In all the reporting of the shootings at The Mall in Columbia, one sentence hit me like a punch in the gut.
"His mother right now is struggling for a reason to live," said Ellis Cropper of the woman who raised 19-year-old Darion Marcus Aguilar, who shot two strangers and then himself on Saturday.
Struggling for a reason to live.
Her son, the younger of her two children, had not only taken his own life — an unbearable tragedy for a mother — he had taken the lives of two other young people. The children of two other families.
Jordan C. Bullard Aguilar, who has not spoken publicly, seems to have known something was wrong as soon as she discovered her son wasn't at the Dunkin' Donuts in College Park on Saturday morning where he was supposed to be working. She stopped by to see him and was told that he'd never shown up to open the store that morning.
She called police and by 1:40 p.m. had filed a missing persons report, suggesting that she didn't think Darion was just goofing off. When police arrived at 5 p.m. to take her report, she showed them a journal he kept, one that recorded his "general unhappiness," police said, and his awareness that he was battling mental illness.
But by that time, Brianna Benlolo, 21 and the mother of a 2-year-old boy, was dead. So was Tyler Johnson, 25 and an enthusiastic promoter of the sobriety he had just accomplished. Both were gunned down in the Zumiez skate and snowboard shop.
A cell phone ping let police and Darion's mother know that he was at the mall, too. What they would learn was that after shooting Brianna and Tyler, he'd put the shotgun in his mouth and killed himself.
Mr. Cropper said Darion's mother never saw a shotgun or ammunition in the house. But the parents of the Columbine killers never saw the guns and the pipe bombs either. Teenagers can live a secret life. Still, she knew right away something was wrong Saturday morning. Wrong enough to call police.
We focus on the interior life of the shooters in these terrible events, and the breadcrumbs of disaffection they might have been dropping all along, hints that those around them missed.
And we vilify the parents, too. Seung-Hui Cho, who shot 32 people and himself at Virginia Tech. Didn't his parents see how crazy he had become? And what was Nancy Lanza doing buying guns for her son Adam, who was so clearly disturbed even before he shot 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School?
We look for evidence of a dysfunctional family life, too. Adam Lanza's parents were divorced and he had no contact with his father. Seung-Hui Cho's parents were immigrants struggling to make their way in a new culture and working endless hours at a dry-cleaning shop. Darion Aguilar's parents were divorced in October after a 14-year separation, and his living arrangements seem to have been peripatetic in the last few years.
But think about what it would be like if you went to visit your son at his part-time job and he wasn't there. Think about how you would feel if he didn't answer his phone. Think about how you would feel if you knew just enough — if the hairs were prickling on the back of your neck — that you called police right away.
Think about what it would be like to hear about the shootings at Virginia Tech or the Mall in Columbia and fear that your child might be hurt, only to find out that he is the shooter. To learn that he is dead and he has killed others.
The grief and remorse, in equal measure, would be a burden impossible for a mother to bear.
She would be left "struggling for a reason to live."
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