relationships and mothering. I spent a sliver of time with her three grown children, and she took me to dinner at her sailing club. While Hope and I were not close friends as kids, after this visit I believe we are now.
Next stop, Connecticut and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. I interviewed parents whose children were shot dead at 6 or 7 years old. Excruciating. I stayed with Judy, a college friend from our freshman dorm. Though we had barely stayed in touch, we fell back into easy conversations. It was good to witness her life. We went into “the city” to meet another college buddy. Judy and her husband took me out to their yacht club. (Emerging theme!) At dinner, her friends and I swapped stories of our young-adult children. I silently mourned for the parents who will never have such conversations about their little ones, murdered.
On the spur of the moment, I called my sister in New York. We took a walk and talk through Central Park, and sipped cappuccinos. Seeing Kath, albeit briefly, was an extra treat.
One more interview — totaling 25 — and my reporting was done. I traveled north on Amtrak’s Vermonter. In tiny Corinth, Vermont, I’m staying with a former roommate from my Santa Fe days, some 40 years ago. Mary and her husband Steve are both writers, and we write every morning. In Santa Fe, she and I used to pound on our typewriters, trading paragraphs at night.
During these Vermont evenings, delightfully with no cellphone service, we share delicious meals, wine flows, and we talk politics, books and movies. Conversations go deep and wide. We hilariously attempt to recall the timeline of our overlapping New Mexico years; Steve finally creates a chart. We laugh, and laugh some more. We phone another former roommate — he gives us input for our chart! One night I present my project, and they respond with 90 minutes of comments, suggestions and questions — a gift. I felt like I’d been at a writers retreat. I suppose I had.
No yacht or country club here in the woods, but from homemade cookies to reminiscing about our past capers, I was renewed. I met Mary as I slipped into adulthood. She became my role model on how to embrace life (a cookie with morning coffee, then and now) and a dear friend. Four decades later in her Vermont home in the forest, I discover she still is.
Mixing tragic yet compelling reporting with the support, love and laughter of friends: good way to go.