The Healing: A Year After Pulse

In the aftermath of Pulse, a cross section of caring souls has emerged to help mend a community—and themselves.

The furnishings are second-hand. The window air-conditioner is as noisy as the traffic below. The hardwood floor is scuffed and blotched with paint. Nobody cares about any of that. What draws them up a narrow staircase to Michael Pilato’s studio, one foot in front of the other against the gravity of yet another day, are the brightly colored, floor-to-ceiling panels propped up against his walls. 

Pilato is a 48-year-old Pennsylvania mural painter whose temporary home is tucked away on the second floor of an old-Orlando office building at the corner of Mills and Colonial, the namesake crossroads of the Mills 50 District northeast of downtown. He moved here last summer and was soon joined by his longtime artistic partner, Yuriy Karabash, to create a series of murals that revolve around the Pulse nightclub attack. The people who have trudged up those stairs since then are either survivors of that attack or the friends, lovers and family members of those who died.

They are also his collaborators.  “I tell them they are the artists,” says Pilato. “We are just the brush.” 

Survivors talk about friends who were among the 49 killed that night and share their own struggles to move on. Parents talk about the children they lost and show him the cell phone photos that captured their spirit. Then they stretch out a palm, shivering at the coolness of the thin coat of paint he applies, and leave a handprint beneath his portrait of their loved one. 

The mural that has emerged from the process is a visual narrative rather than a series of isolated portraits, told from the inside out by those who are still living it, evoking both the tragedy and the healing in its wake. 

There’s a place of honor in the mural for Nancy Rosado, a gay, Latino, retired-to-Orlando New York City police officer. She was near the World Trade Center towers when they fell, becoming a first responder. On the night of the Pulse attack, she rushed from her home to the hospital to help as a translator in the midst of the chaos. She is one of the organizers of Proyecto Somos Orlando, which offers free counseling and support to families and individuals affected by the tragedy.

Patience Carter, who survived her own wounds in the shooting but lost a friend and struggled with her conflicting emotions, wrote a poem from her hospital bed that began:  “The guilt of being happy to be alive is heavy.”  So Pilato has painted her portrait next to two other writers who have struggled to process the tragedy: Orlando journalist and gay activist Billy Manes, and Richard Blanco, the first Latino and openly gay person to serve as the U.S. inaugural poet, whose poem, “One Pulse,” is somehow both somber and uplifting.

That formidable, uniformed figure not far from them is Omar Delgado, standing behind Angel Colon. Colon was dancing at Pulse that night when four of the gunman’s bullets shattered his legs and his hip. He was stretched out on the floor and might have died there with the others had not Delgado, an Eatonville police officer, dragged him to safety across a floor of broken glass. Colon is walking on his own now, having gone from wheelchair to crutches to rainbow-colored cane over the course of the year, the sight of him a balm for a wounded community. At a recent photo session with other survivors, he smiled at the crowd that gathered around him and posed a rhetorical question: “Am I not fabulous?”  Oh, yes, they didn't have to say. Oh, yes, you surely are.

The mural will reflect multiple voices, not just figuratively but literally. Pilato has been recording oral histories as he goes, working with Canadian filmmaker Srinivas Krishna on an interactive app so viewers of the 40-by-12-foot mural will be able to hear the voices of its storytellers.  It will be displayed this month in two locations—first, outside Pulse, then next to the Lake Eola amphitheater—as part of the city’s June 12 “Orlando United Day—A Day of Love and Kindness,” commemorating the mass shooting.

Daphne Josaphat with Michael Pilato in his studio. Her nephew died in the Pulse shooting. Through Pilato’s mural she connected with Mina Justice, who lost her son in the tragedy. They have become good friends (ROBERTO GONZALEZ).

There isn’t enough room in Pilato’s mural for the legions who rose up in an outpouring of sympathy and compassion in the immediate aftermath of the attack—or even for the smaller network that has emerged in the year since then to assume leadership roles in the healing process.  

Their motivations vary. Some, like Pilato, knew they had a useful skill and felt a responsibility to use it. Some were simply drawn in by circumstance. Others emerged out of a wounded community to comfort one another, or seek self-healing—or, in the case of Orlando playwright David Lee, to combat willful ignorance.

