Suzanne Grimes thanks God every day that her son, Kevin survived. But the trauma of April 16, 2007 has left a wound that has yet to heal. She lives with the knowledge that Kevin’s life over the last six plus years has been a struggle to return to some form of normalcy. The initial numerous doctors’ appointments, months of physical therapy and the disruption of a life because of the physical and emotional scars of April 16th had a traumatic effect on her as she watched her son through it all. She held his hand through the pain and the nightmares, and yet at the same time was an emotional mess. As time passes, the memories of doctors’ appointments have diminished, but a trigger can bring back reminders that are vivid. Images such as seeing Kevin’s face being transformed when he sees someone who cannot walk—those images will forever be etched in her mind.
A particularly traumatic time for Suzanne was the period of limbo on April 16th when she did not know if Kevin was alive or dead.
Her struggle to return to some sense of normalcy continues to this day.
Grimes wakes up in the middle of the night in a panic: she is in the German class with her son that fateful day; other times she is in the back of the ambulance with Kevin as they rush to save his life. After Kevin returned to Virginia Tech and his graduate program in the fall of 2007, Suzanne thought her resentment would subside, but it did not. Every time the phone rings, she thinks Kevin has been shot, he has been hurt, or that someone has killed him. Even now, she fears that something will happen to Kevin, not that he is incapable of taking care for himself. She just worries. She has a nightmare that returns over and over again. There will be a phone call from the school administration that something has happened. She did not get such a call on April 16th, but she nevertheless worries that such a call will come in now—Kevin works for Virginia Tech.
Suzanne remembers the chaotic, panicked voices as she attempted to find Kevin; no one knew what was happening and no one could tell her if he was alive. No one called to say there was a shooting on campus. She now realizes why the school did not call; administrators did not have an emergency plan or if they had one, did not follow it. In her opinion, the school was too busy trying to figure out how to shield itself from bad publicity from the failure to warn following the shootings at West Ambler Johnston Hall.
The sounds of 4th of July fireworks send the nerves of her spine rattling; she jumps when she hears loud, unfamiliar sounds. In large crowds she looks at unfamiliar faces—she wonders, is he a killer? Will she try to murder me? When entering a restaurant she surveys those seated looking for any hint of threatening behavior; she often scopes out the number of entrances and exit points.
Grimes no longer looks at the photos, articles, and documents dealing with the Virginia Tech tragedy, because it brings back her feelings that the school hid and distorted the truth. That truth is that the school put protecting itself above her son’s safety.
Suzanne Grimes rarely watches the news; the shooting at Northern Illinois University, Ft. Hood, or the mass killings in Aurora, Colorado, and Sandy Hook elementary school bring the horrors of Virginia Tech flooding back. She is acutely aware of the fact that she lives in a different world from those who have not been involved in a shooting tragedy. She realizes every day of her life how precious and how fragile life is. The realization is overpowering. She is so thankful to have Kevin, but she feels the pain of the parents who lost their children with a powerful intensity.
How does Suzanne Grimes move on? She began by taking nearly three years, from the fall of 2007 to January 2010, to investigate and try to get answers to how this could have happened. Many answers still elude her, but what has not escaped her investigation is the fact that the families were not told the truth. Over the course of her research, Grimes came to a number of key realizations—first and foremost, that the families were deceived.
Suzanne spent endless hours sitting in front of a computer looking at documents. At times she spent 12-16 hours a day doing her research. She vividly remembers going to Wal-Mart for copier ink or paper and then returning to try to put the jigsaw puzzle together. Suzanne takes solace in the knowledge that her research has benefited all the Tech families by helping to uncover the truth. Looking back, she sees the financial, physical, and emotional toll the shooting and subsequent cover up have had on her and her family—but it was worth it.
While going through shooting-related documents, including emails, in April 2008, Grimes realized that Tech orchestrated the first Governor’s Review Panel Report. She realized after the settlement of June 2008 that the families were deceived: “We were led down a path of no legal return.” It is so disheartening for Suzanne that the families of the deceased never got what they wanted—the truth. It is upsetting to her when she realizes how the families of the deceased and survivors were manipulated.
