We Dance to the Rhythm of 49 Heartbeats

The Pulse Massacre 5 Years Later

By Erika Grumet

Pictured: A mural in Orlando, depicting 49 birds in 7 irregular rows, painted in rainbow colors over a “P” logo, with the words “you mattered” painted at in the top left corner. Painted by Andrew Spear, photographed by Arlene Laboy.

In December of 2012, the day after my youngest child turned 3, on what had begun as a typical Friday (with a little extra crankiness because there had been an extended evening of celebrations the night before) the Facebook News Network broke a story about a shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut. It was Friday, which meant we ate chicken nuggets for lunch (our weekly “special lunch” day,) and we cleaned up and played and read stories, and then the kids went to their beds with books for “quiet time.” I made sure to give extra hugs that day, even though the children had no idea why,

I had the bedroom TV on, quietly. I’d spent the time between preschool pick up and quiet time ducking in and out of the bedroom, checking the breaking news from Connecticut… from a suburb not entirely unlike the one I’d grown up in. I kept needing a few minutes alone to weep and worry and slowly process. An elementary school. Rooms full of first graders, not much older than my four-and-a-half year old who would be starting elementary school the following year, and if that wasn’t already enough to make a parent worry (because just about every decision I’ve ever had to make as a parent comes with worry,) to think that a school, a community with security measures in place already, could be devastated like that, meant I was gripped by fear, even while trying to maintain the moorings that would allow the gradual letting go that parents have to do. The thing about Sandy Hook is that I did everything I could to shield the kids from it, to keep my worries away from them and to grieve the loss of precious children, while they remained as innocent and unaware as possible.

But children grow. They learn new things. And there are some things as parents you just choose not to shield your own kids from, but to share in more depth with them in honest, age-appropriate ways. My kids have always been more protected from images and information about violence (not that we never talk about it but that it’s talked about differently) than about the Alphabet Mafia and the rainbow of people along the gender and sexuality spectrum(s). For example, my kids came home from a park trip one weekend afternoon to find me catching up on an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Phrases like “colors are for everyone” and “clothes are for everyone” were always a part of our vernacular. So sparkly dresses, high heels, wigs and make up and beards weren’t entirely puzzling for my children (who would have been 5 and 4, or thereabouts). So when the kids came in, they asked what I was watching, and I set about explaining it to them. I happened to have a very lovely book about drag queens, and although the text (much like the dialogue in RuPaul’s show) isn’t really something I wanted to expose my young children to, the photographs of various people as they transformed are wonderful to look at. And this began an obsession with drag performers (something I endorsed wholeheartedly). There were drawings, “Mom, this is a drag queen, this is a regular girl, and they are friends.” There were multiple requests to go see drag shows. And excited, but slightly confused things like “Mom! Did you know in Japan, in the theater all the parts were played by men? That means they were drag queens!” That idea was quickly corrected, although there is some Shakespeare I look forward to reading with them when they’re a little older.

We finally found a kid-friendly opportunity for them to see real drag performers though, at Broadway Brunch, and became frequent attendees. Broadway Brunch became our default celebration for birthdays and the end of school and almost anything else we could think of. To my kids, “drag queen” was a regular job someone might have, like teacher or doctor or astronaut. Another time, when we learned that some of my kids’ friends have two moms, the only question my children raised was: when the kid says ‘mom,’ how do they know which mom they are talking to, or about. One of my favorite moments, though, is when we were listening to a story about marriage equality on the radio one day, and, after a brief explanation that the law right now was that boys could only marry girls and vice versa, but that the Supreme Court was trying to decide if it would be okay for boys to marry boys or girls to marry girls, the very wise voice of a six year old spoke up from the back seat of the car and said, “But Mommy, that’s not fair. That’s segregation.” And I said to the child, “You’re only six years old, and you understand that. Isn’t it silly that so many grown ups don’t get it?” 

As you might guess, raising kids who are kind, compassionate, aware allies (and not just to the queer community) has been a long-term goal for me, and it was clearly working. And then, suddenly, the events of what had started out as a normal Saturday night shattered everything.