Incensed after seeing posts from conspiracy extremists mocking survivors of the Pulse attack as fakes and “crisis actors,” he decided to create O-Town: Orlando Voices, stitching together 18 monologues based on the experiences of first responders and others who either lived through the tragedy or emerged to help its victims. 

He crafted a poignant introduction based on the iconic opening monologue of Our Town,  Thornton Wilder’s 1938 reflection on the illusions of small-town America. The full production will be staged June 11 at Orlando Shakespeare Theater. On June 12, actress Peg O’Keef will perform the opening scene as part of the Orlando United observances.

Lee says what he most wants to capture is the unarguable horror of what happened. “You can’t just hear someone tell a story about crawling over dead bodies to save yourself, some of them with no faces left. That’s not a crisis actor. That’s a human being,” he says.

Unlike Lee, Pamela Schwartz isn’t in the theater business, but she’s found herself in a similar role: to ensure that the human toll of the tragedy will never be dismissed.

When she turned up for her new job as chief curator of the Orange County Regional History Center last year, Schwartz assumed her greatest challenge would be orchestrating an upcoming $6 million renovation of the center.  Then, four months after she arrived, Pulse happened, and Schwartz, ingrained with a historian’s sense of duty to future generations, realized that someone would need to collect and preserve the artifacts that reflected a community tragedy. 

“I knew we had a responsibility to people a hundred years from now who will want to understand what happened here,” she says.

So she assembled a team to select and collect some of the grassroots memorials that mourners had left at Lake Eola, the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, and Orlando Regional Medical Center—waiting a respectable amount of time, then rescuing roughly 10,000 items from the torturous Florida weather, sifting through broken glass, melted candle wax, crumpled posters and bug-infested flowers. 

She also found herself in the role of a time-traveling multi-tasker, shuttling between her duty to the future and the needs of the present. 

There was the family who had driven to Orlando to collect the belongings of a daughter who had died in the attack. They stopped by the museum, asking if they could see the wooden cross that had been fashioned for their daughter. So Schwartz drove to the storage facility, where she had to clean and reassemble it—it had warped in the sun—and brought it back to the museum so the family could have their moment. 

She began taking oral histories from family members, first responders, and survivors. In the midst of one interview, a woman who had lost a son asked Schwartz a question through a translator: 

¿Porqué estas haciendo esto? 

Why are you doing this? 

At first, she thought the woman was angry. But that wasn’t it. Her question was a simple one, which made it even worse. The mother was only puzzled, in her solitary grief, by the attention. 

Christopher Cuevas (center) co-founded the group QLatinx after the loss of Pulse as a gathering place for gay Latinos. Its members, who number about 50, meet weekly (ROBERTO GONZALEZ).

You don’t know me. You don’t know my son. Nobody knows us here. ¿Porqué estas haciendo esto? 

Schwartz did her best to respond. But how do you tell someone that one moment her child was just another dancer at a club on Latin night, and that in the next, he had become a part of the history of a community whose memories it is your job to preserve? And how do you say that in a way that can let her know, through the language barrier and without either of you breaking down, there in the cool, stately confines of the Orange County Regional History Center, that you are so sorry, so very, very sorry?

Schwartz and her team took on another emotionally taxing responsibility. In an agreement with Pulse owner Barbara Poma, they began collecting items from the crime scene once the police and the biohazard team cleared the site. 

The partnership between the historical museum and the memorial that Poma intends to create on the Pulse site is a critical one. Though there is some overlap, the two institutions will have fundamentally different missions: for the museum, it is to educate; for the memorial, to honor the dead and comfort the living. Poma and Schwartz have traveled to the National September 11 Memorial Museum and the Oklahoma City Memorial Museum to see how other communities dealt with the challenges inherent in both missions.

Poma and a business partner, Ron Legler, built the club in 2004 as a tribute to her brother, John, who died of complications from AIDS in 1991.  The name “Pulse” is a reference to sustaining the beat of his heart, a sense of his spirit. Growing up in South Florida, Barbara was the good Catholic girl who always did her homework and never broke the rules, and John was the crazy, joyful, spontaneous, handsome older brother she worshipped. 

