VIII. Strength

Strength Shadowscapes Tarot by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law
Shadowscapes Tarot by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

This post is in two parts, as today is a very complicated day for me.

Last Sunday, my boyfriend and I adopted a dog. He’s a beautiful chocolate and cream Lab-hound mix with golden eyes and a lame back leg.

And I fell in love instantly.

I don’t do things by halves.

This week has been the first week that I have had no anxiety in a long, long time. Though I still wash my hands, I don’t do it in the compulsive manner I used to. There are small things I am still uncomfortable with, but they have diminished in the light of my love for this beautiful dog and his addition to our little family.

The Strength card in the Tarot represents tempered force, something I have always struggled with. It is patience and power, authority. It is, in a lot of ways, the kind of person I wish to be, as I discussed in “The Chariot.” With Low-Key, named after the pseudonym that Loki takes in American Gods, I have begun to learn the necessity of staying patient. Dogs are like small children: there are many things they don’t understand. And while Low-Key is smart as a whip and has the sarcasm to match both myself and my boyfriend, he will not understand if we yell at him. He will not understand if we punish him for doing wrong. We must remain patient while he learns, about us, about our home. We must teach him with serenity and love.

I never thought that getting a pup would change me so wholly. I knew I would feel more complete, having grown up with dogs my entire life, but to become something more, to find that nurturing nature within me, and to become the doting parent I have become in just six short days is still a surprise. With him in my life, I feel as though I can become more.

Being responsible for someone outside yourself is inspiring in many ways. To have another be so dependent on you is humbling. I do not wish to disappoint him.

Seven years ago, I was told to stay in my classroom on the second floor. There had been a shooting on campus and no one was sure where the shooter was. We learned later that he had taken his own life, after taking those of five students.

I watched the police trot up the sidewalk from our classroom window. We had little idea what was going on. The police ran up the sloping hill towards the main building on campus and turned out of sight beneath its walkway that connected our buildings. We watched as the ambulances and police cars and fire trucks arrived, their lights flashing and sirens silent. I watched them roll the bodies out, first of the wounded and then later the casualties. I watched students who had been released from their dorms and their classrooms gather near the sidewalks as the emergency folk did their work. I watched a helicopter hover over our campus to record our tragedy and announce it to the world.

Later, I was home with my parents. Supernatural was on; the episode was “Mystery Spot.” I acted as I might normally, talking with my family and standing in the living room. The horror of what had happened didn’t hit me fully until later.

They brought the therapists and counselors in a week later, after classes had resumed. I didn’t go. “Let them deal with those who need it,” I reasoned with myself. “I will be fine. There are others who need it more.”

Two years later, I learned about an incident outside my dorm building while I was doing laundry in the tower across the way. It shook me, but I eventually brushed it off. It had no direct affect on me; who was I to be upset by it?

Four years after the February shooting, I was sitting in the living room of my apartment when I heard the sound of gunfire. I crawled to our open window and peaked out while dialing 911. “I think there’s been a shooting,” I told the operator when she answered. “I heard four loud pops and there’s a guy laying in the parking lot across my street.”

The police arrived shortly. He had been shot in the leg and was taken to the hospital. I called my mom to let her know I was okay.

“They’re getting closer,” my mom remarked. I flashed back to the shooting tragedy that had occurred four years earlier. My mother knew that if the gunman had come the day before or the day after, I would have been in that classroom, sitting in the same seats where he took aim, as was my custom.

The next day, I called the school counseling center as they opened and told them I needed to speak to someone immediately. My voice shook, I was crying. Looking back now, it was the first panic attack of many yet to come.

They brought in one of their therapists early that day. I was in the waiting room with one of their teddy bears when she came in and gave me a sweet, quiet smile. I followed her into her office and we began to talk. I told her of the shooting the night before and we talked about the tragedy. She was saddened that I had waited so long.

“Why didn’t you talk to someone earlier?” she pressed. I began to cry again, I remember, having just recounted all the details I remembered of that day. “Watching you talk about it, it’s clear you’re reliving it as you remember.”

“I thought others should go. I thought there would be others who needed it more than me. I didn’t think I deserved to feel sad and scared.”

Since then, I have been in countless therapy sessions. Several were with the therapist at my campus, but a year or two later, I began consistent, weekly therapy here in Virginia.

There are different kinds of strength. I spoke of one above with Low-Key, and I reference two kinds of perceived strength in my second tale. The first is this: by not going to see a counselor or therapist, I thought I was being strong, being brave, in order to let others have their pain and denying my own emotions and fears. But by repressing this for so many years, I weakened myself. This left me with an open wound, raw and unhealing. It festered and grew and tainted my spirit and my soul. I may never know the extent of the damage I allowed to take root in me.

The second is this: after the shooting outside my apartment, I broke. My mother told me a few years ago that I likely have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but I’m unsure. Regardless, the sound of gunshots and seeing a body laying in the parking lot across the street, the same one I regularly traipsed through on my way to work, broke me. And in my pain and in my fear, I realized that I was not fine. I was not okay. And thought I felt like a trapped animal, scared out of its mind and unsure what to do, something in me managed to figure out what was needed.

I needed to talk to someone, and badly. And so, I did.

Strength comes in many shapes and forms. I have called on many kinds of strength in my life: borrowed from my gods, built over time in my mind, built by hard work in my limbs. Each of these has tempered me in its own way, developed me into who I am today and who I continue to evolve into.

This year is the first year I have been able to awaken on this day and not feel like I am drowning in grief, for the five peers I never met, for the way one man rocked my campus, for whatever bit of broken rubble I still have within me. It is the first year I have not felt guilty for smiling this day, nor spent it wandering in a daze and in mourning. And while I still grieve and I still recall the names of those who died, this is the first year I have felt like I can do more than grieve, more than mourn.

Seven years ago, after the shooting and the campus had begun its slow return to normalcy, I made a promise, to myself and to those who died. I wanted to honor their lives, work for the things that were taken from them. I wanted to live in some small way for them, since they didn’t get to.

There are many kinds of strength. When I was younger, I always thought of myself as a strong person, but my view of strength focused too heavily on the physical. Today, I do not think of myself as a strong person, but I am stronger than I was yesterday; tomorrow will be the same. And, with each day that I continue to live and work and better myself, I grow a little stronger.

May your path and your life do the same.


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