In the middle of the night on June 13, 2016, I couldn’t sleep.
Many nights I can’t sleep. In fact, I often get my best editing work done while the world around me is quiet. But this particular night I was overcome with a feeling of anxiety; from where, I could not identify. After lying in bed and staring at the ceiling for a while, I picked up my iPhone and decided to browse Instagram. In my explore feed popped a photo of a young man with blonde hair and a gentle smile. The caption explained that he had gone missing in Orlando and had possibly been at the Pulse nightclub the night before. If anybody knew of his whereabouts, they were asked to leave a comment.
I didn’t know anything about him. And because I avoid the news, I didn’t know anything about Pulse or the mass shooting that had just taken place. But for some reason, I felt immediately connected to him. I found his personal Instagram account and wrote a simple comment under one of his photos.
Within a few minutes, a frantic direct message appeared on my account from a woman who said she was his godmother. Seeing my comment, she must have assumed I was one of his friends and she asked if I knew anything about where he was. She was desperate for information and unfortunately, I had none to offer. I tried to put it out of my mind, hoping for the best. But at 2:43am, a message came in that I will never forget.
Despite the fact that I didn’t know her…nor did I know her godson…I started to uncontrollably sob and shake. By now, I had found some of the news stories online describing the event as the deadliest mass shooting in United States history. And the majority of the victims were gay men. I was in disbelief. And as I direct messaged this stranger in the middle of the night...a stranger that knew and loved one of the victims with all of her heart...I could no longer remain oblivious to what was happening. I cried myself to sleep...and kept on crying for the next several days. It had taken place miles and miles away, but it felt more personal than any other act of terror I had ever witnessed via the media in my 33 years.
Well. Almost 33. You see, this happened just before my 33rd birthday. And two days later as I received message after message from loving family and friends wishing me a wonderful day, I couldn’t help but think of the 49 souls that would never celebrate a birthday again. And by now, I knew the name of the blonde stranger who I would never have the chance to look in the eye: Jean Carlos Mendez Perez.
Days passed and news stories covering the aftermath flooded my social media feed. And as my boyfriend and I took a road trip down to Disney World, I felt nothing but humbled to have the luxury of more time with him-the luxury of possibility. Jean Carlos had been at Pulse with his boyfriend of nine years, a commitment so rare in the young gay community. Together, they had perished. And for something incredibly greater than them. Human beings have a long history of not learning a lesson until we are beaten over the head with it and that day in June, I believe we all woke up. But it came at a price.
As our Disney trip ended, I dropped my boyfriend off at the airport (he lives in Denver, where I will be relocating to soon) and got back on the road. But not back to Maryland. I needed to first pay my respects to the 49 beautiful and courageous souls and their families while I was still in Orlando.
When you drive on the street where Pulse is located, it looks like any other street in Florida. If I had ever walked in front of the nightclub before the events that occurred, I would have never in a million years imagined it to one day be the center of the world’s attention. And just a mere two weeks after the shooting, you could almost imagine that the neighborhood had moved on, or that everything had just been a dream.
Until you walk up to Pulse.
The nightclub, itself is encircled with a tarp-covered fence. And on and beneath that fence are hundreds and hundreds of cards, signs, candles and flowers for those that lost their lives. Walking around, there was almost an eerily loud silence…one I haven’t heard since visiting Ground Zero in NYC years ago. People of all ages filtered in to pay their respects. And no matter how long I stayed, the feeling of shock remained palpable throughout the air.
Although the fence was covered, there was one small hole where visitors were peeking through to see the progress of the crime scene clean up. As it turned out, that was the day the furniture was being removed.
The furniture that many of the victims had comfortably sat on moments before their night turned upside-down.
As I slowly read many of the notes, some to victims, some to the government and NRA, I came across a familiar name.
It was Jean Carlos. Or as his family and friends called him, Jeanky. I stared at the names of Jeanky and his boyfriend Luis Daniel with tears in my eyes. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award acceptance speech from the night of the shooting echoed in my head…
…and I thought to myself, “Why???? Why does this have to happen?!!! I just will never understand.”
But the truth is, it happened. It’s done. So “why” is not really a valuable question, anymore. Nor is, “when will the world put a stop to this?”. Instead, it starts with each of us. It starts with me. It starts with you.
One of my all time favorite authors is Byron Katie. She teaches us that there are three kinds of business in the world: mine, yours and God's (the God of your understanding). When you mentally leave your own business, you suffer. But only 100 percent of the time. So I don’t know what the rest of the world will do about this and it's a waste of energy to focus on. I know that it starts with me. I know that I must be the change I wish to see in the world.
I have never picked up a gun, let alone fire one. And maybe you haven’t, either. But how many people get angry enough at strangers in the news that they pick up a gun in their imagination and wish the person dead? You may think this is completely different from actually killing somebody and an unfair comparison. You could be right. And yet from what I can gather, the man who took 49 lives at a nightclub in June started by doing just that: imagining what it would be like to kill. To end somebody's life. To forever rob them of a pulse.
That’s the funny thing about dreams…sometimes they come true.
On the rare occasion that I think about the killer, I tune out hatred. Hating him doesn’t solve anything. It doesn’t bring back the 49 lost. And it certainly doesn’t punish him, because he is dead. I choose to see him as somebody who was very, very unstable and confused…confused enough to think that darkness was the only path to walk on. When I feel anger towards him…or anyone else who has taken the innocent life of somebody…I do my best to transcend that anger and turn it into productive and compassionate action. You don’t have to be angry or foaming at the mouth to start and sign a petition…or to protest peacefully outside a government building…or vote for the individuals that support what you believe in. You CAN make change…big change…by remaining peaceful.
By being what you wish the Pulse shooter had been all along.
I don’t know why this happened. And I’ve realized that the only thing that remains my business is what I will choose to think and do in my everyday life to contribute to peace on the planet. I think if the victims could talk, they would all remind us that no matter what, love always wins. It is so important to focus on the solution, rather than the problem. And if we do so leading with our hearts rather than our egos, real change is truly possible.
Before I headed back to my car, I noticed that somebody had left a Sharpie pen in the grass for people to leave their written sentiments on the pavement. Picking up the pen, I took one last look at where Jeanky and all the others had last stood...
...and said goodbye to him.
As I write this, it is Jeanky's birthday. He would have been 36 today. And as much as I want to sit here and cry for him...and for his family...in my heart, I know that he is ok. He is no longer in pain. He is at peace with his beautiful boyfriend. He is waiting for you and me to make the most of our precious lives; to be committed to making this world a safer and happier place. And I know that I will one day have the great honor of meeting him, when it is my time to make the journey back home. Until then, I hope that he and the rest of the courageous men and women from Orlando...wherever they are and to whatever music they can hear...keep on dancing.