Creating the club was her way of not only honoring his memory but also recapturing the sense of aliveness and community he and his circle of friends had instilled in her. 

She came close to selling the Pulse property after the attack, but decided to keep it and create the memorial after a visit to her family doctor.

“People had been nagging me all along to take care of myself,” she says. “So I said, okay, I’ll take care of myself: I’ll go in for a physical and a mammogram. 

“My doctor is usually a man of few words. But when he came in to see me he said: ‘I can’t imagine what you are going through. I don’t know what I can offer you except to say that in my life, any time I had to make a big decision, I would always take the money out of the picture. Then I would take all of the other people who are involved out of the picture. Then I would decide for myself.’

“His office is close to Pulse. So I walked out, and went over and sat on the curb and I looked at the building. And I said to myself: ‘This is who I am. This is what I want to do.’”

In the weeks since then, Poma, working out of a new office on a quiet street in an old Orlando neighborhood, has become even more certain about her decision to keep the property. Saying that “what was once our little corner of Kaley and Orange now belongs to the world,” she announced in early May that a memorial and museum would be built on the Pulse site as a “place of education and change.’’ Its design, she said, “will be decided not by me and not by government, but by the community’’ through a nonprofit organization, One Pulse Foundation.

From its inception, Pulse has been about family for her. Now that family has been extended, considerably.

“I just own it on paper,” she says. “They own it in their hearts.”

Poma concedes that “It would have been a lot easier for me, personally, to walk away.”

But she couldn't.

Neither could Brandon Wolf. 

On the night of the Pulse attack, Wolf was at the club with Drew Leinonen, an idealistic University of Central Florida graduate who was both a dedicated mental health advocate and the kind of devoted friend who wouldn't rest until he cleared up an argument among friends—as he did on the way into the club that night.

Leinonen was among the massacre’s casualties. On a day when hundreds of Central Floridians surrounded the Cathedral Church of St. Luke to shield the mourners within from the chants of a religious hate group, Wolf spoke at his funeral, telling an overflow crowd: “We all have those once-in-a-lifetime people, the kind of people who force you to think differently, speak differently and love differently, the kind of people who stroll into your life and quietly change the way you live it. Drew was my once-in-a-lifetime person.’’ 

It was a beautiful eulogy, all the more so because he’s spent much of the past year living up to it. 

Along with four of Leinonen’s friends and one family member, he established The Dru Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to working with Gay-Straight Alliance chapters in high schools across the country.

“I had a great life. I was happy. I took vacations, had lots of friends,” says Wolf while packing for a trip to Iowa to address educators and high school students in Des Moines.  “What happened at Pulse ignited something in me. If I save one person, make life easier for one kid—that’s all I need. I can’t let Drew’s spirit be forgotten.”

Other efforts were collective ones. One of the dark ironies of the tragedy is that the population that suffered the most is the population that remains, even now, most often overlooked. The attack took place on Latin night, which was one of the few events at which gay Latinos—who made up the vast majority of the victims—could find one another and socialize.  The loss of Pulse as a safe haven was particularly devastating to them. Hence the emergence of QLatinx, the name of a community organization to fill the vacuum left by the nightclub’s disappearance.

The group, which meets weekly, started with just a few friends who needed to console one another after the Pulse attack, but gradually moved on to other issues they shared in common out of a sense of their extreme isolation. Some of its members, which number roughly 50 at this point, felt alienated even at other LGBT organizations because of the language barrier.

“We needed to create a community of people who understand each other, where people can honor their identity and uplift each other,” says co-founder Christopher Cuevas.

Sometimes healing happens with grand gestures. More often it’s the little things.

That’s been Ben Johansen’s methodology.

Johansen, owner of Embellish FX costuming shop on Edgewater Drive, was among those who came to The LGBT Center on Mills Avenue the morning after the attack, needing to be among friends and knowing that volunteers would be needed. 

“I didn't know what to do with myself,” he says. “There were hundreds of people trying to help, and I thought: ‘What can I do?’

