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A Town Shattered Yet Strengthened

Posted in: Blog by amy on August 26, 2022

After Highland Park’s Fourth of July Mass Shooting

Today I walked through downtown Highland Park, Illinois with my sister Ellen. We had gone there to buy bracelets that were made to support the Highland Park Community Foundation. We wanted to do something, anything, to help this community after last week’s tragic mass shooting during the Fourth of July parade.

Highland Park is a community about 25 miles north of Chicago where Ellen has lived for 30 years. It’s where she and her husband raised their children. And, it is just minutes from the neighboring community in which we ourselves were raised. Besides still being home to most of my friends and family members today, Highland Park is a town that I have always gone to for everything from my firstborn’s first birthday at Michael’s Hot Dogs to my kids’ haircuts at family-owned Salon Vole. It’s where I went for my kids’ orthodontist appointments and lunch dates with friends. It is an area full of boutique shops and favorite restaurants, my go-to beauty and nail salons, beautiful beaches and parks and great schools and homes.

The Strength of a Grief-Stricken Town

The amount of times I have run uptown to get a last-minute birthday gift or that perfect hostess gift are too many to count. So, this afternoon, as Ellen and I “ran uptown” to make a purchase to support this grief-stricken town, the contrast of our purpose today was mind-numbing and surreal.

Immediately, I saw how more than just the look of the town had changed. There were TV reporters still lining the streets, colorful chalk sayings across the sidewalks and countless flowers strewn at various memorial sights. But, aside from those overt changes, the air felt different. It was harder to breathe. There were people literally and figuratively holding one another up as they viewed the memorials. There was strength and support everywhere.

We walked quietly together, as tears filled my eyes. There were so many people around, dropping off candles, prayers, and cards. I wondered if one of them was directly related to one of the victims. My stomach turned and my feet felt heavy as I pictured various scenarios. I looked up and saw my dad’s former office in Port Clinton Square, the sight of one of these memorials. I remembered all the times we met for lunch at his favorite Chinese restaurant that had once been directly across the street from the spot of the horrific massacre.

A Splattering of Emotions

So many memories. So many images. The good. The tragic. The trivial. The surreal. All now blended, crashing together in my head. As I tried to make sense of it all, it felt as if it was revealing itself to me in splatters, like a Jackson Pollack painting.

My heavy heart felt like it dragged two feet behind me as I walked into The Style Shack, one of the places that was selling theses bracelets. One of the warm and lovely ladies who works there came up to Ellen and me with her usual contagious smile and great energy. She said the bracelets, for which 100 percent of proceeds were going to charity, sold out in 10 minutes.

Ellen and I added our names to that long list of supporters who would buy the bracelets when the next batch arrived. It was comforting to know that so many people were doing whatever they could — even if it was simply buying a bracelet. I saw my friend Jamie’s name on the list and I again felt a plethora of emotions — from connection and love to sadness and disbelief. But, unity surpassed all of the feelings. We are all together in our grief and our desire for this world to be better.

Jamie, who grew up in Highland Park and has been spending time at the local high school with her therapy dog, later told me that she is simply doing what she can do to help those who are suffering. Through her own pain and fear, she shows up with her dog Penny to comfort people with Penny’s presence and her innocence — an innocence that most of us humans are no longer fortunate enough to know.

Above the Sadness

Yet, here was that switch moment. I felt it: the optimism. The love. The connection. It wafted through the air, above the sadness, below the fear and beside the shock. Seven people were senselessly and viciously murdered as they celebrated our country’s birthday. Our freedom. And countless survivors and neighbors and even people far away will never be the same. Yet the palpable feeling in the air was silently speaking to all of us.

The large white posters with colorful markers beckoned people to share their favorite Highland Park memories. Above the sadness, there was the optimism, the hope, the memories and the strength. Ellen and I stood by one poster when a young girl and her grandmother stepped up to view it. Her grandma suggested that she write something. The girl said that she already had. She looked to find her writing, and she proudly said, “here it is,” as she begin to read. “My favorite memory is walking uptown with my friends and getting ice cream.”

So simple. So complicated at the same time.

Ellen and I both told her that we love that image and that memory. We walked away, and I vacillated between wanting to throw up and wanting to smile. This young girl whose sense of innocence and safety was likely forever altered is doing her part to remember, to be optimistic and to be strong.

One of Highland Park’s sidewalks covered in messages of hope. Photo by author.

Hope for a Better Tomorrow

This future generation holds the strength. They hold the memories. They hold the keys to change. The kindness and love is blanketing Highland Park. The willingness to do something is building around all of the tragic and senseless deaths that happen daily in Chicago and all around the world. We will not be de-sensitized. We will not be numb to the Groundhog Day feeling of our national news. We will use our optimism, love, kindness and strength to improve, evolve and enact real change.

The memories of ice cream runs cannot be taken away from that child for she holds the possibility of the future. We all are the future. Together, we mourn, cry, walk numbly, and try to make sense of the senseless. Together, we adjust our direction and walk forward on a path lined with optimism and hope for a better tomorrow. Together, we do our part, whether it is buying a bracelet, bringing a therapy dog to comfort strangers or grabbing a marker to share a memory of days passed but never forgotten.

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