For 44 years, January 16 has been the worst day of the year. And it will always be the worst day of the year, perhaps, as long as I’m alive. That’s the anniversary of my dad’s death, and I remember every painful moment of that day when he suddenly died in my arms. It was as shocking as it was life-altering. That date haunts me and always will.
And May 15 is the anniversary of my beloved grandparents’ deaths. They died on the same day, two years apart, almost at the same hour. Their love, towards me and to each other, never knew any bounds. While the day is poignant, it also is reassuring since it’s a sign that Jimmy was waiting on the other side for Louise on that day. The fact that they share the same death anniversary is no coincidence to me.
Two years ago, I wrote about how mass shootings have become so prevalent that their anniversary dates light up the calendar. I asked, Which mass shooting anniversary falls on your birthday? Since that column, we’ve added countless more murders. If we keep going at this rate, at some point each of the 365 days will have been stained by the anniversary of a plague of gun violence that continues to grip America.
My birthday is June 12. And this June 12 marks the fifth anniversary of the gruesome disaster at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. Fifty people were killed that day, the second most lethal mass shooting in U.S. history. It was a severe gut-punch to our community during a month that we claim as our own.
For the last five years, I have often wondered how unwelcomed June 12 is for all of the loved ones of those who lost their lives that day at Pulse. They suffer privately, but also publicly, since each June 12 brings news stories that look back on that dark day. If they still live in Orlando, it’s likely they can’t pick up a newspaper, watch the local news, or log on to a news site, since there will undoubtedly be aides-mémoires about that dreadful day.
I know when January 16 looms, or even May 15, I feel the heaviness of the day approaching. While I’m celebrating my birthday on June 12, so many are recalling where they were, what they were doing, who they were with, and how they reacted on that catastrophic day.
And for this year, five years on, the memories seem to hold more meaning. Another milestone in mourning, surviving, and remembering. It’s also a firm reminder that the passage of time does not diminish the anguish that stems from that shattering day.
The years that follow a calamity are like phases in the mourning period, going from utter despair and grieving to occasions of soft tears, distracting rituals, and coping with the torment and loss. That pain is never completely gone, but you eventually get through the death anniversary dates. It just takes a little planning ahead.
I spoke with Brandon Wolf, a survivor of the Pulse nightmare. Currently, Brandon serves as the central Florida development officer and media relations manager for Equality Florida, a political advocacy group that advocates for civil rights and protections for LGBTQ+ residents of Florida.
In his free time, Brandon volunteers with the Dru Project, named after his best friend, an organization he founded following the shooting at Pulse that sponsors LGBTQ+ student groups and provides college funding to future leaders. He still lives in Orlando.
I didn’t ask Brandon to relive that day. None of us could possibly imagine what it was like, and it’s something he no doubt replays in his mind, over and over again, every single day of his life, and more so on June 12.
I told Brandon that my birthday was June 12, so that day, since that awful tragedy five years ago, will always be bittersweet. “Well, I hope you celebrate,” he told me during a reflective phone call this week. “I share my birthday with Whitney Houston on August 9, so that always makes me feel so happy. You should be happy on your birthday too.”
I asked him about the onset of June 12, and when he begins to take notice that the ominous anniversary is approaching. “It’s usually about three weeks leading up to that day,” Brandon explained. “There are always busy distractions with my work, and media relationships because of my job, and the fact that so many reporters reach out during this time to write about what happened each year on the 12th.”
For Brandon, recalling that day, particularly during that three-week period, can present some untimed grief. “My friends and I call it the ugly cry moment. It’s sort of when the weight of the date hits you, whether it’s on June 12 or the days preceding the anniversary. This year, my ugly cry moment happened on Tuesday of this week.
“That’s the tricky thing about trauma, you never quite know when the ugly cry moment will hit you. It could be a song, smell or something you see, and it always hits when I’m alone. On Tuesday, I was on an airplane, and I saw an old photo, and I just had a very emotional moment.”
June 12 is also one of the most – if not the most – unpredictable days for Brandon. “I never know how I’m going to feel. When I wake up that day, I never know how I’m going to react, so I’ve allowed myself some freedom on that day.”
For Brandon that comes with a bit of indulgence and alone time. “I usually eat ice cream for breakfast and have champagne for lunch. Then, at some point in the afternoon, I take a run. And I usually avoid work on that day. Because of my job, part of what I do is relive that tragic day so many times throughout the year, so I just try to protect myself.
“I’m a bit of an introvert, so on June 12, I stay close to home all day, but then at night, many of us who survived meet up, and I think it’s really important to have that community of people around who went through the heartbreak together.”
Outside of the horrific scene at Pulse, what does Brandon remember most about June 12, 2016? “The first memory of that night I have is a loving one. It is of my friends gathered around the island in my kitchen before we headed out for the night. It was the last time we were all together, and it was the last time I was with Drew, my best friend, who lived two doors down. He taught me the meaning of being queer. He was audacious, full of pride and joy. We had so many laughs together. He was my brother.”
“I think about Drew every day, and that means I think about June 12 every day. There’s no day that can compare. It replaced what had been the worst day of the year for me, September 23, which was the day my mom passed away when I was 11. Like you, I lost a parent so young. She was my most fervent advocate. She was a single parent, and she paved the way for me. She was also so proud.”
This is Pride Month, and June 12 falls right in the middle of what’s supposed to be a month of celebration and recognition of the LGBTQ+ community. I asked Brandon how much of an adverse impact June 12 might have on his own feelings toward Pride Month. “You know, those two things go hand in hand. Pride is a celebration. June 12 was a celebration. With Pride, we continue to celebrate and find joy. "
"That’s what Drew would do. The immeasurable crime of June 12 is just another reason for us to demand a better world, and it’s also a reminder that we still have so much to do. We can’t stop working.
“June 12 will haunt me for the rest of my life. I’m going to have to deal each year with that time period around that date, and all of the emotions it conjures up, and those ugly cry moments; however, through what happened on June 12, I have found a lot of purpose. And that’s healing for me. I want to make sure that Drew, through the Dru Project, and all of the others, didn’t die in vain.”
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.