Kimberly Garcia could not bring herself to watch the videos that made her remember, like the one in which her daughter surprised her with packets of ranch dressing, Kimberly’s favorite condiment, one day after school. She avoided certain places, like the sea foam green house where they lived when she heard the gunshots. She avoided talking about her grief with other people, who sometimes said well-meaning things that hurt. Kimberly also understood that in Uvalde, Texas, in the aftermath, avoiding was a game that did not last long before someone, something, forced her to remember. Increasingly, when the inevitable happened, she reached for her phone and began typing. On Twitter, at least, she could let it out. She could remember on her own terms.
When people made comments saying that Amerie Jo was in a better place, that time healed all wounds, Kimberly posted: “No she’s isn’t, SHE SHOULD BE HERE”; “This kind of wound will never heal.” When the world was asleep and she lay awake aching, she confided: “Life will never be the same without you Amerie. The thoughts that run thru my head are crazy.” When time messed with the memory of her daughter, she grasped at it with words: “I have yet to move or wash any of her things. I just can’t. But her scent on her clothes is slowly fading away and I’m so [expletive] sad.” And when words fell short — there were widows and widowers, but what did you call a parent whose child was murdered the way hers was? — she let a photo say it instead: Amerie, snacking and watching a video, molding clay; Amerie, holding her 3-year-old brother, Zayne, on Easter; Kimberly’s new tattoos, of the messages Amerie wrote her for Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.
Kimberly, who is 30, and her partner, Angel Garza, who is 29, had chosen to move to the sea foam green house in part because it was so close to Robb Elementary School, which Kimberly attended as a child. They were unpacking boxes and hung Amerie’s posters in her bedroom the day before May 24, 2022, when Kimberly heard two sets of gunshots, the second set so loud that she ducked. Angel, a medical assistant at a clinic a few blocks away, was with a patient and met Kimberly at the school.
They paced around with other parents, pleading with officers who told them that what was happening inside was more of a hostage situation. How calm they were as they said the kids were safe. When Kimberly and Angel saw children climbing out of the windows, running and screaming, some of them covered in blood, the couple worried how they would comfort Amerie when they finally embraced her.
Even after Angel tended to a little girl who cried out that her best friend was no longer breathing — he would soon find out she was referring to Amerie — there was still reason to believe that she could be alive, hiding somewhere. Officers kept reassuring the parents that their children were fine and saying that they should try looking for them at the hospital, or the town square, or the civic center. “I need all the prayers I can get right now! I still can not find my child! Please prayers everyone,” Kimberly tweeted roughly seven hours into their search, hoping one of Amerie’s teachers would see it.
She wasn’t sure about posting it at first. Until then, her tweets mostly griped about bad customer service and the work she had to finish for cosmetology school. She rarely posted about her intimate feelings. She believed some things in life were better left private. She never imagined how much she would come to share.
Every mass shooting leaves behind more families whose worst nightmare transforms them into sudden, reluctant figures of national tragedy. Overnight, Kimberly and Angel’s family became one of them. Over time, they found that some families in Uvalde coped by throwing themselves into their new public role, while others retreated from it entirely. For Kimberly and Angel, both paths led to more suffering — the kind that came with putting their grief on display, and the kind that came with knowing that the world would forget if they didn’t.
Kimberly wears bracelets in memory of Amerie.Credit…Stacy Kranitz for Thew The New York Times
Angel’s tattoo of Amerie.Credit…Stacy Kranitz for The New York Times
Within hours of the shooting, people descended on Uvalde from all over the country. Camera crews joined the police vans crowded around the school. Strangers drove in to lay flowers where 21 white crosses stood, bearing the names of the victims — 19 fourth graders and their two teachers. Days later, the Bidens visited the school and attended Mass nearby. Letters and packages arrived at the school and at city offices addressed to the families — blankets and shirts and posters with the children’s and teachers’ faces, books about grief. Reporters roamed the area, knocking on doors, asking people what they saw and how they felt when they found out, what kind of change they now wanted to see. The only people the couple did not hear from in those early days were parents of past school-shooting victims, who perhaps understood too well that what these families also needed was space.
