I never thought I would have to write anything like this, but someone told me it could help with the healing process, and so many have reached out to ask how I’m doing and if I felt like sharing what happened … so here goes…
When I was 12 my family moved us from a residential neighborhood of Queens in New York City to West Bloomfield. Movie theaters, ice cream shops and pizzerias I could once walk to were now stretched out over miles. And I was thrust into making a whole new group of friends right before one of the most important days in a Jewish boy’s life. I thought I knew trauma.
Eventually my understanding of moving to a place with good schools, family close by and a strong Jewish connection made more sense. But still when it came to walkability, I was always more Birmingham and Ann Arbor at heart.
That’s why, after living in Chicago for many years, I loved the idea of settling in Highland Park, Illinois. It had a bustling downtown like Ann Arbor, sandy Lake Michigan shoreline beaches, live music with the bar bands in Highwood and bigger acts at Ravinia — and great schools and a strong Jewish presence like West Bloomfield. And more than a handful of former West Bloomfield residents, too. I used to joke (but not really be kidding) that it felt like I was on constant vacation.
My wife and I have lived in Highland Park since the end of 2016, just after giving birth to our daughter. Every year since 2017, we've taken her to the Fourth of July parade. This year, we were invited to join the procession and march alongside her day camp, and we were thrilled to do so.
Now, admittedly, it had already been an uncomfortable year to celebrate "independence," but we hated to miss a family-friendly community event right in our backyard. Especially when it's such a small town that, instead of planning to meet friends there, you just know you'll run into them or easily make new ones.
So off we went, as we did each year prior, driving and parking on St. Johns, just north of Central. Right in front of the Chase Bank. An under-the-radar parking spot that was just off to the side of the parade route with easy access to let us leave as soon as we wanted.
Sophie’s day camp would be the 20th group to march. Far behind the first drum line, the local fire department and EMS brigade, and a ways from the high school marching band. We were positioned in front of the official camp bus, which was just in front of a Klezmer Band playing on the top of a flatbed truck.
As our marching began the air was awash with sounds of a drum line, sirens and honking from fire trucks leading the parade. Squeals of delight from kids, the solo of a clarinet. An oompa doompa of a tuba. And more drumming. So much drumming.
On we went, continuing on St Johns, just crossing Laurel. My wife was holding a bucket of Tootsie Rolls and Dum-Dums, and handing them out to spectators. I was pulling our daughter in a wagon decked out in a string of American flags leftover from a barbecue we had years ago. I remember trying to veer my wife toward the west side of St. Johns since most people were sitting on the east side and getting all the candy. It was less crowded on that side, which I liked. But I did not like that those people were not getting equal amounts of candy. So, we marched on the west side, and ever so slowly we continued our crawl heading north, now in front of Little French Guy bakery.
As it was our tradition to go to the parade, it was also our tradition to get some type of indulgent breakfast beforehand. Dunkin drive-thru was most typical, but this year we were going to splurge for cravattes, croissants and coffee at the Little French Guy. That morning when we arrived for staging, we were saddened to see Little French Guy is closed on Mondays. So, unfortunately, there would be no flaky pastries for us — and no coffee for me. A post-parade visit to Dunkin was Plan B.
And that’s what I was thinking about as I stood there, waiting for the floats and marchers to move ahead. Like, some dumb idiot thinking to myself “derrrr no pastry and no coffee make dad vewwy angwyyy.”
It was in that very second, with a Boston cream in the back of my mind, a much different path was being laid before me. Ahead, but in the distance, an unusual sight began to materialize. Parade-goers running from Central, rounding the corner, heading toward us onto St. Johns and going against the flow of the parade route. It didn’t seem like a lot of people at first. I initially thought it might have just been people who arrived late and were racing back to join their group in the procession. But the small group instantly became a crowd, then a mass swelling into a tidal wave of humans, hurling their way toward us with panic and urgency to their step that was relentless. But, all I could hear in that space and time was drumming and klezmer.
My wife knew something was off seconds before it registered with me. The crowd was too large to be running toward us. Too panicked. The mood shifted and now I was uncomfortable too. They were getting closer and the shouting was starting to reach us like a scattered game of Telephone.
“Gun gun, shooter, he’s shooting into the parade, go go, shooter, run run, man with a gun shooting into the parade, run run run.”
I heard a *crack* in the sky, but even said without giving any thought or reason — “that’s a firecracker!” But the crowd just kept moving faster toward us, and louder with their cries. “Gun shooter run run run.” Pop pop pop pop pop. It was a drum. Or was it a gun?
“Go go go, we gotta go!” Jill shouted. “Something happened and we need to leave right now. That’s too many people. There’s too many running toward us.” Thank God for her instincts. We turned around so quickly, the force almost threw our daughter out of the Radio Flyer we were pulling her in. We started jogging, but Sophie wasn’t belted into the wagon, and as the crowd was inches from swallowing us whole. I became more nervous that she’d fall out, and worse, be trampled. “Get her out of the wagon,” my wife cried to me. And so that’s what I did. Without any thought or discussion, I pulled her into my arms, abandoning the wagon, and we started running. Moving as fast as we could, without a plan.
