Healing After Virginia Tech
Meredith Vieira tells the inspiring story of how she served as both reporter and comforting mom after the tragedy.
Seven months after coming to the Today show I had one of my toughest assignments ever—the terrible shootings at Virginia Tech. Cohost Matt Lauer and I, along with the rest of the Today team, were on campus within 24 hours. Twenty-four hours is not enough time to comprehend such an overwhelming event: 32 people dead, most of them kids, slain by a fellow student.
As a reporter I had some hard questions to ponder: Where was the shooter and when? Who were the victims? Did any of them know him? Viewers wanted to know the facts so they could make sense of this tragedy. But I also couldn't escape being a mom and thinking of my own kids, especially my oldest son, who would soon head off to college himself.
Ever since I started this job I've worn a charm bracelet with my husband's and kids' names engraved on it. I can see it dangle from my wrist no matter what I'm doing, and that day in Blacksburg, Virginia, as I was about to go on the air, just a glance at it made me wish I could wrap my arms around them and hold them tight.
My husband, Richard, and I have three teens, Ben, Gabe and Lily. As careful as I am about not talking about their personal lives on air (teenagers do not appreciate having their privacy invaded on national television, to say the least), I think about them all the time. Most reporters are also parents and it is hard sometimes for us not to see the news at least partly from that perspective—especially something as shocking as the Virginia Tech slayings.
Of course, it's a balancing act, one faced by working moms everywhere. I mean, what mom hasn't missed an important announcement buried in the slew of papers that's come home in the backpack? For me it was Colonial Day at Gabe's second-grade class when he showed up sans costume. I took it a lot harder than he did and vowed never to let my kids down, no matter how busy I get.
Maybe I take it a little far sometimes. Recently I was heading to one of Ben's soccer games, after which I had a commitment to host the MS Dinner of Champions—a benefit for multiple sclerosis, which means a lot to me because Richard has the disease. Still, nothing was going to stop me from seeing Ben's game, even if it meant being a little overdressed. I pulled off the highway and jumped out of the car in my three-inch heels, only to discover that there was a three-foot-high fence standing between me and Ben's team out on the field.
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No problem, I thought. I hiked up my skirt, balanced on a rock, threw one leg over the fence, then the other, telling myself, Please don't let my stocking tear. I barely made it over. I headed toward the game, wobbling, my heels sinking in the dirt. Finally I reached Ben's coach on the sidelines. I beamed a smile at 17-year-old Ben out on the field and turned to the coach, feeling heroic. "Excuse me," he said, "but you're not allowed to stand on this side of the field. You've got to go around to where the other parents are."
It's not that I'm trying to be an alpha mom. I just want my kids to know that I'm there for them. I want to meet their friends, know their teachers and watch them play. There's a lot of support a parent can give a child just by standing on the sidelines—even in three-inch heels.
Then there are the times when your kids show up for you. Last year, after being on The View for nearly a decade, I was offered the cohosting job on the Today show. I had to be sure that my family was behind me. This would be a big change for all of us.
To Richard it was a no-brainer. "What a great challenge for you," he said. "Take it."
But how would Lily and Gabe and Ben feel about it? I would have to leave the house early in the morning, long before they got up. And the hours could be brutal. "Mom, what would you be missing?" 15-year-old Gabe said. "All of us fighting over the breakfast cereal?"
I spoke privately to 14-year-old Lily, who is the quietest of the three. She is thoughtful and a very good writer, like her father.
"Mom, you have to do what's going to make you happy," she said.
Then that night, going through my e-mail, I found one message from Lily. Maybe something I'm supposed to do for school, I thought. I opened it up and read, "Mom, I love you on The View and I will love you on the Today show. Love, Lily." Tears flooded my eyes. Her encouragement was incredibly touching. It meant everything to me.
Ben is the oldest of the three, and I felt I could be pretty frank with him about all my insecurities. Would I be good enough for the job? Would I be able to keep it up week after week?
"Mom," he said, "remember when I had to change schools going into fifth grade and I was scared about leaving my old friends behind and making new friends? Remember what you said to me then? You promised me that after the first few days I'd really love it, and I did. So will you."
That should have been enough. But I still had my doubts. The job would be huge and all-consuming. The night before my first day I had a terrible case of cold feet. Before dinner I went out for a walk—ever since my days in a Quaker school, solitude has been my way to find peace. I walked and walked, but I didn't feel any better. Finally I came home and sat at my place at the kitchen table. There in front of me was a jewelry box. "Open it," said Richard and the kids. Inside was the bracelet with the gold charm: "We are with you. Love, Richard, Ben, Gabe, Lily." My doubts vanished. It was as though everyone were hugging me and supporting me at once.
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Now, looking at that charm bracelet and the pain and confusion at Virginia Tech, I knew my family's love would support me. All day long I thought of them, ached for them.
The last segment we filmed that day was at the sprawling drill field where some students had erected a spontaneous memorial of flowers and signs. It was dusk. Students took turns writing their messages on poster boards, things like, "We love you…We miss you… We won't forget you… We will survive."
I wondered. How will they survive?
When the interviews were all finished I had the urge to step out of my role as a Today show host. If I couldn't be with my own kids, I just wanted to be a mom hanging out with these kids. I stood there, part of the crowd. One girl looked up at me with an empty poster board and a marker in her hand. "What should I say?" she asked.
"Anything that comes to you," I told her. "Anything your heart tells you will be right."
Then a girl came up to me and handed me a candle. I tried to give it back to her. "You'll probably need this for some of the others," I said.
"Take it," she insisted.
I did. My candle was lit by another candle until all of us standing there—there must have been hundreds of us—were illuminated as if by one single light. A silence—a wonderful, peaceable, healing silence—came over the crowd. We could all feel a presence.
That's when one girl came over to me and asked, "Can you give me a hug?" I wrapped my arms around her and she broke down. For the first time since coming to Blacksburg, Virginia, I was able to cry too, feeling her pain and the pain of all the other students around me, but so grateful that I could somehow offer them comfort.
After the first girl walked away, another student came up to me for a hug and then another. I couldn't be at home, hugging my own children, but I could certainly hug these kids. And it felt so right. I looked down at the charm bracelet on my wrist. I read the names again in the flickering candlelight.
Yes, it had been a long day, both as a reporter and a mom. But in the end I had found comfort in the simple act of connecting with these students. It is in these small moments that healing begins.