Kimberly didn’t know what to do with all the attention and generosity, how to appreciate it while wishing none of it was real. After learning that Amerie was gone — “My baby, why why why did you have to leave me why,” she tweeted — she thanked the thousands of people who replied with condolences and broken-heart emojis. “I am grateful for each & every one of you all!” she wrote. Later, she would regret not slowing down and being more present, not crying more, not lingering a little longer with Amerie before the pallbearers lifted her away. But in the moment, she feared what would happen if she didn’t weigh in as much as she could: that someone else would do it for her, or worse, leave Amerie’s story behind.
Kimberly and Angel couldn’t understand what had happened, how it was possible that they had lost a child, when they agreed to their first media appearances. They didn’t know much about Anderson Cooper, but Angel’s mother said everyone watched him. Angel put on a pair of sunglasses and a backward cap and met the anchorman by the school, clutching a framed photo of Amerie holding the honor-roll certificate she received the morning of the shooting. He told Cooper that she turned 10 just two weeks earlier, that they had surprised her with a cellphone, the same one she used in her final moments to call 911. He told a CBS journalist the same story that morning. They stood in front of the sea foam green house and cried together on camera, as Kimberly wailed inside.
A few weeks after Amerie’s funeral, “Good Morning America” came to Angel’s mother’s home, where the couple moved with their son after May 24. Kimberly, already having postponed the interview once, somehow got herself out of bed and into a pair of sweatpants and a white shirt that she didn’t remember receiving, with an image of Amerie with angel wings. She sat on a couch in front of the camera, without shoes and with barely any makeup. Each time she tried to say something about how sweet Amerie was, she started thinking about how the memories she tried to recall were the only ones she would ever have. She asked to stop the interview a few times, struggling to collect herself.
Kimberly and Angel pushed their grief into public all summer. They drove to Austin to rally at the Texas Capitol and flew to marches in Washington demanding gun reform. The shifting official narrative about the massacre and the smattering of details that leaked to the press only raised more questions. “Because we don’t get answers, it makes our minds show us the worst [expletive] imaginable,” said Brett Cross, whose child, Uziyah Garc?a, was killed in the same classroom as Amerie.
When news broke in July that surveillance footage showed officers waiting in a hallway for 77 minutes before confronting the shooter, the couple flew with Angel’s mother to CNN’s studio in New York. Wearing jeans and Amerie T-shirts, they demanded accountability. “We don’t know what she did in her last moments, we don’t know what she was thinking,” Angel said, his voice cracking, as Kimberly wiped her eyes.
That week, the couple met with an F.B.I. agent, who handed them a box of Amerie’s belongings. Inside, Kimberly found a pair of gold hoop earrings, a jacket and a sunflower backpack that smelled sterile. She wondered what had been cleaned from it and began sobbing. “I just received my daughters backpack from the F.B.I. … with bullet holes on it. No parent should go thru this,” she tweeted. She decided against adding a photo, thinking it would be too much.
Kimberly couldn’t keep up with all the messages people wrote her, but she tried to respond to the ones from other parents of little kids. She got to know one mother, who also had a 4-year-old son named Zayne and had mailed Kimberly a pair of tiny Crocs with charms memorializing Amerie: an art palette, a Starbucks cup (her favorite drink was vanilla Frappuccino). Occasionally, people came up to Kimberly and other Uvalde mothers at rallies to say that their social media posts had compelled them to protest for the first time. It touched her to know that people out there cared.
In Uvalde, the couple saw signs of mourning everywhere — paper angels and hearts and the phrase “Uvalde Strong” all along Main Street. But they also felt that the city’s sympathy extended only so far; residents were deeply divided when it came to questions about gun reform or holding police officers and other officials accountable. “I’ve been losing friends and finding peace,” Kimberly tweeted.
Thanksgiving landed on the six-month anniversary of the shooting. As the holidays approached, the couple stopped leaving the house even for simple errands. They had their groceries delivered. The only place that brought a measure of comfort was Amerie’s grave. Kimberly went almost daily to trim the grass and clean the debris, to make sure the wind and rain hadn’t knocked over the pinwheels or flowers or decorations, while Zayne ran around picking up petals that had fallen off their stems.
When Dr. Phil invited the couple to Los Angeles to speak before a live audience, with Amerie’s best friend, Khloie, and her parents, they agreed to one of their last interviews that year. But they told the producers that there were certain things they would not discuss, including the shooter. Kimberly came up with the idea to wear matching button-down shirts in lavender, Amerie’s favorite color. It was strange how natural these decisions had become.
