This is the third in a three-part series on gun violence.
In part one, long after the shooting at her old high school, Megan Stielstra worries about her father’s heart.
In part two, Nicole Piasecki writes a letter to the wife of the shooter who killed her father.
In part three, Megan and Nicole talk about the shooting that changed their lives, who owns the story, and what to do with fear.
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On December 16th, 1993 there was a shooting at my high school in Chelsea, Michigan. A sleepy little town west of Ann Arbor, the reporter called it. I was a freshman in college. I watched it unfold on the national news from a thousand miles away. This was years before Twitter, before we all had cell phones in our pockets. I couldn’t get through to anyone at home. I couldn’t find out what had happened. One fatality, said the reporter. A local school administrator.
My father was a local school administrator.
Hours later, I heard his voice on the phone. Anyone who has been through such waiting knows that planet of relief. But here’s the brutal truth: as I learned that my dad was alive, another girl learned that hers was not. Our superintendent and friend, Joe Piasecki, was killed that day. He had a daughter a year younger than me. Her name was Nicole.
I’ve thought about writing to her at least a hundred times.
“Here,” I would say. “Here is my heart.”
A few years ago I started working on an essay about my relationship with my dad. He lives on an island now in the Gulf of Alaska. He had heart problems while hunting in the mountains, and, after surgery, went right back up. I was angry at the risks I thought he was taking with his health. I was scared I would lose him and I didn’t know what to do with that fear, but I learned something in the writing about the choices we make to keep living. He’d quit his job and moved to Alaska not long after the shooting. He needed those miles. He needed that mountain. I get that now.
After I finished a draft, I looked Nicole up online. She’s a writer now, and a writing teacher, same as me. How do you start with someone you haven’t spoken with in 20 years? I wrote. I sent her the essay, asking if she wanted me to change anything, cut anything, leave it in a drawer. I’d never given anyone that kind of power over my work but in in this case it felt vital. It didn’t matter who I was as a writer. It mattered who I was as a person.