“Why are we leaving the parade? I was riding in the wagon? We left the wagon.”
“The parade ended, but that’s ok. The parade is over. But that’s ok, ok? Don’t worry about the wagon. The parade is over and everyone needs to leave as quickly as possible, so that’s why we’re running. You’re safe with us. We love you.”
I was running my top speed, cradling my 32-pound five-year-old to my chest. And Jill, who will never admit to being a runner, was keeping up without huffing, puffing or complaining. I’m in decent shape these last couple years due to a Peloton addiction, but in that moment I never heard Andy or Becs pushing me further. It was pure adrenaline. Usain Bolt had nothing on us. And as I’m hustling as quickly as possible with Sophie held tightly to my chest, her little chin is bouncing up and down on my shoulder and I’m thinking my god I’m cracking her teeth or bruising her face. Please God keep her safe, I thought. But I couldn’t stop or I’d put us in harm's way. Knowing not where we were going to, only that we needed to go.
“Am I hurting you, are you ok?”
“Ok because I love you and I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“I’m not hurt.”
“We love you so much, ok?”
“I wanted to march in the parade.”
“We did, Sophie, it was just very short this year.”
It was hot and sunny and my eyes began burning from sweat and hair gel. My first instinct was to get us into the shade away from the parade. I saw the cool below-grade parking lot of the library and thought it was perfect. The library felt safe to me. My mom was a librarian and we always grew up knowing that libraries can be shelters and community centers and so much more than books. So we headed down into the covered parking area, stopping in front of the book return. Collecting our thoughts and shielding our child.
Until someone said, “Don’t stay there, keep moving. Public buildings aren’t safe. You need to keep moving.” Thank you to whoever that was. A jarring reminder that we were also right next to City Hall, and a sobering realization that I had no idea what the shooter — or shooters — had planned. What if they planted a bomb? What if I had led my family to the lion's den?
So we took a deep breath and ran again. This time East, toward the lake. Now into a residential stretch of stately homes, towering trees and deep ravines. I pulled out my phone and called my parents, telling them there was a shooting at the parade but we were safe and we love them and we’ll call again as soon as we could. They had no idea what we were talking about. Nothing was on the news. It felt like so much time had passed and yet it hadn’t even been 10 minutes since the first blast of gunfire. I knew the phone call would make them worry. But I needed them to hear it from me before the news broke on TV.
… Now, I’ve made my parents worry about me a lot. So many times. Like, too many. But not like this. Not in the type of worry we could both reciprocate to each other over a telephone line. (The next day, they told me after the call they kept flipping channels and searching Google, not finding anything. Until the story was everywhere and inescapable.)
Jill and I kept going as fast as we could until the atmosphere felt quiet again. We were now at Linden and Hazel. Congressman Brad Schneider was there, shaken, taking care of his community as best as he could in whatever moment we were all stuck in. His body was directing traffic while his head was answering questions to nervous parents and grandparents, agitated teens. There were kids who seemed so in shock, or blissfully unaware, that their biggest question was if they could have some of the candy in the bucket Jill had been holding since we started marching and was too in shock herself to let go of. Yes, have all the candy. Please. Have as much as you want.
At this point, Jill and I didn’t know what to do. Could we walk home from here? Should we take the generosity from a stranger and camp out inside their home?
A friend rounded the corner with his child. I think we hugged. I don’t remember. I know we said our families were safe. He seemed more rattled than us. He revealed they were at the center of the violence and had seen it all unfold. His children, one the same age as Sophie, saw the type of carnage that no child — no human — should ever have to witness.
We were quickly learning a shooter was perched on top of Uncle Dan’s Camping store, firing a semi-automatic rifle into the crowd. It was an active shooter situation. And, look, I have never felt like any area is free of crime or violence. But never in a million years would I have thought this would happen here. I know it seems so cliche, but it’s true. Highland Park is a really small town that looks after each other because everyone, through some small degree, knows each other.
As I stood there, faced with the grim details of a shooter terrorizing our community, taking the lives of innocent parade goers — families with small children — I looked at my own family knowing that I had to be strong for my child. Knowing that I had to step up and keep leading them to safety.
I told Jill I was going back the car. There was no way Sophie could walk the 3 miles back to our house. And I didn’t think I could carry her and move at the type of speed that would ensure our safety. There wasn’t time to argue or plead my case, and nothing would make me listen. I told Jill to stay there with the crowd and I would run to get the car and come right back.
Now a new fear. Running away from my wife and kid. Not knowing if they’d be okay. Not knowing if I would be okay. Just knowing that I had to get us out of there. I was running as fast as I could back toward Central and St. Johns. I was running so fast and looked so distraught, I wondered if anyone would see me and the state I was in and if they might assume I was the shooter. But I couldn’t walk, there wasn’t time.