Kimberly, Zayne and Angel.Credit…Stacy Kranitz for The New York Times
Kimberly at her daughter’s grave.Credit…Stacy Kranitz for The New York Times
In mid-April, almost 11 debilitating months after the shooting, Kimberly and Angel decided to join some of the families who were trekking to Austin every week to speak with legislators and the media. The Texas House of Representatives convened a bipartisan committee that agreed to hear a new set of gun-reform bills, including one that the Uvalde families had been backing, H.B. 2744, which proposed raising the minimum age required to purchase large-caliber semiautomatic rifles to 21 from 18. (The shooter in Uvalde bought his legally the week he turned 18, days before he went to Robb Elementary.) The hearing offered a rare opportunity for the families to speak directly to lawmakers.
The families had just lived through their first Easter without their kids, and through the news of yet another mass shooting, this time at a private Presbyterian elementary school in Nashville, where three children and three adults were killed. The shooter, like the one at Robb, was a former student. Kimberly watched a video of the Nashville police response and started bawling. “All I can think about is those parents, those families,” she tweeted. “I remember sleep wasn’t even an option, honestly still isn’t. I’d doze off for a bit and just cry, & scream, asking why. I still do. I’d scream Ameries name. Didn’t eat for days, hated the world. I wish this pain on no one.” In a few months, Zayne would be old enough to start kindergarten. Angel had been trying to persuade Kimberly to consider private school because public schools no longer felt safe, but after Nashville, he stopped. Home-schooling was their only option.
In Austin, Angel would testify at the House committee hearing, knowing the tears would paralyze Kimberly. She would sit with him, and they would face the moment together. They debated what he should say, discussing one particular detail about Amerie’s death that they had not shared with anyone, having locked it away because it was too awful. But this time, they agreed, the world needed to hear it.
They arrived at the Capitol steps the next morning, a few minutes past 9. In a windowless waiting room in the basement, they greeted the other Uvalde families. Kimberly wore a black T-shirt with a colorful illustration of the 21 victims’ smiling faces. Angel wore black slacks, a navy button-down, a tie and dress shoes, and some of the parents teased that he wasn’t wearing his usual shorts and backward cap. They hugged and arranged photos of the children on a small table under a TV that was showing the hearing.
Christina Delgado of Community Justice Action Fund, a gun-violence-prevention group, briefed the families on the day ahead. A 2018 mass shooting at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, blocks away from where her daughter attended junior high, prompted Delgado to become an activist. She told Kimberly and Angel that Representative Rhetta Andrews Bowers had family who lived near Santa Fe. Representative Justin Holland had two daughters. Representative Jarvis Johnson also had children. “Make eye contact with each of them,” she urged.
Uvalde family members reacting at the Texas Capitol after a House committee voted in favor of House Bill 2744, which would raise the minimum age to purchase large-caliber semi-automatic rifles to 21 from 18.Credit…Stacy Kranitz for The New York Times
Kimberly sat and bounced her knee, making her whole body tremble. She rested her head on Angel’s shoulder and closed her eyes. Someone covered her with a baby blue blanket dedicated to another victim, Jackie Cazares. Three hours passed. During a lunch break, the families walked down the hall to a Moms Demand Action rally. A mother whose daughter was killed in the Santa Fe shooting spoke, as did several others who turned to advocacy after losing someone to gun violence. The Uvalde families stood in a line, staring into the distance in silence. When the crowd dispersed, Angel rushed back to the waiting room, buried his face in his hands and cried. Kimberly rubbed his ears and dabbed her eyes.
Eventually it was dinner time, and someone offered to order food, but no one had an appetite. All the waiting was starting to remind the families of May 24.
The hearing finally resumed around 7 p.m. The committee discussed a few more bills before Representative Tracy O. King, a Democrat whose children attended Robb Elementary, introduced H.B. 2744, which he had drafted.
Earlier, a lobbyist with the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety sat with some of the families to preview a speech that Representative Joe Moody, a Democrat from El Paso — where 23 people died during a mass shooting at a Walmart in 2019 — had prepared. Moody helped lead the House investigation into Robb Elementary. He was one of the few people who saw the inside of the school in the aftermath. As the families listened to the lobbyist read Moody’s speech, one part made them collapse into tears, one by one, like dominoes.
