What Comes After
They lost their daughter in the deadliest campus massacre in U.S. history. Now one parent thinks a lawsuit might be the only way to hold someone accountable for her death, while the other believes it would only prolong their pain.
HOLLY ADAMS WAS THINKING THERE WAS NO POINT IN COOKING DINNER -- her husband, Tony Sherman, had called to say he was running late -- when the phone rang again in her Springfield kitchen. Holly picked it up, assuming it was Tony or their 19-year-old daughter, Lisa. It was a Sunday afternoon in mid-August, and Tony and Lisa were in Blacksburg, Va., getting Lisa moved into a new apartment before the start of classes at Virginia Tech.
But the person on the line was a man Holly did not know, a Tech administrator calling to give her some disconcerting news.
"I'm very sorry to tell you this, but there's been another incident," Holly remembers him saying. "It may involve your daughter, Lisa. We didn't want you to hear it on the news."
I'm very sorry to tell you this, but there's been another incident. The call was shocking, yet it felt, to Holly, sickeningly inevitable. Holly had been beset by dread ever since Lisa enrolled at Virginia Tech, where, almost exactly four months earlier, on April 16, 2007, Holly and Tony's older daughter, Leslie, 20, had been shot and killed along with 31 other students and faculty members in the worst campus massacre in the nation's history. Before the shooting, Leslie had persuaded her younger sister to transfer to Tech so they could attend college together. Afterward, Holly urged Lisa to reconsider, but Lisa felt she owed it to her sister to honor their plan.
Now, Holly thought her worst fears had been realized and that she had lost her remaining child. "I hate Virginia Tech! You can't take my other daughter from me!" she remembers screaming at the caller, who urged her to calm down, explaining that there had been a carbon monoxide leak in Lisa's apartment complex. Some students had been hospitalized, but they did not know which ones.
Holly hung up and frantically dialed Tony, who told her the leak had been discovered before they'd even arrived at Lisa's apartment, and everything was fine. They hadn't told Holly because they hadn't wanted to cause her more anxiety than she was already feeling.
Holly wasn't sure she believed him. She called Lisa for the reassurance of hearing her voice. When Lisa didn't answer, she panicked. "It was just like when I was trying to call Leslie," recalls Holly, who with terrible force was transported back to the morning of April 16. "Oh God, oh God, oh God," she remembers thinking as she redialed Lisa's number. And then Lisa answered and apologized for worrying her mother, and they both, Holly says, started to cry.
"Tony and I decided, after that, that if anything happens again, there would be no secrets," says Holly, a slender woman of 53, with short blond hair and an arc of stud earrings encircling one ear. She's recounting the episode as she sits in the back seat of the family minivan, with coffee and a suitcase of acrylic paints to keep her busy. It is early, a Saturday in September, just after 5 a.m. The houses they pass are dark and quiet. Tony, 48, is in the driver's seat, wearing jeans and a maroon T-shirt. They are en route to a Tech football game, a fact that astonishes Holly. For her, the Blacksburg campus has become a heart of darkness. It is the last place on Earth she wants to visit.
"This is setting me back," she says, memories overwhelming her as they head south on Interstate 81 and begin to see the ridges and slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the valleys covered with a low-lying mist. And yet she also murmurs, "Leslie loved this view so much."
The drive to Blacksburg -- like the carbon monoxide scare -- is one in a series of aftershocks that Holly has endured in the months since the Tech massacre. Each day, it seems, brings a new reminder, a fresh source for relived trauma. If it's not a sudden call, it's a package. This past week, a detective sent Holly a rose quartz ring that Leslie bought on a trip to Argentina, which was in the book bag she carried the morning of the shooting. Holly wept when she saw it -- Leslie had given her a necklace made of the same stone -- and slipped it onto her own finger.
Yet amid so many triggers for grief, there is hardly time for grieving. On top of her private ordeal -- the ultimate loss, for any parent -- Holly, like the other relatives of Tech victims, has been consumed by the massacre's legal and political aftermath, a ceaseless barrage of demands on her time and emotions. She and Tony and scores of other bereaved family members have attended innumerable public meetings and ceremonies. In some cases, family members have testified before the state panel investigating the shooting or appeared on Capitol Hill to lobby for stricter gun laws. They have weighed in on plans for memorials or have feuded with the university over how to use the millions of dollars donated to help them. Along the way, these families have come to be seen by some as a monolithic unit: an angry group of grief-stricken, not entirely rational people.
But, in truth, the Tech families are not united, either in their anger or their loss. Some have made public statements of support for Tech, saying no one could have predicted or prevented the attack. Others have allied with Tech in launching a volunteerism campaign in honor of victims. But a number of families are exploring a lawsuit against the university -- and, by extension, the state -- for failing to issue an early warning after the first two students were killed that morning. And then there are those who remain torn, among them Holly Adams, who is attracted by the idea of a lawsuit and the accountability it might bring, but finds herself at odds with her surviving daughter and her husband, both of whom have made peace with the place where Leslie lived, studied and died.