Two Years Later: Processing the PULSE Nightclub Shooting

There is so much material online about the PULSE nightclub shooting on June 12, 2016. I can’t possibly do a better job of honoring the victims—both living and dead—of the massacre. But I can share with you the weight of it, the heft, the residual dread and anxiety, that this anniversary stirs up for someone who wasn’t there and didn’t know anyone who was hurt or killed.

But I know a lot of people who do. And I watched with them as the day unfolded and the horror became known and real.

On Sunday morning, June 12, 2016, I was on my way to “work” as Music & Production Director at Christ Church Unity Orlando. As my husband Dave and I jetted down I-4 to get to church, we saw myriad helicopters over the south Downtown area. “Oh no,” I thought. “Helicopters are never good.”

This was the scene at PULSE for many days after the shooting.

This was the scene at PULSE for many days after the shooting.

At church, we started our usual 7:15am sound check and rehearsal. I wondered why some of our Audio/Visual team were late, but put that on the back burner and went on with rehearsal. My sound guy that day, who is a leader of the first responders in the next county over, mentioned that he might have to go. “Sure,” I said, not really connecting the dots just yet. My head was still in the music; I had forgotten the helicopters. I didn’t inquire further, chalking it up to the expected-unexpected that comes with his job. He soon left. 

Another of my A/V guys showed up an hour late; wanting to check in and maybe give him a little good-humored crap about being late, I said something moronic like, “Hey! I’m glad you’re finally here!” He looked at me a little blankly and I knew something was very wrong.

“Do you know what happened?” he asked.

I didn’t want to know. I wanted to freeze that moment in time; to keep the knowledge from myself. I wanted to bury my head in the sand, to wrap myself in a cocoon of denial and innocence.

“There was a shooting at PULSE.”

Rudolfo Ayala Ayala. Images from Orlando Sentinel's One-Year Anniversary Documentary.

Rudolfo Ayala Ayala. Images from Orlando Sentinel's One-Year Anniversary Documentary.

I’ve never been to PULSE, but I spent plenty of time hanging out at gay bars with my friend and roommate Bobby in college. I was instantly back there in my fun-loving early twenties, dancing and drinking and careless and free. Crazy lights, loud music, laughter. The energy of youth, of lives yet to be lived.

A cold surge went through me.

We started our first service at 9a.m. It was odd and awkward to be on stage leading celebration songs while knowing that people were dead in a nightclub a mile or two from the church. The minister acknowledged to the congregation what was going on. For some, it was news. For others, confirmation. At that point, the death toll was twelve; not because people were still dying. Just because they hadn’t all been counted yet. Twelve was bad enough. We prayed. We sang. We kept going.

In the break between services, the death toll rose. Our anxiety and fear rose with it.

My church is diverse and affirming. It’s not a gay church, or a straight church, or a black church, or a white church. It’s a church full of souls who love and live and hurt and heal. Some of us are gay, some are straight, some are black, some are white, some are Latino. It’s a picture of the Kingdom of God.

By the time the 11:00am service rolled around, congregants were quietly stunned; thick-headed with shock.

“I was supposed to work there last night,” one of my singers told me. “I called in sick.” 

Antonio Davon Brown

Antonio Davon Brown

The magnitude of the event was becoming known. As I type this, my stomach seizes up; I feel sick. At the time, though, my crisis calm took over. We had the second service. We changed the music. We talked about what had happened even though we didn’t quite know yet what it was. All we knew was that people were dead and the next report we got was worse than the last. We talked about resiliency and not losing hope. We were all in two places at once; our bodies were in the sanctuary and our spirits were right down the road.

Nobody knows what to do when this happens. Everybody plays one little tiny part and it brings movement to the whole. First responders responded. Ministers prayed and hugged and wept. Strangers gave blood. Reporters reported. I put together a memorial service. I changed our online streaming service to something more reliable. I typed all the names, one by one, onto slides for the memorial service presentation. I typed…and typed…and typed. The names just kept coming. All those letters…all those lives. I made a film to show at the service. I sang John Lennon’s “Imagine” and everyone joined in, ignoring the gnawing in our guts to let our hearts lift and hope.  We all play our little parts and somehow, we shape the aftermath.

PULSE Memorial at Christ Church Unity Orlando

The massacre changed everything here in Orlando. It created a sense of family that hadn’t been here before. We were heartbroken and hopeful. Love poured out to all. And still there was the grief—heavy, thick, choking grief—and the inability to understand on any level how a thing like this was possible. We increased security, had active shooter drills, learned “RUN, HIDE, FIGHT.” I instructed my band what to do if someone entered our church and started shooting. I jumped at every sound outside my classroom door. 

My words seem feeble. I am unable to convey the cognitive dissonance that continued for days, weeks…months. At three month out, we began to understand that this would be our focus for a long time. At six months out, we began to understnad that this weight wouldn’t pass quickly, and began to look at each other and wonder why we were all still in a daze. A year out, we had another memorial service that was filled with hope and catharsis and tears.

Jerald Arthur Wright

Jerald Arthur Wright

Today, we are two years out.

Though I drive by it frequently, I still haven’t been to the site of the shooting. The onePULSE Foundation has created a lovely Interim Memorial but I just can’t go there yet. I am lucky. I have the choice to shut it out when I want to. Countless others had their lives taken that night, even if they are still living now. The lawsuits have started; my first reaction was to be frustrated at the ugliness that this inevitably brings out, but then I realized that it’s taken this long for families and friends of the wounded and dead just to get to the “angy” phase of grief. How many more years of struggle lie before them? Will “acceptance” ever come?

Jean Carlo Méndez Pérez

Jean Carlo Méndez Pérez

Yet throughout this processing, this learning to live in a world that’s fundamentally changed, there is a golden thread of enduring hope. In Orlando, there remains hope that light will drive out darkness, that the good in mankind will prevail. There is a deeper sense that we are all one, and with that understanding comes compassion and patience. We understand on a deeper level that “love is love is love is love…”. We watch as other cities join us in this terrible mass casualty club and extend our spirits and hearts and help to them in every way we can.

I’ll leave the rest of this post to Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote a sonnet for Orlando hours after the PULSE shooting:

We chase the melodies which seem to find us

Until they’re finished songs and start to play

When senseless acts of tragedy remind us

That nothing here is promised—not one day.

This show is proof that history remembers:

We live through times when hate and fear seem stronger.

We rise and fall and light from dying embers

Rememberances that hope and love last longer.

And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love,

Cannot be killed or swept aside

As sacred as a ymphony, Eliza tells her story.

Now fill the world with music, love and pride

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