Kelly Carneal Firesheets survived the Dec. 1, 1997 shooting at Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky. She lives in Mount Lookout.
To my neighbors in Marshall County, Kentucky:
It is with great sadness that I welcome you to the club of survivors.
Yesterday, you were victims. Or witnesses. Or “the community.” When the sun came up this morning and you took a breath, you became one of us.
We are the survivors. When you are a survivor, every breath you take is an act of defiance: Defiance of fear, anger, death, isolation, and loneliness. Breathe that defiance into your lungs and know that you are in good company — there are a lot of us out here.
Each survivor has her own story, and each is infinitely complex. No one can really capture the web of connections that make these tragedies so painful complicated and confusing for those of us who live them.
I became a survivor on December 2, 1997, the day after my younger brother opened fire on a group of us in the lobby of Heath High School. He killed three of my friends. He hurt many more people. He broke my heart. But let me tell you a secret that the world doesn’t know: the story is not about him. The story is about us.
You don’t feel it now, but you are the heroes of this story. Write your narrative with all the energy you have, and treat it with great honor. Even the ugly parts.
In the coming days, weeks and years, you will do amazing things.
You will go back to school and you will go back to work. You will have a prom and a graduation. You will fall in love. You will be heartbroken and you will be afraid, but you will do it anyway.
You will feel unimaginable pain and will discover the true meaning of the word “terror.” You will experience profound joy and earth-shattering awe.
Embrace all of these things because the feelings will come and go, but that richness of life is a very special gift. You are the recipient of an extra dose of life.
All these things will become normal to you, but they are not normal. They’re superpowers! You have become superhuman because you are a survivor. Keep breathing.
Here’s a message from 20 years out: In 20 years, this will not make sense and it will still hurt like hell, but hang in there together. Do it with the kind of confidence that only comes from knowing you’ve already lived the worst day of your life. In 20 years, you will be a force to be reckoned with.
That’s what we become. My high school classmates are my heroes. The nerds and jocks have turned into doctors, nurses, therapists, teachers, attorneys, and police officers. We are parents, community leaders, and advocates.
Not one of us had it easy, but we know that heroes never do. We are so very different from one another, and we have such different perspectives. We don’t all agree or even get along, but we are tied together across time and space, and we are so very strong.
We are all driven in unique ways to make the world a better place — to make up for the ugly we have lived. Sometimes we do that through smarts, sometimes through savvy, and sometimes through spunk and sheer force of will (we have a lot of that!). We always do it with remarkable purpose.
Today you’re at the center of the world, and your private grief is very public.
You’ll find that America can only digest these tragedies in tiny pieces, and these conversations will move with the ebb and flow of the news cycle.
There will be lots of discussions about politics, priorities, and social media condolences. Those are good for civil discourse, but they are not for you. Not right now.
Don’t read the articles. Don’t let outsiders write your story. Circle the wagons and grieve in the way you need to, even if you risk being misunderstood. This is your story, and it is a novel, not an article. When the nation moves on, you’ll feel very relieved. But you’ll also feel sort of lonely … as if Marshall County is forgotten.
Know in your heart that you are never alone and you are never forgotten. You are part of our club, and you are in the company of heroes. Keep breathing.
“Contact us for more information or if you just need to talk. Or, call our crisis line at 800.592.3980“.