After the Virginia Tech tragedy, a mother finds healing in her departed daughter's words.
- Posted on Jul 23, 2012
I received the last text message from my daughter, Caitlin, on April 15, 2007. Caitlin was a sophomore in college and we always stayed in touch.
I remember being both thrilled and a little heartsick that August day two and a half years before, when my husband, Chris, and I drove her down from upstate New York for freshman orientation at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. I’d never left my baby—my only child—behind before.
But Caitlin knew how to make me feel better. We weren’t 10 minutes north of Blacksburg on Highway 81 before I got a text message: “I LOVE my room, Mom. And I know I’m going to love it here. Don’t worry. XXC.”
Caity and I had been texting ever since. Or at least whenever we could. Caity’s days were wall-to-wall—pre-law classes, church activities, her job as a Resident Advisor, her sorority. She didn’t always have time to check in.
“If you’re too busy to call,” I told her, “just text me an ‘OK.’ If you’re too busy for that, just type an ‘O.’”
That made her laugh.
On the night of April 15 I texted Caity at nine to tell her that the nor’easter that had been blowing all day in New York showed no signs of letting up. “The radio’s predicting floods,” I wrote. “Can you BELIEVE it?”
Our house was built on the side of a hill, in an area that was never supposed to flood. I was in bed reading when Chris stuck his head in.
“The whole driveway is underwater!” he said. I threw my jeans on and grabbed a flashlight.
Two hours later, with a trench dug and the waters flowing clear of the house, we slogged back in, dried off and I checked my cell phone. Caity had left a message for me. “Let me know how it turns out! XOC.”
“All’s well!” I typed back to her. “Dad has it under control.” I signed off the way I always did: “Love, hugs and kisses. Talk to you tomorrow.”
Chris and I were up at seven. Still raining. I checked my cell. Nothing from Caitlin. No big deal, though. I knew I’d hear from her before the morning was up. I’m glad she’s not worried about us.
At eight I decided I might as well head in to work. I’m an occupational therapist and even with the bad weather I knew I’d have a few calls and e-mails to field.
I’d just walked into my office when Chris called from home. “Turn on your computer. There’s a problem at Virginia Tech.” My computer was still powering up when my cell went off again. Caitlin?
It was a classmate of hers. Had I heard from her?
“No,” I said. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” Caitlin’s friend said. “But it’s something really serious. Police are everywhere.”
My computer came on and I clicked to the news. Shock tingled through my body at the lead headline: “Two dead at Virginia Tech. Gunman still on loose.” Two people out of a campus of thousands. What are the odds that one of them is Caitlin?
But another part of me rejected that logic. Who would have ever dreamed that our home would flood? Yet it did. Odds don’t matter when something’s wrong. And deep inside I knew something was wrong. I knew it as surely as I knew that the inbox on my cell phone still read “empty.”
I reached to shut off my computer. The headline had changed. The number of dead had now climbed into the twenties. I shut the computer off and raced for my car, calling Chris again. “Get ready to leave,” I said. “We’re going down to Virginia.”
“I’ve already packed the car,” Chris said.
We were on the road by 11, heading for the Pocono Mountains on Interstate 84. I sat in the passenger seat, clutching my cell.
If we’d been teleported down to Blacksburg, that wouldn’t have been fast enough. As it was, we were facing an eight-hour drive—if we were lucky.
We weren’t. The minute we hit the mountains the rain turned to snow. Traffic slowed, then came to a halt.
What do you talk about when the only thing you want to talk about is too horrible to mention? While Chris gripped the wheel, I called every hospital and police station within a hundred miles of Virginia Tech. No one could tell me anything about Caitlin.
On the radio the news grew grimmer by the minute. The death toll rose. The names of the first two victims—Emily Hilscher and Ryan Clark—were released. At least 30 more names would follow. As we inched our way toward Blacksburg, the one message that I wanted—that I prayed—would come in, didn’t.
No “OK.” No “O.” Nothing. Yet still I clutched the phone in my hand.
We finally pulled up at Virginia Tech past dark. Police ushered us through the crowds to a room at the rear of the inn, where a bunch of other families were gathered. They’re like us, I thought. They haven’t heard from their kids. They’re guessing the worst, but they don’t know for sure.
