Commentary: Jarring call about brother’s shooting brings perspective

She said it far too calmly to match the words and their significance.

“Joe’s been shot.”

In hindsight, it’s probably because I wasn’t the first person she’d told.

My mother has a lovable habit of slightly exaggerating things, so when I woke to a text requesting me to “call as soon as you get this,” I wasn’t overly worried.

It was Christmas Eve. I hadn’t wanted to navigate the inevitable crowd at the grocery store the night before, so I set my alarm and got up early instead. I was too groggy to write out a list, so I tossed on some clothes and grabbed my phone, purse and the recipes I intended to make that afternoon.

It wasn’t quite 7 a.m., and I

didn’t want to wake my husband or our kids, so I waited to call until I was in the car.

“Hey, Mom, everything all right?”

The world changed after that. I heard her, but I didn’t understand. Nothing in my body was responding the way it’s supposed to. My hands were shaking, my chest felt hollow and my mind was forming more questions than I could articulate. I was instantly confused, angry and desperately fearful.

She was only able to tell me my brother was one of a few firefighters shot while responding to an early-morning fire in my hometown of Webster, N.Y. Later we learned, in addition to Joe, two responders were killed and another seriously injured.

At the time, though, there were no answers. He was in surgery. All we could do is pray.

I drove the block back home, raced upstairs in tears to relay the news to my husband and say goodbye. I promised I would be back in time to read “The Night Before Christmas” to our kids and help tuck them into bed. He understood and begged me to drive carefully.

The next four and a half hours in the car were some of the most agonizing of my life. Phone calls were the only thing that punctuated the silence. I have the good fortune of being friends with a TV news anchor who was covering the story and attending all of the press conferences. My family was frequently too busy with emergency personnel to keep me in the loop, so he did.

Other than a necessary stop for gas, I drove straight to the hospital. I was admittedly in a daze, but I remember standing at the pump feeling the desire to scream the fact that gun violence affected me. It wasn’t in some faraway city where it could be dismissed as something tragic. I wanted to tell everyone what it felt like. I wanted to break down.

But I knew Joe hadn’t, so I couldn’t.

When I arrived at the hospital, fire trucks lined the entryway all the way to the street. My brother David met me in the lobby. We passed hundreds of first-responders on the way to the emergency wing, all there just to show their support.

My eyes welled up at the sight of them.

Although my entire family discouraged me from coming – even going so far as to take turns passing around the phone to yell at me for even considering it – what they didn’t understand is that I needed them. I physically needed to be there, surrounded by the communal grief in order to finally feel free enough to exhale mine.

I stayed three hours. During that time I shared a lot of heartache, but the 15 minutes I got to see Joe was undoubtedly therapeutic. He was badly injured, suffering a shattered pelvis and permanently has a bullet fragment lodged in his spine, but he was very fortunate, and so were we.

The drive home was a bit more concrete, but the fact that I hadn’t showered or eaten all day started to settle in as I navigated the snowy roads in the dark. I stopped again for gas and still fought the urge to yell about it to anyone who would listen.

As I stood in line to buy a hot coffee and a bag of chips for dinner, I inadvertently shoved my hand in my coat pocket and discovered the recipes inside. I thought about how differently the day could’ve gone — for better or worse.

The grocery stores all closed early for the holiday. There would be no homemade cinnamon bread, no quiche, no pineapple sausage on Christmas morning.

But it didn’t matter. My family did.

I got home in time to tuck my children into bed, kiss them goodnight and told them to dream of sugarplums.

Gun violence affected me, but it will not get the best of me. I spent Christmas Day feeling very fortunate, joyous and blessed.

It took a horrible tragedy to remind me, but the best gifts in life truly don’t come in a box.

Hold onto them with all of your might.

Kelly Valeri is a former Altoona Mirror copy editor. She lives in State College with her husband and two children. She’s happy to report that her brother is “doing well, but he’s still in a lot of pain. He’s making great progress with physical therapists, and we’re all hopeful he’ll be able to return to his active lifestyle and firefighting soon.”