A photo a week throughout 2019: our family, just as we are. 8/52
I wasn’t prepared for an emergency situation to unfold on our quiet Monday afternoon. We were on a mission to figure out the best options for our new stroller/travel system since our car seat and stroller situation from the past few babies is not going to work for the next season. We need a mobile home-base-on-wheels to carry us through the summer and especially going into the school year next fall when I take seven kids to our weekly activities spanning four days of the week.
We went south of Seattle to a giant baby store—once a Bed Bath and Beyond—which still looks like a BBB but is filled with baby clothes, cribs, toys, storage solutions, feeding supplies, and fully assembled strollers you can push, breakdown, and lift to experience the functionality of each system. We didn’t buy that day but we did figure out what the best solution will be for us when we’re ready to order it.
We’d already made the drive south, so on a whim, we decided to stop by the mall to fill out clothing needs for the kids and the upcoming season. Everyone has been short on pants because their legs keep growing (don’t they know it’s easier if they just stay the same size so we’re not having to buy new clothes all the time?) JC Penney is usually the department store of choice because we can often find when everyone needs under one roof.
As you can imagine, shopping with six kids is a bit of an endeavor. We decided to split up for a stretch, me with the girls, sorting through a collected pile of sale items to see which pants would actually fit them. To keep our rascally toddler occupied, I handed him daddy’s phone with the Incredibles 2 movie to watch as he sat in the corner of the dressing room, and Dad took the older boys to look in their section. One of the two refuses to wear anything but athletic shorts or maybe some baggy sweat pants, but I was hopeful they might find some nice-looking and nice-feeling pants to satisfy their desires and the mama as well.
They’d been gone for 10 minutes when the girls and I had made our selections, so I gathered the ducklings, the extra phone, the items we wanted to buy, and we set out to find the boys.
Parked outside the boys’ dressing room, two little girls swung their feet over the edge of a slightly-too-tall-to-reach bench, older sister strolled around nearby racks, and the little guy puppy-dog-eyed me to start up the iPhone movie for him for the second time. My husband called me back to the oversized room where the boys had been trying on their stuff so I could give my stamp of approval.
The little guy came with me and I handed him the phone once again while he huddled on the floor, so we could get through this last bit of decision-making. I didn’t want the girls hanging out without one of us, so I sent Daddy out to be with them while I checked the fit and practical use of everything the boys wanted to buy. A couple of minutes went by, pants went on, pants went off, and I sorted the pile between what we’d take and what we would leave.
Outside the dressing room door, I heard a bunch of running, a slammed door down the row, some hushed whispers and a variety of other sounds that didn’t seem quite normal. At that moment, my mind was in 5 places. Girls out on the floor, toddler with phone, boys and pants, what were those sounds?, and man, I’m tired.
More frantic shuffling and door-slamming, and I tried to figure out what was going on with the very few clues I had.
“GET OUT!” He hollered down the way. “WE HAVE TO GET OUT. THERE’S A SHOOTER.”
It was my husband. I thought about his words and it took me a minute to register what he had said. My first thought was to stay put. Dad had the girls. I needed a second to get oriented and figure out how to take two boys with no pants on, and one toddler with a phone in his hands—out of there. I’m sorry, but you need pants on to leave a dressing room, so I ordered them to drop the merchandise and put their pants and shoes on.
“QUICK!” I whispered insistently. I took the iPhone from my toddler and pulled him to standing. A siren started going off, which startled him, and I yanked the boys out the door down to the entrance into the store, searching for my husband’s bald head to know where we were to go. Because I had both phones (mine with me and his with the toddler), we couldn’t afford to get separated. Emerging into the store, I looked around aisles and displays trying to figure out if we should be ducking, crawling, running, or what? I couldn’t hear any gunshots, but I saw people rushing to one corner of the store with terrified faces. My husband and daughters are right there, my husband visibly upset and all of us looking bewildered about what to do.
My husband asked for his phone and I felt around for where I might have put it because I did not think hard about it when I took it from the toddler, who was whimpering and protesting. It was in my back pocket. I haven’t been able to carry the kid easily during my pregnancy, but I slung him up over my shoulder because I couldn’t have dealt with the chase if he wriggled away from me in the commotion. It strained my back a bit, but you do what you have to do.
