Author’s Note: When you see a long list of names, it’s easy to skim them, to skip past the details. While reading this essay, please resist that urge.
When you come upon the Pulse memorial, if you walk from downtown Orlando, you first see, behind some branches, the sign—a high white P against black, stark for its darkness during the day and its bright illumination at night. The street beside you is wide, the businesses generously spaced. It’s a busy road, but the sprawl of the landscape feels almost soft—almost, wretchedly, safe. At the first glimpse of the sign, if you turn around, you can still see the outskirts of the Orlando Health hospital complex, the site of care for victims of the June 12, 2016 shooting. The proximity might cause you to shiver, even in the sweltering Florida heat.
At the interim memorial, you venture around the plywood “ribbon” wall printed with photographs of memorials in Orlando and around the world. It’s colorful. In many photos, subjects are smiling. You might almost feel comfort or hope as you take it all in.
You come upon a plexiglass gap in the wall, through which you see the side of the Pulse Nightclub building itself. Three panels on the wall display the names of forty-eight of the forty-nine victims, with a dove in place of the forty-ninth name, Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernández.
Stanley Almodovar III
Oscar A. Aracena-Montero
Antonio Davon Brown
Darryl Roman Burt II
Ángel L. Candelario Padró
Luis Daniel Conde
Cory James Connell
Tevin Eugene Crosby
Deonka Deidra Drayton
Leroy Valentín Fernández
Mercedez Marisol Flores
Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz
Juan Ramon Guerrero
Paul Terrell Henry
Miguel Ángel Honorato
Jason Benjamin Josaphat
Eddie Jamoldroy Justice
Anthony Luis Laureano Disla
Christopher Andrew Leinonen
Alejandro Barrios Martínez
Brenda Lee Marquez McCool
Gilberto Ramon Silva Menéndez
Akyra Monet Murray
Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo
Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez
Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera
Joel Rayón Paniagua
Jean Carlos Méndez Pérez
Enrique L. Rios, Jr.
Jean C. Nieves Rodriguez
Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado
Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz
Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan
Edward Sotomayor Jr.
Shane Evan Tomlinson
Martin Benitez Torres
Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega
Juan P. Rivera Velázquez
Luis S. Vielma
Franky Jimmy DeJesús Velázquez
Luis Daniel Wilson-León
Jerry Arthur Wright
At the next viewing area, you see the wall-mounted waterfall. According to a sign on the plexiglass, the original water feature was destroyed shortly after 2 a.m. The final window, around the rear of the building, reveals a series of illuminated holes in the wall covered by opaque plexiglass. The sign explains the holes as a result of first responder detonations around 5 a.m. The three hours between the signs may weaken your limbs.
Stepping back from the main wall, you might, if you have one with you, leave a token or a prayer on the perforated metal offering wall. It’s laced with beads and ribbons and hats and rainbow flags between large posters commissioned by families and friends commemorating their loved ones. Your skull might tingle in grief seeing the joint memorials for best friends and lovers slain together. You notice other names, too: Chris Brodman and Jahqui Sevilla, survivors who have since passed away.
Eventually you have to leave. You pass by the security guard, who appears generally nonthreatening until you notice they are armed. They may offer you a marker—they do not allow you to use your own—to add a sentiment of love or peace or grief to the panels at the base of the Pulse sign. You venture back along Orange Avenue. You leave the building that so many did not.
I was renting a room in a house of people I didn’t know in June 2016. I woke late that Sunday, my window already bright with late-morning sun. Without moving from my pillow, I clicked open my phone screen.
I sat up and scrolled. Tears flowed down my face and chest, dripping over my thighs and staining the sheets. I did not know this kind of grief, this fresh terror.
What a privilege that is. What a safe life I live that the first incident among strangers that truly personally affected me was the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman in the history of the United States. Or it was the deadliest. For fifteen months.
A year before, when the Supreme Court of the United States had ruled in favor of marriage equality, I spent days agonizing—and this sounds foolish now—over whether to add a “rainbow filter” to my profile photo on Facebook. At the time, my social circle was primarily made up of conservative Christians, among whom a “statement” like that was unheard of. No one was acknowledging LGBTQ people. No one was allowed to.
And something else happened that year: I began a relationship with a woman.
I was only out to a handful of friends—no family or coworkers—by June 2016. Barely anyone could understand why this tragedy was personal.
None of my coworkers exhibited any signs of grief or distress that Monday morning. I was working at Calvin, aimlessly correcting commas while forty-nine families mourned. I proofread with one eye and watched my feed with the other, desperate for information, or explanation, or salvation, physically alone in my sadness and reaching for those who understood.
The school held a memorial on Wednesday of that week. A few dozen staff who could be bothered to take fifteen minutes out of a summer morning half-filled the chairs set up in the common room below the chapel. I took a place in the front row, between the campus chaplain and the director of the few LGBT programs we had. We sang and prayed and mourned. I was acutely aware, through my heaving sobs, that no one else seemed to be crying.
In the years since, different reports have emerged about the motives and circumstances, but then as now, the tragedy of Pulse is more about impact than intent. The forty-nine victims were primarily gay, primarily Latinx, primarily men. One sign pictured at the interim memorial reads, “They were LGBT of color.” The semantics of that sign might be debated, but the sentiment is vital. A known gay club. On a planned Latin Night.
The magnitude of and existential horror that accompanies my grief about Pulse—grief on behalf of people I didn’t know, but whose loss was like flesh of my flesh—was and is unlike any other grief I’ve experienced. Yet this is not my grief or terror to hold.
These forty-nine deaths I have not died.
I am a white woman. I’m not from Orlando. I’m comfortably distant from the experiences of virtually all of the victims. How classically, atrociously white: that the end of their lives changed mine.
If you return to the interim memorial a second time—once by day and once by night; once in autumn, once in spring; once alone and once accompanied—you may notice changes to the structure, posters faded along the offering wall, wishes written and rewritten at the base of the sign. One day a permanent memorial will replace it, which will be a change, too. But this will not change: the memory of, mourning for, and celebration of Stanley Almodovar III, Amanda Alvear, Oscar A. Aracena-Montero, Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, Antonio Davon Brown, Darryl Roman Burt II, Ángel L. Candelario Padró, Juan Chávez-Martínez, Luis Daniel Conde, Cory James Connell, Tevin Eugene Crosby, Deonka Deidra Drayton, Leroy Valentín Fernández, Mercedez Marisol Flores, Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, Juan Ramon Guerrero, Paul Terrell Henry, Frank Hernández, Miguel Ángel Honorato, Javier Jorge-Reyes, Jason Benjamin Josaphat, Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, Anthony Luis Laureano Disla, Christopher Andrew Leinonen, Alejandro Barrios Martínez, Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, Gilberto Ramon Silva Menéndez, Kimberly Morris, Akyra Monet Murray, Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez, Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, Joel Rayón Paniagua, Jean Carlos Méndez Pérez, Enrique L. Rios, Jr., Jean C. Nieves Rodriguez, Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan, Edward Sotomayor Jr., Shane Evan Tomlinson, Martin Benitez Torres, Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, Juan P. Rivera Velázquez, Luis S. Vielma, Franky Jimmy DeJesús Velázquez, Luis Daniel Wilson-León, and Jerry Arthur Wright.
Gwyneth Findlay is a writer and editor working in publishing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She graduated from Calvin in 2018 with a degree in writing and minors in French and gender studies. She also writes for the new Calvin alumni fiction blog, Presticogitation.