Mother of Virginia Tech Shooting Victim Discusses Moving On
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Now, to another kind of remembrance.
Last April, the campus of Virginia Tech was changed forever when a gunman took the lives of 32 people. The cameras are gone now, it's off the front pages, but for the survivors it's still raw. Many are still struggling to make sense of it all.
In this week's Washington Post Sunday magazine, Holly Adams Sherman tells her story. She is a mother of Leslie Sherman. She was 20 when she died. The story is called "What Comes After." And Holly Adams was kind enough to join us today in our studio.
Holly, thank you for being here and if I may say just how sorry I am about your loss.
Ms. HOLLY ADAMS SHERMAN (Mother of Leslie Sherman): Oh, thank you very much. I'm honored to be here for two reasons: One, to talk a little bit more about the loss that I suffered but also because I am a retired naval officer and it's Veteran's Day and I'm very, very proud of that, too.
MARTIN: Then I thank you for your service. Can I ask you, Holly, just to start, what - and you are obviously a very strong woman, and I'm guessing that…
Ms. SHERMAN: No, that's fear that you see. It's not courage.
MARTIN: I'm guessing, though, that maybe being - this feeling is new to you. You've seen so much. I mean, we were talking just before we started that, you know, you served in - you were just in Iraq for six months as an investigator. So you clearly conquered physical fear. But I'm wondering whether all this is just new to you - new territory to you - if you ever touch a big experience in all these emotions?
Ms. ADAMS: I have to thank the author of the article in the Washington Post for giving away my age. So I'm going to go with that. I am a baby boomer. And of the last 53 years, 52 years, I thought I had just about seen it all. I thought I had just about felt it all. I thought I had just about seen the worst of humanity. I thought I'd witnessed the ugliest things you could possibly see. Nothing prepared me for April 16th, nothing. And I have to say that has to be the worst thing that can happen to a person is to lose a child.
MARTIN: What do you think is the hardest thing about this experience that other people who have not been through it just would not understand?
Ms. ADAMS: Emptiness. The emptiness. Thirty - I guess, I'd have to say 32 - 31, 32 other sets of parents, you know, including Cho's parents, went through the very, very same thing. Thirty-three families got on the roller coaster that day on April 16th. And we're stuck on this ride. The rest of the world got on the roller coaster too that day, but they got to get off. So - as the roller coaster just keeps going over and over and over again. We're, I think, at the point now where were trying to get to slow down a little so that we can take a look at the scenery around us and find another ride to take that's less impacting. It's been a very, very difficult time for me and for my husband and for my surviving daughter, and the other 32 families who got on that roller coaster with me. And there are a lot other things - a lot of things that we have in common - the families - but we all come from a different place. And it's such a eclectic group of people with such diversity that - and our approaches to handling our grief is so varied. There's a variety of hurt.
MARTIN: What? There is a variety, apparently, even within your own family. One of the things that I found very moving about the article is that you and your husband don't necessarily agree about what you should do now. I mean, you're -some of the families want to pursue a lawsuit because they still feel that they aren't getting the answers that they need and want, and others just don't think that's a good idea. That must be hard.
Ms. ADAMS: It's no secret that my husband and I have not agreed on everything over the last 21 years. We're a little bit - at polar ends when it comes to personality. So that's not a surprise. But yes, you're right. We - this is very, very fundamental and this is very important. This is the decision between having something flavored with salt or pepper. This is - this is real basic to the fabric of both of our beings. And, in my opinion, I don't know if we can get to the truth without pursuing what's available to further investigate what happened, leading up to April 16th. Well, my husband is thinking that this juncture is more concerned about concentrating on the celebration of life that was, and nurturing the life that we still we have with her surviving sister, Lisa.
MARTIN: Does it surprise you that no one has lost his job in the wake of what happened at Virginia Tech? And if they, if someone had, do you think that would, you know, such a stupid phrase, but do you think that would make you feel better?
Ms. ADAMS: I was quoted in the article saying I'd like to see Dr. Steger hang in the town square. That must have been one of my better moments. At least I didn't say anything about his genitals because that was (unintelligible).
MARTIN: Well, I'm, everybody knew it was metaphor.
Ms. ADAMS: Yeah. Would hanging somebody - would watching heads roll make me feel any better? No. No, that wouldn't make me feel any better. The loss is a loss. But I did learn something over the course of the last six months that I think it's important. When we, as families, ask for accountability, unfortunately accountability - the word itself implies blame. I would think now that I would rather use the word responsibility. Who accepts responsibility? And that word implies involvement. So what I would like to see would be to, over the course of Mr. Cho's timeline of his life, his twenty-some years of a lifetime - pinpoint, along that timeline - I like math so I like thinking of it in terms of one straight line - identifying the points on that line where somebody or something could have been involved. And as a result of their involvement, taken the responsibility to make a change that would further have some - modified the landscape of the massacre on April 16th. There are probably hundreds of points on that timeline that I think that - I'm not so much worried about the blame now, as I am about the responsibility. And once those points are identified, we'll have a better handle on how to prevent the same kind of thing from happening to another person, at another place, at another campus, U.S.A.
MARTIN: Because you don't want anybody else to go through this, obviously. You know, you mentioned landscape. We're down to our last minute, here, and I see that you have paint on your fingers. And I understand that you've been painting - you've been rediscovering your love of art and painting, in part to remember your daughter. Can you just tell me about some of your current work and how that helps you remember her?
Ms. ADAMS: Actually, I'm doing a second series of paintings. My first series was of Iraq. And I had gotten a good sale on black paint at a close-out sale from one of the art stores in the local area. So my paintings were dark and they were powerful and they were of scenes that I had remembered and interpreted in my own mind from the time that I spent in Iraq. When Leslie died, they were too dark for me to have around so I donated what I had remaining to Fort Belvoir, to the chapel that they have that they're going to, I believe, opening this year. And they're going to have a special wall for that.
MARTIN: And I see you doing sunflowers now. It's what you were telling me earlier. I'd love to see one of them if you ever feel that - if you'd ever be so kind as to share them with me.
Ms. ADAMS: And since - now, I'm doing pictures of things that I think Leslie would love. And she was a lover of color, so…
MARTIN: That's wonderful.
Ms. ADAMS: I'm doing some real…
Ms. ADAMS: …pretty, pretty things.
MARTIN: Pretty things. Holly Adams Sherman is the mother of Leslie Sherman. She was killed during the Virginia Tech shootings in April. She's featured in this weeks Washington Post's Sunday magazine story, What Comes After. She was kind enough to join me here in the studio. And if you want to read the story in its entirety, you can go to our Web site, npr.org/tellmemore.
Thank you so much, Holly.
Ms. ADAMS: You're welcome.