When I got back to Central and St. Johns, the brutality of what unfolded was only a block west of where I was now standing. There I stood surrounded by razor scooters with red white and blue streamers, lawn chairs and blankets, discarded headbands, kids bikes, travel coffee mugs and water bottles, wagons … all left behind in a haste. I tried not to think about it, hustling quickly to our car, moving as swiftly as I could to get back to Jill and Sophie. Never in my mind thinking the shooter could be on the loose. There were so many police officers, so many “good guys with a gun” at the parade, for sure they would have gotten him immediately. No question. Or so I thought, as I was unlocking the car and turning on the engine.
By nothing short of a miracle, I was now driving Jill’s Subaru, navigating myself away from the crime scene, heading back to my family I had left in waiting among the other families who stood in disbelief. I didn’t want to pause for a second. I didn’t even take the time to turn on the air conditioning. Engine start. Car in D. Go.
Now, I thought I had moved fast. But, when I finally got back to them, my heart sank. They were the only ones there. All of the other families that had been milling about on the corner had left. Jill and Sophie were alone. The only other soul there was an older gentleman volunteer directing traffic. Even Brad Schneider had left. Jill and Sophie were alone, but they were safe. I could breathe a small sigh of relief knowing we were heading home together unharmed.
Then new panic. Texting friends who were there. Making sure everyone was safe. Why wasn’t this one person texting back, were they okay? Did they get shot or leave their phone behind?
It’s been hard not to relive each moment of that morning. As videos started to surface on social media and in the news, it was impossible not to watch them. I needed to try and understand the magnitude of what happened. To be able to better connect the dots of what I thought was happening in the moment and what actually did happen at the time. I never felt like I had heard the gunshots until I saw the videos. It wasn’t a firecracker or the drum line. The sound had always been the consistent pulse of a gun firing off more than 80 rounds in less than a few minutes. A gun that should be in a war zone, not across the street from a Walker Brothers pancake house. No civilian should own a weapon of mass destruction like this. Ever.
I couldn’t pick up what the sounds of the rifle were then. Now I can’t unhear it. The pop pop pop pop seems impossible to turn down. It shows up in drum parts when I listen to music. It’s the ice cubes falling from our ice maker and landing into the tray.
I can’t unsee the moments either. I find myself lost in daydreams of crowds surging toward me like an infestation of rats fleeing a kitchen fire at a restaurant. Gun gun gun, run run run. Over and over again.
I can’t unfeel the grip of holding my child tightly to me. The bounce of her chin indenting my skin as I raced with her in my arms.
I can’t unsee the joyous smile she had when she saw how I decorated the wagon, or her glee in being pulled in it during the parade. And if I could live in that moment forever I would. But I can’t. Because now I see a picture of that abandoned wagon left on the street is being used as a Getty Image for articles written about this day.
It’s wild how my emotions seem to cycle from one to the next with no rhyme or reason. I’m sad. I’m relieved. I’m angry. I’m distraught. I’m helpless. I’m hopeful. I’m sickened. I’m safe, but far from okay.
I have such an immense amount of gratitude for the people who helped that day and continue to help our community heal. Our brave first responders and neighbors who stayed behind and went face first into the line of fire to help the wounded and weak. I feel so grateful for the miracle of where we were on the parade route, the instincts of my wife, and the fact that we were able to flee safely. And yet, overwhelming grief for those who did not. Families pulled apart. A child orphaned in seconds. A community broken. Friends injured. Friends of friends killed.
I’ve cried a lot these past few days. And, I’ll admit, I’ve always been a bit of an emotional guy. Heck, I usually can’t scroll past a wholesome internet or Upworthy Instagram post without shedding a few tears. Encanto? Forget about it. But the tears I’ve shed this week haven’t been like the others. Just an intense, unshakable sadness and guilt. Did I do enough? When I went back, should I have helped others? Did I put people in harm's way by leaving our wagon in the street? Was I selfish to run with my family and only think about our safety? Was I stupid for going back for the car?
Someone told me it’s normal to grieve this way and have questions like these. Everyone processes trauma differently and there is no wrong way to feel. But whatever these feelings are, they don’t feel good. I hope you never have to experience them. I know writing this out helps to get it off my chest. And I know it’s important to speak to a professional about what I experienced and how I’m feeling. And I will take those steps. I know this is something that won’t be fixed overnight.
But I do know one immediate step we can all take — support and vote for politicians who care more about human lives than pockets lined with cash. Please elect politicians who will enact smart, sensible gun laws. Civilians should not for any reason own semi-automatic killing machines. These are not weapons for self-defense. They have one purpose — kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible. Get them off our streets and out of our community.
And also, if you see something say something. If you know a troubled teen, an outcast, someone you think could harm themselves or others — speak up. Speak as loudly as you can. It blows my mind what I have learned about this shooter in the past few days. The signs were there — and many people did try to intervene. We failed and we can’t do it again.
Not for our community or yours.