“I’m going to tell you something that hasn’t really been shared outside of those who investigated the shooting,” Moody said during the hearing. “In the classroom where the shooter tore those kids apart is a whiteboard. On one side of that whiteboard was a banner that said ‘lovebirds’ and had the names of some of these innocent kids who were dating. It listed four puppy-love couples. Three of those pairs included kids who were murdered.” The whiteboard was otherwise blank, with one exception. “The attacker scooped up the blood of his victims and smeared it into a disgusting message there. What he wrote in the innocent blood right next to that ‘lovebirds’ banner was the phrase ‘LOL.’ Laughing out loud.” The room was quiet save for the sound of the families gasping for air.
Only then, more than 13 hours after they arrived, was it time for the families to speak. One father said he found his daughter’s body draped in a white sheet, cold and alone in an operating room. One mother said she had to identify her son’s body based on what he was wearing that day. Sitting at a table with Amerie’s last school portrait, Angel stuttered as he tried to describe the image that haunted him and Kimberly all this time, the one they had never spoken about publicly. The gun that killed Amerie was so powerful, he said, “a single bullet was able to enter her lower back, and traveled up through her diaphragm, piercing two organs, while ripping through her myocardium,” the muscular tissue of her heart. He said he imagined her little body clutching onto a friend, wishing she could be with her parents. “Was it my fault? What could I have done? Why didn’t I take her home? What was she thinking? What did she do wrong? Just a few of the many questions that drive you insane in this horrible reality.”
As they walked back to their car that night, Kimberly thought about the whiteboard, how tomorrow it would be all over the news.
Amerie’s brother, Zayne, at the mural memorializing Amerie in downtown Uvalde.Credit…Stacy Kranitz for The New York Times
A graveside celebration of Amerie’s birthday in May.Credit…Stacy Kranitz for The New York Times
One morning earlier this month, a few cousins and friends came to Angel’s mother’s home to help Kimberly prepare for what would have been Amerie’s 11th birthday. They stuffed glitter pens and notebooks and neon markers into lavender gift bags, and they loaded their cars with canvases and paintbrushes and watercolors. Kimberly planned an art-therapy event — Amerie wanted to be an art teacher when she grew up — at the town square. She had been reluctant to have a party. The couple had returned from Austin, where the raise-the-age bill was finally voted out of committee. The details of another mass shooting, this time at an outlet mall in Allen, Texas, circulated in the news. The bill never made it to the House floor.
Kimberly and Angel drove around to place balloons and flowers at the school and at one of the murals in the center of town memorializing the victims. In hers, Amerie stands smiling with one hand on her hip. At the cemetery, they met a small group of family, friends and reporters, who wore lavender shirts and shoes and bracelets and bows, and shared sandwiches and cake pops, one of Amerie’s favorite treats. Kimberly directed people as they helped decorate Amerie’s grave and posed for group photos. When they huddled around her to sing happy birthday, she cried into Angel’s shoulder.
More than 80 people gathered at the town square that evening. Girls and boys around Amerie’s age painted at long tables. Khloie drew her best friend against a bright blue backdrop, dancing like a robot. A few guests gave their paintings to Kimberly. She planned to display them in a new house they were building at the edge of town, in a room dedicated to Amerie.
The night before Amerie’s birthday, the couple visited the cemetery alone. Angel snapped a picture of Kimberly sitting at her daughter’s grave, surrounded by glowing lights, her back to the camera. “You were supposed to bury me, I wasn’t supposed to bury you,” she tweeted. “I’m sorry sweet girl, I’m forever sorry. I hate leaving you, but don’t worry baby, you rest and we’ll be back in the morning. Everything I do is for you and your baby brother. You will ALWAYS be included. I love you.”
Outside Robb Elementary School.Credit…Stacy Kranitz for The New York Times
Jaeah Lee is a contributing writer for the magazine and a recipient of the American Mosaic Journalism Prize. She last wrote about the growing number of caregivers looking after their aging parents and children at the same time. Stacy Kranitz is a photographer in Tennessee and a 2020 Guggenheim fellow. Her monograph “As It Was Give(n) To Me” was shortlisted for a 2022 Paris Photo-Aperture first photobook award.