I stood there; stomach knotted and filled with butterflies all at once. My pulse pounding in my ears. Deafening. The woman behind the counter looked at me, waiting for my answer.
"Which eclair, Ma'am? The custard or the whipped cream?"
Custard. The answer was custard, yet I was having a hard time verbalizing it. The lights were suddenly brighter - too bright. And Evie was in mid-meltdown because the bakery associate had given her a chocolate chip cookie, instead of the sprinkle cookie. When did that happen? Did I tell her she could have a cookie?! It's 9 AM.
"Custard, please, two custard eclairs."
My eyes began burning as we continued through the store for our other items. Beer, Amstel Light, and a thank you card. I repeated twice so I would remember, amidst the noise in my head. I made my way down the dairy aisle and desperately fought off tears. An image of him flashed through my mind. Kind and gentle eyes, a big smile, and rosy cheeks saying hello as he stocked the bread on the other side of the aisle. Deep breath. Beer.
As I neared the cash registers, I continued breathing - please God, let me make it out of this store without crying. I made eye contact with the bag boy, assuming a place that Cory had helped me many times before. The moment we shared was intimate. He knew my grief, and I his. I put my items on the belt: one thank you card, one six pack, and two custard filled chocolate eclairs.
"Debit or credit? Ma'am, debit or credit?"
I apologized. "I'm sorry, I just can't think."
The eye contact from there on was brief and hurried. We all knew that if we lingered for a moment too long, the tears would not stop. Once in the car, still staving off tears, I began to write in my card. "Thank you, Daddy, for all you do. Most importantly, thank you for coming home. I love you very much." And I wept. Grieving for it all. For the loss of Cory and others just like him, out for a Saturday evening of fun. Grieving for the families that will never be the same and for the loss of our city's innocence. Completely overcome by a barrage of conflicting emotions - relief, sadness, pride, guilt, inspiration, humility, and loss. I felt it all with every fiber of my being.
As the daughter of an FBI Certified Bomb Technician, I am more accustomed to stories like Saturday night than most. SWAT call outs, bombs, long nights, and firefights are a part of my life. No news is good news, is the way I have grown up. Even still, as I sat in a notably quiet and somber White Wolf Cafe on Sunday morning, and we approached 10 AM without a word from my family my feelings of uneasiness heightened.
The immense amount of relief I felt when hearing the final word that my father was safe can be, only, exceeded by the pride I felt when hearing about his role. It was my Dad who breached the wall, and my Dad who helped take down the shooter. My Dad was ok, and he was a hero. I woke up this morning, and all I wanted to do was give my Dad a hug. I headed to Publix to pick up a few of his favorite things. I passed the flags at half mast and turned into my local grocery store. It was Cory's face that met me - as it had so many times before. That big smile and rosy cheeks - illuminated next to a candle and flowers.
I didn't personally know Cory, who was at Pulse celebrating his 21st birthday. I didn't have to. I feel the pang of his loss, and I have cried many tears for him today. He had a gracious spirit, and my experiences at Publix were better because of him. As a mother, I can't begin to comprehend the devastation felt by his family, and it's important that I honor him. He was a beloved member of my community, our world was brighter because of him, and he will be missed. I also honor my Father, Sergeant Fred Westerberg of the Orange County Sherrif's Office, in addition to all Law Enforcement, and first responders on the scene who put their lives on the line to minimize the loss felt by Orlando.
I honor the medical team at ORMC, who worked tirelessly and diligently to breathe life into each they worked on. I honor the victims and their families. And I honor the citizens of our community, who have come together in a way that is comforting and inspiring. We will move forward, together. I woke up this morning wanting nothing more than to hug my Dad, and upon realizing the loss of Cory, made sure that I hugged him tighter. For we are never guaranteed tomorrow.
In remembrance of Cory James Connell, 21, College Park, FL.