There were two of them—a police officer and a minister. They walked up to us slowly. Part of me wanted to run, to run so fast I could get back to yesterday when the only worry I had was a flooded house. Instead, I stood stock-still, bracing for the shock, a shock I knew would change everything, change me forever.
“Mr. and Mrs. Hammaren?” the officer asked. I nodded. “I’m sorry,” he continued. “Your daughter was pronounced dead at five minutes after ten this morning.”
For the last 19 years, everything Chris and I did had been built around Caitlin. She was our world. Strange, but I felt my grip loosen from around the cell phone. No, there would be no more messages from my daughter. Caitlin was gone.
Her sorority sisters took over. They helped Chris and me negotiate our way through that first week. In a haze, forcing ourselves to put one foot in front of another, Chris and I spoke to police, cleaned out Caitlin’s room and attended a service for my daughter with over 600 people attending.
I was numbed by the stark finality of it all. It was impossible to accept all at once, impossible to understand I would never hear from her again.
Just before we headed back to New York, the authorities returned Caitlin’s laptop to me. I stared at it for a long time. No more of her funny e-mails or pictures with her sorority sisters. Without thinking I opened it. Why, I’m not sure. Until I saw it—a small strip of paper taped just above the screen.
“God,” it said, “I know that today nothing can happen that you and I can’t handle together.”
I knew—in the way that mothers know things about their daughters—that Caitlin had taped those words in there because she totally believed them. But I couldn’t. Not in this terrible new world that Chris and I suddenly found ourselves living in.
When my grandparents had died a few years before, I’d grieved deeply. But I’d also known that each of them had lived a long and complete life. I was able to handle their passing. God—a God I’d believed in all my life, in an easy, casual way—had taken them to be with him. It hurt, but it was acceptable.
Caitlin’s death wasn’t. Every time I picked up my cell phone I expected to hear her voice. I couldn’t go into her bedroom—could barely go upstairs at all. I could talk to Chris about how I felt, but he was suffering like I was. I needed to talk to someone else. Who?
The only person I really wanted to talk to was Caitlin.
So, with nowhere left to turn, I started talking to God. Out of desperation.
Well, not exactly talk. I yelled. I screamed. Why? I asked again and again. How could something like this be? Why did you let my daughter get taken away from me? But God was as silent as Caitlin.
In my frustration—my rage—I found myself picking up books on spirituality at the bookstore. I bought them, took them home and burned through them. I even read the Bible—something I hadn’t done since Sunday school.
I was looking for something, looking with a vengeance. A response. An answer. An answer from someone, or something, that would make up for the fact that I would never get the one message I desired—that I would never again hear from the one person I truly needed to hear from.
Sometimes something little would happen. In the middle of a book, those earnest words taped to the inside of Caitlin’s computer would pop into my head: Nothing can happen that you and I can’t handle together. What did those words mean to her? What did they mean to me?
One August day about four months after Caitlin’s death, I was sitting in the backyard of our house, reading as usual.
It was a gorgeous morning, with the sun pouring down and a gentle breeze shifting the branches of the trees around me, a morning not too different from the one two years before when Chris and I had loaded up the car and driven our daughter down to college, down to Blacksburg.
Out of the blue, those words of Caitlin’s sounded in my head. Nothing can happen that you and I can’t handle together. But this time they were being said to me.
And all at once, as deeply as the sun’s warmth penetrated the earth, those words penetrated me. Deep in my bones I believed them now too. I knew with utter conviction that I would see my daughter again. Her smile. Her voice. The smell of her hair.
Lord, I prayed, I don’t understand Caitlin’s death. I’m pretty sure I never will. But I do know that you’re here with me. I know you now. I had to get to you before I got to Caitlin. And because I do know you—because you’re present in my life—I know that Caitlin is here with me too.
Caitlin’s passing had brought me out of my old world and into a new one. A world where things can go wrong—more wrong than I’d ever imagined they could. But with the Lord’s help, there was nothing—absolutely nothing—that could happen to me that I couldn’t get through.
How do I know? Caitlin told me. She’d left me a message after all.