It was innocent enough; I was checking out at the local market with a few things I needed for the special dinner I would prepare that evening. It was my daughter-in-law’s birthday and it gave my family a reason to celebrate.
Waiting until I was called forward, I placed my items on the conveyor belt and inched towards the register to pay. That’s when I asked the checker how he was doing and he answered, “Well, I don’t know…”
His words hung in the air for what seemed like minutes before he spoke again. We were both wearing our masks so communicating through facial expressions was limited to our eyes meeting in an awkward stare.
“I’m graduating, I’m supposed to be graduating in a few weeks.”
“That’s wonderful. Which high school?”
I realized my blunder the moment the words hit the air. I go back and forth between my two cities — Santa Barbara and Santa Clarita in California — and many times I forget where I am on a particular day. Today I was in Santa Clarita and down the street from the high school where we experienced the mass shooting on November 14th, 2019.
I was immediately overwhelmed with emotion. My thoughts ricocheted off the inner walls of my brain and I struggled to find the right thing to say. I told myself to hurry and as I glanced to my left to see if anyone was in line behind me — no one was — and I said,
“I’m so sorry about what happened. You have been through more this school year than anyone should have to bear. The shooting. And now the pandemic.” I scanned the front of his apron for his name tag so I could address this young man by name.
His eyes welled up as he put my can of pumpkin into the last bag. “Clunk” was the sound as it hit the can of French style green beans already at the bottom of the brown paper sack.
“But you will gain strength from this, Aaron. You will be able to achieve anything in your life because of what you’ve experienced.”
“And Dominic was my friend.” His words trailed off, leaving a vacuum in the space between us, Aaron behind the register and me on the other side of the counter.
He was referring to Dominic Blackwell, one of the two students killed on that fateful morning six months ago. Now I realized it was six month ago to the day. Dominic, a boy filled with hopes and dreams and goals, struck down on his fourteenth birthday.
At a memorial service ten days later his grandfather would say this about this boy who lost his life due to senseless gun violence:
“Where do I even start with this kid?” Dominic’s grandfather, Gene Hall, said in a memorial talk to those gathered. “He was his grandmother’s shadow and his aunt Angie’s little goober. He was his mom’s peanut. He was a kid with an infectious laugh, a bright smile, and a kind heart,” Hall said.
“But don’t get it twisted,” he said, smiling and standing between two large photos of his grandson. “He was also snarky. He was sarcastic. He couldn’t keep his room clean to save his life.”
He said holidays and other special occasions for his family will no doubt be accompanied by the void Blackwell leaves behind.
“In the weeks and months to come, there will be many firsts: The first family trip without Dominic; the first family photo without Dominic, the first family celebration; September 11th and November 14 will be especially painful for the family each year they roll around,” the grandfather said.
It was a deadly 16 second attack that killed two and wounded three others. The shooter used what is known as a “ghost” gun, most likely one of a collection of guns purchased by his father years before. The father had died a year earlier, leaving him grieving in silence. This event shattered the innocence of two thousand high school students, along with our community. We continue to struggle to make sense of something so senseless.
“Dominic was a special young man. I went to Central Park when the city had the memorial service and I heard his mother and his grandfather and his friends sharing stories about him. I’m sorry.” I say to Aaron. Whenever I speak with someone more directly involved with the shooting I feel the need to apologize to them.
I can hear the sound of the microphone as it turns on and then “Price check on register four.”
I look up and see that I am at check stand two. Still no one behind me. The credit card machine beep beeps, instructing me to remove my card and I do, placing it instinctively back into my purse without looking, feeling for the second pocket on the front side.
He hands me the receipt and I take it from him slowly. His pinky brushes against the side of my hand in the exchange. He lingers until I look into his eyes.
“And there’s my mother…”
His words trail off into the distance and now I know what this is all about.
“Thank you,” I say, lifting my filled bag from the end of the counter while hoisting my purse over the opposite shoulder. “It will be alright. I promise you, it will be alright.”
I can’t feel my feet as I make my way to my car on the far side of the parking lot. Another empty promise from an adult who will do nothing, I’m sure he’s thinking. But he doesn’t know me. He doesn’t know that I never turn my back on anyone in pain or in need of anything. Anything.
Everything we do, everything, is preparing us for something we will do in the future. I hadn’t been to that grocery store in at least a month and there I was on that afternoon. Then a chance encounter with a young man in so much pain started a conversation. I read between the lines and realized that he was in an abusive situation at home and needed help.
When I go home I call my friend who runs a non-profit that helps families going through domestic violence. The numbers are staggering and going up every day. She promises to send someone over to talk with him. It will depend upon his age what can be done. He is ready to open up and let someone in. Someone who can help. Someone who cares. Someone who can help his spring slide into summer in a joyous and hope filled way.
I’m Connie Ragen Green, eagerly awaiting every opportunity to be of service to another living soul; preparing to be in the right place for where I am needed at any particular time; encouraging you to do the same. Let’s connect and discover how you and I may be of service to each other.