Homecoming

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Around noon on Dec. 2, I started to get CNN notifications on my phone about a mass shooting in Southern California. Two suspects opened fire at a holiday party in San Bernardino, killing 14 and seriously injuring another 22. Over the next several hours, major media outlets reported an act of terrorism associated with Islamic radicals. My home felt like the central focus of the Western hemisphere.

Prior to its reopening on Jan. 4, the Inland Regional Center complex — where the shooting took place — was memorialized with hundreds of flowers, candles and messages to the victims.” Photo by Kelsey Hill.
Prior to its reopening on Jan. 4, the Inland Regional Center complex — where the shooting took place — was memorialized with hundreds of flowers, candles and messages to the victims.” Photo by Kelsey Hill.

San Bernardino, two hours east of Los Angeles, borders the town my parents live in and the suburb where I grew up. Like many other Inland Empire (IE) cities, San Bernardino has played a big role in my life and is a city I feel a sense of community in.

The two deceased suspects lived in a house in Redlands on the same block as several friends of mine. The location of the final shootout between them and the police is just across the freeway from the hospital where I was born. To say the San Bernardino terror attacks happened close to home is a massive understatement — for me, it happened at home.

My best friend was at home in San Bernardino while it was happening, and many of my peers in the nearby schools were under lockdown. It was distressing being so far away and not knowing how the events were unfolding. It seemed like I was getting more information from my Facebook feed than from my breaking news alerts. I was uncomfortable watching the media frantically zoom in on the most familiar places of my life, sensationalizing loss and terror without any context to the community that was grieving. Going home to the aftermath of it though was a more emotional experience than I could have ever anticipated.

The IE, a region with a rough exterior and a rougher reputation, was grieving in a way I have never seen before — schools, industries and public spaces were united in displaying symbols of their condolences. It seemed that everyone I talked to had a connection to the incident in some way, that everyone’s heart was heavy with the same collective sadness. Though the violence only occurred in San Bernardino and Redlands, the victims were from all over the tri-county area including Colton, Fontana, Rialto, Riverside and one man from Yucaipa. This tragedy has been dubbed the worst terror attack since 9/11, and it brought the IE — the only community I knew before Santa Cruz — to its knees.

After 24 days, I went to pay my respects at the Inland Regional Center (IRC), the site of the attack. The building was gated off, banners reading “SB Strong,” wrapped the perimeter. Candles, signs and flowers sat on the street corner with the names and faces of the 14 victims.

Photo by Kelsey Hill
Photo by Kelsey Hill

I bent down to light a saint’s candle, and caught myself fixated on the handwritten “R.I.P. Cousin” at the base of a homemade cross. I spent a lot of time looking over the pictures of the victims and their loved ones, reading the messages written to them on cards and posters. Thinking of all the people who lost someone in this senseless act of violence and all the lives touched by this horrible event, I lost control of the tears I was holding back.

A friend recently told me that “irrational circumstances warrant irrational responses.” As a woman who does not practice religion, I felt odd signing the cross over my body before leaving the space. There’s irony of turning to religion while confronting the horrors of fundamentalism face-to-face. But, as a person who champions reason above all, there is little to comfort yourself with when a situation is totally devoid of it.

“You’d never think it would happen here, in the IE,” my neighbor told my dad and I later that same night. We were sitting around a propane heater in his garage and he was telling us about his daughter being a patient at the IRC. That evening she was at a benefit at the local Hangar 24 Brewery where the proceeds went to the victims’ families. The next day, the San Bernardino Healing Memorial Show would be held at the National Orange Show Events Center as a free concert focused on charity and healing in the community.

You never think something of this caliber would happen to you or yours. The horrible reality of living in a country totaling 372 mass shootings last year is that it does, and for me, it did.

I know I never thought the IE would make global headlines because of religious violence. I also never thought I would see San Bernardino — a “broken city” according to the Los Angeles Times last June — come together to be “SB Strong.”

The IE is collectively heartbroken, but it will recover in the way it knows how: through its prevailing sense of community across towns, cities and even county lines. Grieving lasts much longer than media coverage does, and in the coming months, I remain confident the area will not let this tragedy be forgotten.

Before Dec. 2, it was difficult time explaining where I was from. Now, people know exactly where I mean, for the worst possible reason. The world is smaller than we would like to think, and our lives are never immune to its constant motions. Tragedy can be a scary thought, but it also gives more reason to appreciate where you’re from, to see the good in your community and to hug your loved ones a little closer each time you have to say goodbye.