On the night of Nov. 26, 2008, I was at Leopold Café. I remember going on an early Christmas shopping spree earlier that day and being completely exhausted. Brunching myself back to life didn’t seem like a bad idea at the time – if only I had known what was to come. If I could go back in time, would I have made the same choices?
Leo’s was packed to the gills. I vividly recall the front desk informing us that we would have to wait another 30 minutes just to enter the cafe, which was running behind schedule. I was beginning to become impatient, nagging and pestering my friends to go someplace else. But they insisted, and we quickly became engrossed in our usual chit chat just like a group of girls would on any other night. However, that night in particular was different, and nothing could prepare me for what was to unfold. Unbeknownst to me, this small inconvenience in my life would be the difference between life and death.
Not far from the café, armed men were docked at the city’s waterfront. They hijacked several cars and split into three groups, one of those groups entering the café.
Thirty minutes later, I was acutely aware of my phone’s constant alternating beep and buzz, filled with texts and calls from my now frantic mother. I began to reiterate that I would be back home in exactly 20 minutes. After all, I was only a 4-mile drive from home. Because we frequented the café, the server knew we preferred to sit by the windows on the second level. Soon after I received the message from my mom, one of my friend’s asked me to accompany her to the restroom. Destiny intervened to save our lives. While I was waiting for my friend and dabbing away on my phone, I heard what I thought were fireworks, but with an intensity that was deafeningly loud.
Before this moment, I had never heard the sound of gunshots in my entire existence. To hear the sound of fireworks at this hour was confusing to me. But this was different, and the flashes of light that accompanied were not fantasmic, rather horrific. Just then, an elderly woman came running into the restroom, her arms wrapped around her rib cage, frantically trying to stop her profuse bleeding. My blood ran cold from the sight of what was in front of me. My first instinct was to help her, but she kept yelling at us to turn around and leave.
I’d always heard of the phrase “feet stuck to the ground,” but it wasn’t until this moment that I’d actually experienced it myself. My heart was pounding and rising in tandem with my pulse as I began robotically running without a particular destination in mind. What I did not know at that time was that the sound was grenades and bullets instead of firecrackers. I was in the middle of a major terrorist attack.
In complete silence and darkness, I sat cross-legged on the restroom sink. Looking in the restroom mirror with my tear-stained face, I found myself in a situation I never thought I’d be in. There was chaos, panic and fear as people ran everywhere– within just a few minutes the men had opened fire in all directions. A few people miraculously remained calm, while others had fainted or were in a state of shock. The bomb blast, the sound of gunfire and the fire engulfing the area was petrifying. Even though crying helps no one, that’s all I could bring myself to do. My phone began to ring with frantic calls from my parents, but I had no idea what to say to them. Would I even live another day?
Not knowing if we’d be killed in an instant, what would happen next or if the world would end before I could see my family again had me tongue-tied. On two occasions, I was saved by strangers who I owe not only my life but my sanity too. The first occasion was when they bolted the restroom doors open to find me sitting in the bathroom sink. The second occasion was when they dismissed any negativity that I seemed to voice out loud. These people were simply ordinary individuals being extraordinary heroes. They shone a light on the finest elements of humanity on that dark and bloody night.
I recall conditioning my mind to the idea of death being near and suppressing any illusion of hope while I stayed locked in the bathroom for what felt like hours. My spirit of survival was quickly dying.
I could feel the heat and discomfort when the grenades landed. The suspense of what was to follow was killing me internally.Exactly three hours later I decided to escape for my now tenterhooks-life after realizing that the fire would engulf me, if not the bullets. It was a risk my 13 year-old self thought was worth fighting for. I did not want to sit bolt-locked in the suspense between life and death. The path was clear, but the deafening silence was chilling. For the first time, I regretted the second level of the café. If only I choose to sit near the entrance, would I have had to endure all of this?
Taking off my shoes to avoid making noise, while I ran to safety, I could only smell and feel a lot of smoke, shattered glass, bullet and blood smeared walls and dead bodies. I think back to never looking back as I ran. I am not an athletic person, but nothing mattered at that moment. Hell, I’d never ran in my life before this. Every step I took while running made me reflect on my various life decisions.
Death to me was always meeting one’s end till that day. Even more mortifying is knowing that you are going to die. I didn’t want to die so quickly. I was just 13, a little quantum in this universe, and materialistic things were all so insignificant and meaningless. It was all of humanity fighting against the inhuman.
Flashbacks of men, women and children, bleeding, screaming and crying all came flooding back to me. But the clearest memory is of my time deadbolted in the restroom. That experience altered my life forever. Not to mention the weeks of rehabilitative therapy that followed. Am I braver for it?Maybe; although I’m not sure about that. What I can attest to is that, while others may see me as a damaged good, I see myself mended and purposeful because of that painful experience. This, with no doubt, is the most valued facet of my recovery process. To me, that Wednesday night is when many brave individuals including myself looked death in it’s eye and said “thank you” when He turned his head away. Moments like these, reiterate your faith in God.