Heaven and Hell in Orlando
Hell came to Orlando a couple of weeks ago and it had the nerve to do it on my birthday weekend. Not that there is anything special about my birthday (other than to me and my family) but when Hell comes calling in your own backyard on your birthday weekend, it has a different feel than it does when you’re reading about a faraway tragedy on an ordinary day. This was raw. This was personal.
As it turned out, my actual birthday was spared, for which I am grateful. On Friday Christina Grimmie (who I did not personally know but several of my actor friends did, and who by all accounts was a lovely young woman) was shot in a venue I often pass as my favorite shopping center is right there in that complex on the corner of Bumby and Colonial. I always felt safe there. Never in a million years would I have expected something like that to happen there. A farmer’s market, sure. An art show? Absolutely. Murder? Never.
Sunday morning I just happened to be awake (the dogs needed to go out) and I turned on the television to see Hell running rampant in Pulse, a nightclub just a few blocks away from my old office in the Orlando Regional Medical Center complex. The mom of one of our co-workers was being interviewed. Her son had texted her from the club. She didn’t know where he was now or how he was (sadly, he passed away).
Since that night I’ve watched my old boss interviewed on Good Morning America and on Greta Van Susteren’s show. I learned that a surgical intern I remember asking “Does your mother know you cut people open?” on his first day of residency is now the Director of Trauma at our Level I Trauma Center, which thankfully was just a few blocks away from Pulse. I had the privilege of working for these trauma surgeons for several years, saw many of them grow up as residents, as fellows and knew (based on their teachers) they would grow into skilled surgeons, and so they did. I am overwhelmingly proud of them but not one bit surprised.
Orlando is known worldwide as a vacation destination. It is no longer the sleepy little town it was when my sister married my brother-in-law in the 1960’s and we all came down from Mobile to meet his family, never dreaming it would grow into a city we would call home one day. This was long before the theme parks. Orlando was mostly orange groves. We drove down Colonial Drive, the main drag, right past the spot of land that became famous a couple of weekends ago.
My daughter, who works at Universal Studios, lost co-workers. We lost a co-worker at my hospital. Everyone I know here knows someone who was killed or wounded or someone affected by this tragedy.
Most news outlets focus on the gore, the terror, the horror.
Here in Orlando, we focus on the love. Vigil after vigil after vigil. The human chain at the funerals against those who would disrupt them (and failed).
It has often been said of Orlando that ever since the theme parks came in, everyone here is from somewhere else and no one has ties here. That is no longer true (if it ever was). If we weren’t before, we all became Orlando that night and so did everyone around the world who stood with us and stands with us still.
We hold our families closer.
Friends who scoffed at saying “I love you” say it often now and mean it. And we say it back to them, most of the time accompanied by a big, long hug and tears in our eyes.
Right now I am appearing in a show, a comedy.
We had a matinee on Sunday afternoon when most of the theatres were canceling. We had several bookings, no small feat for a tiny theatre out in the country. Should we cancel? Would our patrons show up? We didn’t know. Some called to make sure we were still on and assured us they would be there. At curtain we had one of our biggest audiences. My cast mates and I wiped our tears backstage, put down our cell phones, applied makeup to our pale, sleep-deprived, shell-shocked faces, stepped onstage and pretended to be the farthest thing from what we felt at that moment – four lifelong friends without a care in the world celebrating their daughter and god-daughter’s wedding. Afterward every single audience member came up to give us a hug and say thank you. “We needed to laugh,” they said. “We needed to escape.” And we knew we had done the right thing.
And that is our strength, those of us who live by love and not by fear. If we fail to laugh (even when we don’t feel like it), they win. Evil wants us in the pit of despair, cowering, crying, afraid of our shadows, afraid to go anywhere or do anything. We have done all of these things over the past couple of weeks. We are wounded. We are hurting. We are angry and appalled.
We also believe in the power of love to lift us up, to remind us of the good (and there was a tremendous amount of good from the long, long, long, long lines to donate blood, to those who dropped off pizzas and water, to the homeless man who re-lit the candles at the memorial when they blew out, to the cathedral bells of St. James that tolled at 2 a.m. Sunday morning in memory of each of the victims).
Evil wants to change us forever.
We cannot let evil win.
The only thing evil hates and fears is love.
Hug your family and friends.
Tell them you love them.
Go see a show.