- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 9, 2007

BLACKSBURG, Va. — The workers stand near the 50-yard line in Lane Stadium, unfolding flimsy black chairs and setting each precisely in place, one beside the other, row after flawless row. It has been this way every graduation at Virginia Tech, mundane and methodical, chair after chair. Until now.

This year, some of these seats will go unfilled.

For all the losses here — 33 lives, a carefree joyfulness, an innocence — time creeps forward. So black-robed students will still file into the ceremony tomorrow, they will still celebrate — all the while battling the realization that sadness is fighting happiness, that normalcy died too, that everything has changed.

Chair after chair, carefully, perfectly. H.C. Price has done this nearly each of his 26 years here. There is always an emptiness when the football stadium is vacant, but even when it fills for graduation, he knows it will still be felt.

“We hate to think of it as a special occasion because it’s going to be different,” Mr. Price said. “We know what we got to do, but this year we know it’s going to be more special.”

It will be a graduation unlike any other because no university has suffered as Virginia Tech has suffered. Celebration amid mourning is playing out on this large campus and in this classic college town tucked between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains.

At the hospital, this morning brings cause for celebration. Sean McQuade is sitting up in a chair having breakfast.

Later, as his mother writes on the family Web site, the 22-year-old senior from Mullica Hill, N.J., walks around the nurses station. Mr. McQuade is recovering from a gunshot to the face, the last survivor of the massacre to remain hospitalized. But this is a good day.

On campus, some of his classmates are celebrating their imminent freedom. But Mr. McQuade’s family is marking other victories: The day the breathing tube came out of his mouth. The day he walked 200 feet. The day he smiled at his mother.

He yearns for his shattered jaw bone to heal so he can chew real food. He hums the Quiznos theme song and writes a list of what he wants to eat when he is better: a burger, a steak and a Coney Island hot dog.

But the road ahead remains uncertain. Jody McQuade wonders how her son will handle the realization that he has become a source of hope to so many. In a way, she wishes she could keep him sheltered.

“There are days when I can’t stop saying, WHY,” she writes. “Why did this have to happen to so many innocent kids… why my Sean. Just the look in his eyes sometimes when he looks at me… I see the question that he never says… why me, Mom, why me?”

In the bright noontime light, the faint traces of blood are still visible on the sidewalk. The wind still blows through the shattered windows of Norris Hall, where 31 persons died April 16. The flowers left to remember the dead have browned and crisped, but the lines of people who pass before them remain.

There are dueling realities on this campus.

Inside a Chinese restaurant, a student playfully drums on his friend’s head with a pair of chopsticks, while on the main field, a man kneels before a memorial stone and cries. Two girls in bright colors giggle as they exchange phone numbers, while a woman who says she is trying to express her mourning still wears just black. Soccer balls and baseballs have returned to places where, for a time, only the grief-stricken stood, yet the grief lingers in so many ways.

It is felt everywhere an orange-and-maroon ribbon is pinned to a jacket or tied to a tree, each place a “We Are All Hokies” sign is hung. It stretches to Egypt and Peru and India and all the other places the slain called home.

The horror of that Monday morning was so unspeakable, many students don’t try to put it into words. “After what happened,” they’ll say. Everyone knows what they mean.

After the shootings, on one of those afternoons too perfect to come any time but spring, Amanda Rader went outside, reveled in the gorgeousness of the day and immediately felt guilty.

How could she bask in the sunlight when so many others were forced into darkness?

She can’t feel this way forever. She thinks graduation can be a powerful moment. She will move on to a new life.

Miss Rader has packed up her room, one in which she hasn’t slept since gunshots killed two persons at a dormitory not far from hers. But she knows she can’t disguise how it feels.

“There’s no way to hide the fact that this happened. I know it’s going to make graduation sad,” she said. “But it’s going to be a happy day, too.”

Miss Rader is 21, with big hazel eyes. She has finished school in just three years and remembers when she first really started thinking about graduation, in early April. “It’s really happening, it’s really happening,” she thought.

This isn’t the way it was supposed to be. But she says it has brought good changes to her life, too. She doesn’t worry about the little things. She has slowed down. She enjoys walking in the sunshine.

• • •

The graduates must line up precisely right, the chairs must be anchored to the ground, and a thousand other things must be considered for the ceremony to go properly. Ed Henneke is in charge of them all. And it is a blessing.

It helps get his mind off that morning in Norris Hall, when a colleague who had visited his third-floor office ran back moments later to say she couldn’t get out because the doors were chained. He later heard gunfire.

Some of the engineering dean’s close colleagues were among the dead, so the task of heading the commencement planning committee has been a needed outlet. He has been involved with it for 35 years. This is his last. He will retire this summer and move out of state.

He wonders whether leaving this tight-knit town will soothe his anguish or prolong it.

• • •

Day is fading to night, and just west of campus about five dozen students gather at the home of the Rev. Glenn Tyndall, the Methodist minister who has served this campus for 33 years.

They are dining on chicken casserole and sharing lighthearted banter. They are not talking about what happened.

It scares Mr. Tyndall.

He wonders what will happen when they no longer are surrounded by friends who understand. Will depression sink in? Will nightmares haunt them?

He admires the hope and optimism of these young people. How they are restoring their lives and looking ahead. No matter how they try, though, this place will never be the same.

“I’m trying to avoid the statement that things are normal,” he said. “I don’t think they ever will be normal. But I think people have gotten back to a sense of normalcy as best they can under the circumstances.”

• • •

Mark Gerald is conflicted.

He is standing in a bar at 1 a.m., surrounded by his friends, five days from graduation. He is downing a shot to celebrate a buddy’s 21st birthday. He is laughing over the music and hugging a grinning girl.

He is also suffering.

His friend Jarrett Lane was slain just three weeks ago. And he does not know how to feel.

“I’ve thought about staying in, but if I stay in, I’m just gonna dwell,” he said. “I gotta be with my people.”

The 21-year-old biology major’s face alternately lights up and crumbles as he talks about his friend — a guy who went home to see his mother the day before he died so they could attend church. A student whose harshest words were, “Aw, shucks,” when things went wrong.

“If you could be somebody,” Mr. Gerald said, staring vacantly past the bartender, ignoring the cacophony of voices around him, “that’s the guy you want to be.”

He and his friends spent the evening playing beer pong before coming to the bar. It had been fun, normal — until a story about the shooting came on the news. Mr. Gerald broke down.

He knows he has to move on. He tells himself to celebrate his success.

“You know he’d want you to keep going,” he said of his friend.

Then he pauses.

“That’s great to think about. But at the same time, I don’t believe it.”

Around him, his friends are laughing. And eventually, he joins them again.

• • •

In the middle of the night, when the expansive lawn in the center of campus is still, when the moon shines in the east and the circle of memorials is finally vacant, Eric Biskaduros is alone and thinking.

All those robbed of their lives seemed to have done so much, he thinks. What about him?

“It puts into perspective how much have I done in my life,” he said. “Have I done enough?”

In the day, when friends surround him and distractions abound, he is less introspective, less troubled, less sad.

But alone at night, in his tiny room, beside the walls with posters of LeBron James and Terrell Owens, he lies, for hours at times, trying to let his mind go blank. He can’t. He thinks about life, about friends who are gone, and wonders how their mothers are coping.

Mr. Biskaduros lies alone with his thoughts, and he struggles to sleep.

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