“This empty, almost sickening feeling won’t go away. I noticed this feeling when I was in the Eaton Center in Toronto just seconds before someone opened fire in the food court. An odd feeling which led me to go outside and unknowingly out of harm’s way. It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around how a weird feeling saved me from being in the middle of a deadly shooting.” – Jessica Ghawi, in a June 5 blog post
I did not know Jessica Ghawi, but part of me feels like I’ve known her my whole life.
Which is why her passing has hit me so hard, like an unexpected left hook to the jaw that lingers long after the initial blow. I see myself in her, and the similarities appear eerie on the surface, from being young, passionate twenty-something sports journalists with big dreams all the way down to our love for movies and distinctive red hair.
Though I didn’t know Jessica Ghawi, one of 12 innocent people gunned down early Friday morning in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, I still feel like I’ve lost a close friend.
Obviously, what happened at last week’s midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in suburban Denver has cut us all deeply. The act itself occurred almost two thousand miles away, but the subsequent feelings of helplessness and dread have been inescapable.
I was one of thousands of people nationwide who flocked to the multiplex at 12:01 a.m. Friday to see the final chapter of Christopher Nolan’s wildly successful Batman trilogy. It was something I had waited four years for, and, like mostly everyone else, I was excited enough to sacrifice sleep for the coming workday to be among the first to see it.
Then, around 9 a.m., I learned of the shooting, and my groggy, sleep-deprived brain began its unsuccessful attempt to understand why and how this could have happened. My initial emotions were predictable: shock, anger, sadness and fear. But there was also something else I didn’t quite expect — a genuine thankfulness to be alive.
What is most frightening about what happened in Aurora, a burgeoning community of more than 325,000 people a few miles east of Denver, is the randomness of it. Sure, the theater is close in proximity to Littleton, Colo., the site of the 1999 Columbine school shooting, but in the grand scheme of things this is merely coincidental. The fact remains that this could have happened to any of us in any city, so we’re all victims in a sense.
Suspected gunman James Holmes’ motives remain unknown. The question of how a seemingly gifted young man could commit such an unspeakable crime is something we may never understand, and it’s a different argument for another day. Now, and for the foreseeable future, our focus should be on the victims, their families and the survivors, because really, they’re just like all of us.
The death toll includes a 26-year-old Naval officer and father of two. An 18-year-old recent high school graduate. A 51-year-old father seeing the movie with his teenage daughters. An employee of the Century 16 theater where the shooting took place celebrating his 27th birthday and one-year wedding anniversary. A 6-year-old girl with an entire world still ahead of her. These are just a few of the dozen fatalities, most of them young and all of them innocent. As movie-going Americans, we can identify with all of these people. I know I can.
The death of 24-year-old Jessica Ghawi has rattled me in unimaginable ways, especially on the eve of my 26th birthday. Just like me, Ghawi had decided to devote her life to breaking into the cutthroat, unforgiving sports journalism business. Often times, especially at the outset of such a career, it is a journey filled with rejection. It’s not easy to hear the word “no” when chasing the one (and in my case, only) thing you’ve ever been truly passionate about. I suspect that this is why people like Jessica and myself continue to push onward despite getting dirt kicked into our faces while trying to establish ourselves.
But nothing ever worth having comes easily, and as sports journalists (and human beings in general), we understand this. Ghawi believed in herself and believed in her abilities, which is why she uprooted her life in her native Texas to move to Denver to break into the business. After a successful internship at a sports-talk radio station in San Antonio, she had recently secured press credentials to cover the National Hockey League’s Colorado Avalanche. Her dream was just starting out before she was robbed of it.
This career often forces you to make personal sacrifices, and Ghawi understood that, just as I do. My own career has been just as unpredictable, with stops in Long Island, Virginia and Texas before being diverted back to my native Northeast Philadelphia. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to quit when rejection made me doubt my own abilities; but I pressed on, knowing that the eventual payoff would make the struggles worth it. So far, it has been.
It makes me tremendously sad to put all of this in perspective in the wake of Ghawi’s death, as well as the 11 others who have lost their lives. All of the victims deserved to pursue what made them happiest, just like every single one of us do.
I didn’t know Jessica Ghawi, but I bet that we would have been friends. We’re too much alike not to have been if our paths had ever crossed. I never met her, but I understand what made her tick. I understand why she blindly pursued her passion. Most of all, I understand what made her special.
As a result, I feel a certain responsibility to Ghawi, to carry on her legacy by making sure that I never take my own abilities for granted. It may sound silly, but the only way to make sure Holmes doesn’t win is to remember the victims for their passions and ambitions. Those who lost their lives will never get to see the end to their stories, but that shouldn’t stop us from approaching our own lives with a newfound appreciation. This includes being true to our dreams, loving our families and friends, and not letting lost souls like Holmes force us to live in fear.
Perhaps the most cruelly ironic factor surrounding Ghawi’s death is that just one month earlier, she had escaped another gunman’s rampage at a Toronto shopping mall. She later recounted that a sudden, unexplainable feeling of dread forced her to leave the mall just before the shooter started firing. She wrote on her blog on June 5 that she didn’t know why she had left, and was struggling with why she had been spared when others were hurt. It confused her, but Ghawi seemed ready and willing to appreciate every day she was given thereafter.
Unfortunately, she only received about another six weeks. On her blog, Ghawi wrote of an “empty, sickening feeling that won’t go away,” which is what we’re all feeling in the shooting’s aftermath. But she also wrote of the fragility of life and how she, like all of us, sometimes took its many blessings for granted.
The incident in Toronto changed Ghawi, and she wrote that we should all appreciate the time we are given, even in trying moments when the walls seem to be closing in around us.
“Every hug from a family member. Every laugh we share with friends. Even the times of solitude are all blessings. Every second of every day is a gift. After Saturday evening, I truly understand how blessed I am for each second I am given,” she wrote.
This whole mess is heartbreaking, but I won’t forget Ghawi’s passion or the beauty of her ambition anytime soon. I will do my best to always carry it with me, because she and the other victims deserve that much from all of us. ull;•
Sports editor Ed Morrone can be reached at 215-354-3035 or firstname.lastname@example.org