“I thought: We need some sort of symbolism. I grew up in a household that had a presence of police and military officers, so I had the notion of a badge, a badge of honor, with a black swatch over it when there’s a tragedy. And with us, it’s the rainbow. That’s our badge.”

So he went to a crafts store, bought a few rolls of ribbon, and began crafting tiny crossed rainbow loops partially covered by a black swatch, thinking wearing them might hearten volunteers at the center, setting up a one-man production line that kept him busy in those early days.

It has yet to shut down. Johansen has become a model of efficiency: He can crank out a thousand in an hour, which is fortunate, because yes, the volunteers liked them, and so have thousands of others, including Bill and Hillary Clinton; Barack and Michelle Obama; Nancy Pelosi; Jamie Lee Curtis; Alice Cooper; Ginger Minj; Elvira, Mistress of the Dark; George Takei; Alan Cumming; John Cusack; members of Styx; Russ Gifford, the former U.S. ambassador to Denmark; and, according to Johansen, “almost all of RuPaul’s girls.” 

He has made over 250,000 ribbons. He says he’s shooting for a million.

This month’s observances, with their 24-hour subtitle—“A Day of Love and Kindness”—suit the need to reflect for those of us at the circumference of the tragedy. But for those at its center, Johansen’s little-by-little approach makes a good metaphor. For them the moments of healing that come are as unique and dearly purchased as those handprints on Michael Pilato’s mural. But they do come, in their own time, in their own way. You might be sitting on a curb one moment, struggling for direction, then suddenly see the road ahead open up to you. Or you could be standing at the foot of a staircase, looking for the courage to climb it.

“I was afraid to come here,” said Mina Justice, when she turned up at Michael Pilato’s studio not too long ago.

Justice lost her son, Eddie Justice, an accountant and devoted bodybuilder, in the Pulse massacre. He texted her: “Mommy I love you” moments before he died. At his funeral, she collapsed and was taken out of the church on a stretcher.

“My life has been like living in hell,” she said. “I wake up, and I cry.  Then I remember something Eddie said, and I laugh. And then I cry again.”

Justice had come to the studio bolstered by a Facebook friend she was meeting for the first time: Daphne Josaphat, the aunt of another Pulse victim, Jason Benjamin Josaphat.

There was a comfort, for Justice, in being with someone who understood the jagged edges of the tragedy as well as she—down to the panicked text that Josaphat, like Justice, got from the club that night.

And both of them, as it turned out, had more in common with their host than they might have guessed.

Michael Pilato has been painting murals since the seventh grade. It’s an obsession that began with a coin toss. He and his twin brother, Mark, grew up in an artistic, community-oriented environment: Their mother was a potter, their father a psychology professor at Penn State. Both boys wanted to be sculptors, then reasoned that having two in one family wouldn’t work. So they flipped for it: Winner would sculpt, loser would paint.

Pilato paints. His first major mural, depicting the history and the community leaders of State College, the town that surrounds the Penn State campus, became a landmark. Then, one day, it became something else. 

A boy was run over by a car and killed near a park named after one of the historic figures in the mural. The story stayed with Pilato, who called the child’s mother and asked her if she would like him to add a portrait of the child to the mural. She agreed. 

“She told me she goes to a diner across the street now and then with a view of the mural,” says Pilato. “She says it’s like having lunch with her son.”

The experience was his introduction to the healing possibilities a mural can offer, and one of the reasons he came to Orlando at the request of a friend who lives here, Chimene Hurst, a guidance counselor at The Parke House Academy. 

He had personal reasons, too, and a kinship that qualifies him as a member of what he calls “the club nobody wants to belong to.”  Whatever healing power the mural may offer others is something he acknowledges needing himself: His daughter, Skye, died 2½ years ago at the age of 19—the same age as the youngest of the Pulse victims. 

She has her place in the mural, too. Pilato pointed it out to his visitors.

 “She’s beautiful,” Justice said. 

She turned her head toward the other side of the studio to look at the place in the mural reserved for her son, his image already roughly sketched in among the others. A sliver of a smile came across her face. Then she and Daphne Josaphat walked down toward the street. The sound of their footsteps, mixed with soft laughter, drifted back up the stairs.