It’s the driving factor behind almost all of my thoughts about that day. And, as I’m sure most people can attest to, guilt is a tricky beast to navigate.
Guilt schemes against you. It can convince you of horrible things; of thoughts that you would never rationally consider. Outside of plain sorrow, guilt is haunting in the worst way.
I was in Atlanta on Aug. 4, 2019. My closest friends were and are scattered throughout the country and we somehow managed to arrange a visit, despite our various schedules and distance. We were at our Airbnb, drinking whiskey after a really fantastic dinner in Midtown. We were reminiscing about our twenties, poking fun at each other, laughing at my Uber ride from the airport that ended in a hit and run and a long, hot wait for the cops outside of a coffee shop half a block from my friend’s home.
My husband was also out of town for his brother’s bachelor party. Various other close friends were absent from where they would normally be — in our Oregon District, working or hanging out, visiting friends at their jobs, strolling around to see everyone they’re used to seeing daily. Gathering in the community that we all care so deeply about.
I stepped outside that evening to smoke a cigarette and scroll through Facebook, which is when I saw it. I couldn’t tell you what the post said or who posted it now; all I can recall thinking was, “There is no way.”
The group of women I was with are all Dayton natives. They have since moved on to further their lives and careers, grow as people, and experience life outside of their hometown — but they are Daytonians.
It’s a weird, special privilege that, as a military kid, I’ve never witnessed before. Dayton is special. The Oregon District is special. We’re not big, we’re not flashy, and we often ain’t quite right. We drink a lot of Tully and we often have to fight for our place among much larger, much more influential cities. But Dayton perseveres.
When I walked back into our condo and shared what I’d just read, the room blurred.
All at once, I thought of every single person that I knew was in the district at that moment. I started frantically calling, while simultaneously knowing that calling was not helpful because I was distracting my loved ones from handling the unthinkable situation they were in the depths of.
I cried. Guilt confronted me within minutes. I considered flying home right then.
I flew home a day later. My business partner and best friend had been downtown that night and stayed up all night to help a friend and manager navigate the chaos after the shooting. I had spoken to her in frantic texts and calls but had yet to connect with anyone else to check in.
My initial drive into the district was pure anxiety. I stepped out of my car to immediate embraces from the family that embraced me when I became a Daytonian.
Guilt showed back up. I could have helped in some way, if I had been there. I could have managed the pain and confusion. I could have been someone’s backbone. I could have been there.
All of that being said, my thoughts and feelings regarding that day mean little, considering the bigger picture.
I’m so anxious and hesitant to speak for everyone I care so deeply about and I’m anxious even writing this now, so the following opinions of mine will be brief.
No one knows how to move forward after something so devastating. We did the best we could. It was really difficult to be at the helm of an issue that, while hitting so close to home, is a global issue that provokes very strong opinions.
As a community still reeling from the aftermath of blood staining our streets, and after asking for insight from my fellow business owners and employees, I would suggest that asking the folks who spend their lives in the Oregon District for details about that night isn’t the way to go. Stop coming into our sacred space and taking selfies. Stop dropping by to instigate a conversation about gun control.
We’ve found ourselves abruptly and unwelcomingly forced into a political conversation that no one has an answer to. Those of you who most likely mean well in asking for details aren’t helping.
I would ask that folks consider humanity first and foremost. Conner Betts is not the be-all and end-all of Dayton. He was an example of someone who possibly could have been helped and, ultimately, fell between the cracks. I’ll never excuse his actions and I condemn them wholeheartedly. But we can’t speak for him.
Moving forward, I’m choosing to focus on how our city rallied. How we always rally. How we take these horrific circumstances and turn them around. How we are often dealt a hand that seems irredeemable and, somehow, we make it better. Make it positive. Use it for good. Use it to bond. Use it to raise money for others. Use it as a reason to do better. Use it as a reason to check in on others. Use it as a reason to self reflect on the fact that we all have limited time here and, while we can’t control circumstances like what happened on Aug. 4, we can control how we treat one another. We can focus on being the helpers in times of strife. And we can certainly support one another when guilt creeps in.
Kait Gilcher is a small business owner and former creative writing teacher in Dayton. She also serves on the Oregon District Business Association, working for the community by helping plan events and connect businesses. She co-owns Heart Mercantile and beck + call.
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