Grimes realized during the commemoration day, April 16, 2009, that former Governor Kaine would not and did not want to change anything in the panel report. “I realized that he had bigger avenues to pursue, such as his political career, and just wanted the tragedy to go away. I realized then, that we, the families, would never receive an apology from the school administration or that they would never admit that they did anything wrong.” She understands now, that if the university had come forward and admitted its mistake in not notifying the campus after the double homicide, there might never have been a lawsuit.
For Suzanne Grimes, it is clear—that the school needs to admit its failure in not issuing a warning; she recognizes that the school’s emergency plan was woefully inadequate.
More and more Grimes realized the families had been manipulated. They had been left out of pertinent decisions concerning the allocations of the funds raised in memory of Cho’s victims. On top of that, there would never be an admission of responsibility or an apology from any of the parties in charge of the security of the campus or the investigation of the shooting.
Suzanne Grimes moved on by seeking the truth and exposing the lies. There are times when she starts thinking about how the school administration failed in their responsibility to protect the victims. She gets moody, upset, and angry. When that happens she goes for a run, swims laps or does something—anything—to take her mind off of the shooting.
Following one of the families’ meetings, David Ford, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, approached Suzanne to offer her an apology for what happened. He told her, “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about that day.” Her reply was cold, “Good, because my son has to live with his injuries; he still has a 9 mm bullet in him and he has emotional scars that will never be erased.” She will always remember the expression on Ford’s face. Her tone had been blunt. Indeed, it took her a long time to be able to talk to anyone in connection with the university without bitterness.
Suzanne also has moments, such as around Kevin’s birthday, when she should be happy, but sinks into the depths of depression. She worries about what Kevin will be like when he is her age. What his physical and emotional health will be in the future. While walking on the beach during a recent family vacation, she told Kevin, “I wish that I could trade places with you that day, I wish that I could have been sitting in Norris Hall.” Grimes says that if she could give Kevin anything she would give him that. “It is so unfair!”
Suzanne Grimes says that her relationship with Kevin has always been close, but now they have a unique, strong bond. For her, it is incredible that people in positions of responsibility at Virginia Tech have total amnesia on the witness stand and all they can say is, “I don’t remember” or “I don’t recall.” Suzanne has no memory problems. She can remember every detail of that day and of the days thereafter.
As time has passed it has become apparent to her just how strong her son is, how he handled his own emotional healing through physical activity. Her son’s strength has had a profound and positive impact on her ability to recover. It was Kevin’s determination to not to let April 16th control him or to let it be the most important aspect of his life that gave her strength.
To this day, Suzanne Grimes has a clear vision of what Kevin went through in German class when Cho entered. She explained, “The difficulty is that a mother and son have a natural connection, but the magnitude of what he went through created a unique bond—sometimes we read each others thoughts.” There are times she wishes she could erase it all, make the horrific nightmare disappear, but she cannot.
She knows that her life would be radically different had Kevin died that cold April day. “I pray each night, I thank God for him, for my children, grandchildren and for my husband John. I pray for the parents and families of the 32 people killed; I pray to try and give them some comfort.” When these and other worries begin to close in on her, husband John and others listen and comfort her. Her focus has shifted from her preoccupation with April 16th to something she realized she had neglected—her family, her relationships with them and her own emotional healing. Even though she has distanced herself from the April 16th families, she thinks about them and wonders how they are doing, how they are healing.
Even though a move to Florida has helped Suzanne transform her life, her vivid memories of that horrific day were captured in the iconic photograph of her son begin carried out of Norris Hall like a sack of potatoes—a photograph that made the front pages around the world. Suzanne Grimes will move on only when the truth is told—when the truth is made public. She continues to pray that the complete truth will come out some day and people will be held accountable for their actions and inactions. (To be continued)