PARKLAND, Fla. — There is no greater pain than the loss of a child. I know this because I recently met with Manuel Oliver and Patricia Padauy, the parents of Joaquin Oliver, who was murdered at his high school on Feb. 14, along with 16 other students and teachers.
I talked with Manuel and Patricia at their home, just a few minutes away from the scene of the shooting. Photos of Joaquin, a smiling 17-year-old with his hair tips dyed blond, decorated the living room walls. The family left Venezuela in 2003 looking for a safer place to live, yet here they were in Florida, mourning their child.
Joaquin was kind, charismatic and sporty; he played basketball. The night before he was killed, he and his dad went out to get some flowers for Joaquin’s girlfriend for Valentine’s Day. He and his dad were close — Joaquin drank his first beer with his dad, and Manuel's nickname for his son was Shorty, even though Joaquin, at 6 feet 2, was already taller than him.
I asked how Joaquin had spent his last day.
“I woke him up at 6:30. ‘Son, some coffee?’” Manuel said. “‘No, no, I’m going to shower because it’s Valentine’s Day. I’m going to shower and fix myself up.’ Then he grabbed the flowers, grabbed the Valentine’s Day card, grabbed his backpack, and I took him to school. Then he collected his flowers and his backpack and said, ‘Papi, I love you,’ and I told him, ‘Call me to let me know how it went.’ ... I never received that call.”
That afternoon Nikolas Cruz walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, the school from which he had been expelled, armed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. A few minutes later, families began to receive emergency messages from some of the more than 3,000 students at the school reporting that a massacre was taking place.
Manuel and Patricia tried unsuccessfully to reach Joaquin. Andrea, Joaquin’s sister, tried to locate him through his Facebook friends, but nobody could find him.
“The hours passed and, of course, so did our hopes,” Manuel said. “The FBI gathered all the parents of the kids who were missing [at a nearby hotel], and after many hours that group of parents gradually got smaller as kids were found. Finally there was only a small group left, and they called us one family at a time, and they told us that Joaquin was among the fatalities.”
Two days passed before they saw their son again. “We saw him again at the funeral parlor on Friday evening,” Patricia said.
I’ve actually lost count of the massacres that I’ve reported on in the U.S., so I’m very skeptical when politicians claim after one of these tragedies that things will change. But this time something is different. The students who survived this shooting have refused to remain silent. They are the ones saying Never Again. They are demanding not thoughts and prayers but real change, and they are exposing and humiliating the politicians who have received money from the National Rifle Association through the years.
This generation will be in charge in just a matter of years, so we have a head start. I trust them completely. I’ve spoken with many people connected with these sorts of tragedies, and I have never seen such a strong sense of resolve.
Joaquin’s parents are also confident in these students. “I’ve seen it from the inside,” Patricia said. “And I see that these kids are determined to do whatever it takes ... I think this was the last straw.”
Manuel agreed. “As a parent, we fight nonstop for our kids, and even when our kids are gone, the fight must go on ... We have to fight for our kids until we are gone too.”
He explained how he will continue fighting for Joaquin and for kids like him. “Do you know the saying, ‘Put yourself in my shoes?'” he asked me. “I am putting myself in his shoes. That’s our role now. ... We have to put ourselves in the shoes of those young people. It’s their fight, and we must support them.”
I noticed then that Manuel was wearing a pair of black sneakers, basketball shoes that Joaquin had left behind. They both wore the same size. They will both keep on fighting.
(Watch the interview with Joaquin’s parents in Spanish here.)