I’d recently returned from New York; my father had passed away about a year before, and, in accordance with Jewish custom, we’d waited to put up the headstone. The school year had just ended, we were taking a little break before summer activities started, which meant late nights, lots of playing, and all of the other things that can make a summer great. I’d fallen asleep with the television on the night before, probably hate-watching a Saturday Night Live rerun. I woke up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and was greeted by flashing lights and reports of a shooting on TV. I assumed it was an officer-involved shooting until I got back to my bed and suddenly I felt like one of those cartoon characters whose mouth gapes open as they’re being strangled. The shooting wasn’t an “officer involved shooting”–it was a massacre at Pulse, a gay club, on Latin night, too. Two thoughts flashed through my head. First: “Is everyone we know okay?” I went quickly through a mental list of people we knew who might be performing that night and then thought of friends and acquaintances who might have been having a night out. The second was: how do I talk to my children about this? They were sleeping. Innocent. I knew there was no way they could imagine why someone would hate someone so much for being in love; no matter how cliche it might sound to us as adults, to them love really is love. I slipped away to peek into their rooms, to soak in their innocence, to mourn what I had no choice but to destroy. And then I crept back to my own room, and sat in the dark, holding back tears as much as I could, watching the story unfolding slowly over hours as the body count went up, waiting for news, holding my breath mourning not just the lives lost, the destruction of a sense of safety and community, but the innocence and hope and the belief in good that I was going to have to shatter. 

When it was time, I gathered my children in my bed, wrapped them in my arms, and explained the actions of a very angry, evil person. We hugged. We cried. We hugged some more. I did the best I could to reassure them that everyone we knew was okay. We talked about being brave, and not letting people try to scare us by being violent and angry, and about being stronger and more powerful than them. We talked about what to do that day to help out, and decided that, because The Center was being used as an all-purpose station for people in need of help, that we would go to the store and get some things like snacks and water to make sure they were available to people. The kids each added a drawing to the package, and we made sure it was delivered without fanfare. We all needed to feel like we were doing something. There really wasn’t anything we could do though, and feeling helpless is one of the hardest feelings to cope with.

The story developed over the next few days. Body counts rose, more horror stories came out. I broke down as the stories aired about ringing cell phones that would never be answered. It was like walking through thick clouds. The world felt dim. It still felt like there was nothing I could do. And as I watched, things happened. One thing I noticed was how disconnected I felt from the queer community. There was a time when my Saturday night would have been spent at Pulse or a similar place. I would have been laughing and dancing and perhaps drinking a little bit, and just living. Time, age and young children had taken me away from that world and put me into a place where my grief felt very isolating. There was grief for the life I used to live, for the community I used to have, for the lives lost, for the future and for hope and for the joy that I always felt when I was able to be in place like Pulse–joy that came from being authentic, and being surrounded by people who understood the fight to love, which is why the fact that the Pulse massacre happened on Loving Day has always felt especially poignant.

But this isn’t just a story about grief and fear. It’s also a story about how a community and a country came together to give Orlando the support we needed. From outside the city, support poured in. Lin-Manuel Miranda told us “Love is love is love,” #keepdancingorlando popped up and people all over the country shared their videos. We found our hearts and danced again. Five years later and I still sometimes seek out those videos on YouTube. Broadway for Orlando was created by Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley (who featured the story on their series Stars in the House last year). When Las Vegas was the site of its own mass shooting, I heard an interview with someone who talked about how when there’s a mass shooting like that the previous city reaches out to help guide the new city through the crisis. When the Las Vegas massacre happened, Orlando helped. In June of 2016, San Bernadino supported Orlando. Sadly, there have been too many to list since then. 

Locally, communities came together, too. The city of Orlando offered space at Greenwood Cemetery for all of the victims. Transportation and travel was arranged to bring families of victims to Orlando. Funeral homes, churches, florists, limousine companies, all of the things that one might need for a funeral were offered in the community. Pet care for anyone who was injured and hospitalized or who had been killed and whose families needed time to make arrangements was even arranged. “One Pulse,” “Orlando Strong,” and other slogans came into use. 