I barked orders for the kids to hold each other’s hands, and I counted them compulsively every few seconds while we hurried along to who knows where? A JCP employee started waving customers into a back stockroom, where the sirens were twice as loud immediately overhead, and there was barely any room to stand because of the over-packed racks and the dozens of people already crammed in there. Once inside, we stood shoulder to shoulder with other shoppers who similarly did not know what was going on. The kids worried, my husband tried to find any kind of information he could from his phone about the unfolding situation, and my sensitive #5 child started crying while holding her hands tightly over her ears because of the loud alarms.
I counted the kids again to make sure we had everyone.
My first concern was staying together as a unit. I didn’t feel especially panicked at the moment because I had a mom job to do. I needed to remain calm and we had to gather information by keeping our eyes and ears open to what was going on around us. It was confusing, upsetting, and more than anything, it was difficult to answer the steady stream of questions from the kids because we really had no information.
“We’re ok,” I reassured them. “When we figure out what is going on, I’ll answer all your questions.”
They took in all the clues around them as well. They overheard people talking about a shooter and police response and all the other rumblings of the crowd around us.
Within a few minutes, we were directed out another exit from the stockroom to get over to an elevator out on the floor. More than a hundred people were gathered, waiting for a turn down the elevator to the basement since only 15 or so people could fit in it at a time. A stressed JCP employee was shuttling people up and down to the basement, where everyone was being evacuated to. She tried to reassure the nervous kids and make sure the right buttons were pushed on the elevator. It was really weird to stand there in a crowd of people, many holding their phones up to capture video of the scene around us or looking down into their screens while trying to find information about the situation. The exterior doors were all locked, and the door to the main mall entrance was pulled down, securing the store. The kids all took turns muttering about how they didn’t ever want to come to this mall again, and when would we be able to get out, and why were we getting on an elevator?
I kept counting them, reassured them and kept hold of the 5-year-old’s hand while she struggled to process the sensory details of the ordeal.
Within a few minutes, we were down in the basement on our way to the employee lunchroom area, beyond double doors that are usually off limits to customers. Several hundred people were packed inside, sitting, standing, and filling all the corners of the room. We made our way to a little corridor near the back of the room where we could all stand together near a row of vending machines. The sirens were off, the first relief from blaring noise in ten minutes, and we settled in there. My husband kept searching for information on my phone, and the toddler was once again engrossed in Incredibles 2 on his device, with a few siblings leaning in from the sides. My oldest leaned against a vending machine, chewed on her nails while holding back tears, and I sat on the floor with my five-year-old sucked close to me.
In the most heartbreaking way, the little one sobbed out, “Mama, how does this even happen?”
I smoothed her hair and pulled her closer, trying to comfort her without much to go on. “I don’t know, sweetheart. We will just stay together until we figure out what to do next. Right now we’re safe.”
We had long-since abandoned the items we intended to buy back at the dressing room, but I saw a few people carrying around arm-loads of merchandise they wanted to purchase. It was a weird juxtaposition for me, holding my distressed child and seeing other customers clutching material things they didn’t own yet, but weren’t about to set down.
At the time, we had no idea how long we’d be in that room, but about a half-hour in, we were told the situation had been diffused and we should make our way to the first floor (street level) to leave the building through one open exterior door. We filed out of the lunchroom to an escalator and made our way out to the parking garage and into our van.
There was more chatter from the kids about how they never want to go to that mall again, and why do people have guns and what really happened back there anyway?
My husband and I were quiet in the front seat for a few minutes while navigating out of the parking lot.
He said quietly to me, “Are you ok?”
“I’ll cry later,” I said, trying to keep the bulk of my emotions in since my sensitive girl was still in my line of sight and she was watching me. I did feel the tears welling up, but instead of spilling them out, I just returned the question.
“What about you, are you ok?”
“No,” he said emphatically. “That was not ok at all.”
I grabbed his hand and we drove the 20 miles home trying to silently process what we had just experienced.
*More on the aftermath of this experience coming soon.
1531. reaching 36 weeks, 1532. compassionate care, 1533. help with our clutter, 1534. last writing day before baby, 1535. hot cinnamon tea, 1536. spring temps, 1537. cleaned out car, 1538. fellowship time, 1539. new (free) shelves, 1540. extra sleep