"We Were Lucky": One Mother's Experience At the Highland Park Parade 

We can't keep living like this. We can't keep dying like this.

I Was at the Highland Park Parade, 8 Months Pregnant and Holding My 2-Year-Old
Photo: Getty Images/InStyle

I can't talk about it or think about it without starting with gratitude. "We were so lucky," I keep saying, and we are, truly. Lucky we weren't hit. Lucky our loved ones are OK (so, so lucky). Lucky Jack is two-and-a-half, too young to understand. Lucky my parents live so close to the parade route. Lucky that the shooter was caught, and we returned to someplace safe and familiar.

But if this is what being "lucky" means in America right now, we're in trouble.

It was Jack's first Fourth of July parade. Fire trucks, marching band, fun-size Skittles, waves to neighbors, a new beachball that Daddy had just blown up. Nana, Papa, and Aunt Jill by our side. His own little orange Adirondack chair. All of it felt so nostalgic, so normal. This was my childhood through Jack's eyes.

He was on my lap, holding the beachball when we heard the shots.

We all reacted differently. My dad: "I can't believe they would have fireworks at the parade." Rob knew it was a gun but couldn't believe it — if this was a shooting, where were the screams? The police? I heard pop-pop-pop, but I didn't hear it. I didn't process what it was because… how could it be that? Here? This is the Highland Park Fourth of July parade.

I Was at the Highland Park Parade, 8 Months Pregnant and Holding My 2-Year-Old
Courtesy of Ellen Miller Gilcrest

But then we saw the people. The herd rounding the corner, in our direction. The distinct moment of "Is this…?" "Could it be…?" The pivot to panic, both slow and instant. Confusion and chaos, but also a weird sense of clarity: we know what this is. Because this is America.

I said, "RUN." And I scooped up Jack, carried him like a baby across my 8-months-pregnant belly, and ran.

I didn't look back. My dad and mom, walking with a cane after a recent back surgery, hightailed down the alley — the most direct route back to their townhouse, fortunately just a few minutes away. Rob grabbed my sister Jill and Hugo the Dog and followed, leaving behind our tote bags and chairs, Jill's phone, Jack's little orange Adirondack.

Jack and I were on a different route, sandwiched between the crowd of people and storefronts. I pushed against the doors, all locked. I don't know why. I tried to think. A big part of me still doubted that this was really what it seemed like (maybe it was just a float gone wrong?) and at the same time I felt the very real, very deep sense of dread. Where was Rob? Was my mom OK? Shit, I should have waited for her. Jack was clutching his new beach ball and I couldn't see his face, so I kept moving it to make sure he was alive. Of course he was, though his expression was blank. What was going through that little head? Where was Rob?

Ellen Miller Gilcrest

In that moment, holding Jack tight, I felt connected to every mom everywhere, every parent, every human running in fear, clutching their babies. It was a taste of terror — one I'm privileged to hardly ever experience. It awoke in me something that's gone numb. 

— Ellen Miller Gilcrest

In that moment, holding Jack tight, I felt connected to every mom everywhere, every parent, every human running in fear, clutching their babies. It was a taste of terror — one I'm privileged to hardly ever experience. It awoke in me something that's gone numb.

It had only been a minute since the gunshots when Jack and I rounded the corner of Laurel, approaching my parents' place. My body and brain calmed down. I called Rob, who was panicked, looking for me, outside the townhouse.

We found each other. We made it inside. Exhale.

At the house, I find my family along with my mom's friend and her family, and their two beautiful babies. There's a 13-year-old boy and his father, split up from the rest of their group, who are hiding in a wine store down the block. Together, we shelter in the basement, away from windows. Nothing's on the news yet, so we frantically scroll Twitter, text and call friends, and share what we hear with each other. Confirmed: an active shooter. Confirmed: he was on a roof. Was he holding hostages at the local grocery store? No, that's just a rumor. My dad's getting anxious now because he hasn't heard from one of his friends, who was sitting right there, right where it happened. Was anyone killed? How bad was this? OK, the local news coverage is starting.

My mom brings down grapes for Jack and the babies. We change diapers. Her friend receives a text with a photo of a 2-year-old boy who had been separated from his family: did anyone recognize him or know his parents? I don't, but I text the photo along in case anyone I know does. The next day I would learn the tragic, unthinkable fate of his parents, my heart breaking a million times for sweet baby Aiden as I hugged Jack close.

I Was at the Highland Park Parade, 8 Months Pregnant and Holding My 2-Year-Old
Courtesy of Ellen Miller Gilcrest

Now the news is on CNN. My dad holds up five fingers: five people dead. His friend is OK. Phew.

The 13-year-old boy in our basement is distressed, can't stop crying, can't believe it. For all of the children of Highland Park, my heart is shattered. They have lost something profound: a childhood. Freedom from fear.

By now we should all know a mass shooting can happen anywhere, anytime. But honestly, I never really imagined it could ever happen to me. It doesn't matter. Because it shouldn't happen anywhere and it shouldn't take it "happening to you" to get angry and empathize… but here we are. In addition to the seven lives lost in Highland Park, nine people were fatally shot in Chicago over the holiday weekend. Across the country, 220 people died from gun violence between Friday and Monday. 220, in communities everywhere. No one is safe. We can't keep living like this. We can't keep dying like this.

I refuse to be numb to these headlines. I refuse to accept this terror as inevitable. I hope you won't wait until you're one of the "lucky ones" to do the same.

Ellen Miller Gilcrest is a creative director based in Chicago who grew up in Highland Park, Illinois, and often spends weekends there with her parents. She is mom to two-year-old Jack and expecting a new baby this summer.

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