No matter how much we spoke of love, so many of the faith-based offerings bore an undercurrent of judgement and shame. Even when judgement seeped through, it was clear that people were trying to find ways to come together as a community and gratitude seeped through everywhere. 

And then I read a post in our local Facebook group. An offer from the interim minister at the local Presbyterian church. It was the most honest, most genuine, most judgement-free, most sincere offer of help I’d read in all of the messages I’d seen. And it was accompanied by a photo of a pair of feet wearing Wonder Woman Converse sneakers. I had to reach out and say thank you; I sent a Facebook message that said that I appreciated the genuine nature of the offer. We were Jewish, and not looking for anything, but the lack of judgement, the honest nature of the offer, meant I needed to say thank you. The minister and I talked about all kinds of things, about judgement and shame and faith and community and Doctor Who and Wonder Woman and my children. We made a plan to get a cup of coffee soon after. The tragedy of Pulse introduced me to the person who I have probably learned more about the meaning of faith from than anyone else in my life. There’s just something funny about a Jewish girl from New York learning one of the most important lessons about faith from a Presbyterian minister, but I did: that faith isn’t about a label or a specific belief or ideal, but simply about knowing that you are connected to something so much bigger than yourself, whether you ascribe that connection to a deity, to other people, to love or something else.

Months after the shooting, we were back at Broadway Brunch. It was crowded, and we’d made a kind of last-minute decision to go that weekend. It wasn’t our first time back, but it was Pride weekend here in Orlando (our big Pride celebration happens in October, which has much more tolerable weather than the traditional June celebrations.) Our last minute reservation meant that, instead of our usual table way up front, we ended up squeezed into a different, much more crowded spot, next to a table with two men. It felt good to be there, to be surrounded by people, to be able to celebrate, to honor people and to feel a little joy, and obviously Pride. Broadway Brunch, though family friendly, does still feel a little like “grown up space”–it’s certainly a place where it’s fine to take kids, but where you need to be sure to remind them about being on their best behavior and all that. One of them managed, in all the excitement, to knock over an entire glass of orange juice, though, and as any parent would, I cringed and felt embarrassed at the mess. We all immediately began grabbing napkins, moving plates, and doing our best to mop up. Instead of the kind of frustrated or irritated reaction I anticipated, where people who aren’t always used to having kids in their space are almost offended by their presence, one of these men jumped up with us, and immediately began trying to flag the waitstaff while he helped us clean up. I thanked him, and, as he helped out, and watched me soothe an upset child, he began telling me how glad he was to see children there, and how he had been at Pulse, and about the loss and injury he experienced, and that seeing children there, at Broadway Brunch, during Pride, meant so much to him, that it helped him heal, and gave him hope. I held my tears until I was in the bathroom, alone.

Five years later. Gun violence still plagues our country. Homophobia does, too. We still have a long way to go and a lot to learn about love. I could get stuck on that. But five years later we’re having conversations we weren’t. Orlando, though not perfect, is not the same as it was. Orlando Strong, Orlando United, they may not be felt quite as strongly as in the immediate days or weeks after the shooting at Pulse, but they have made a difference. There is still a sense of connection that feels different from before. The rainbows around the city still shine brightly. For the last four years, June 12 has been observed as “Orlando United for Love and Kindness,” and it does still feel like that spirit exists here. We lost 49 lives at Pulse on June 12, 2016. Those people mattered. The nation and the world watched as we responded, with compassion, with pride and with love. I saved the image of the front page of the Orlando Sentinel the next day, June 13. “Our Community Will Heal” it says. Healing often means change, and often leaves scars. Orlando will never be the city it was on June 11, 2016. Orlando is still The City Beautiful. Pulse was an opportunity for us to learn about our strength and compassion, but there’s something even more important, and I thought about it a lot throughout the last year, while so much of the world was out of sorts and chaotic and confusing and quarantined. In such dark times, we learn so much about love. 

Keep dancing Orlando. And keep putting love and kindness out there. It hurts no one and we all need it. 

An image of the cover of the Orlando Sentinel from June 13, 2016, showing a picture of two people holding memorial candles and embracing, with the headline “Our Community Will Heal,” followed by a long block of text, and the hashtag #OrlandoUnited at the bottom of the page.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: