Tomorrow is April 19, a day of holy introspection for Oklahoma City. Each year, we wake to the sounds of church bells and ghostly echoes. Washed in redbud blossoms and disquieting memories, our community tastes together a hard-won but bashful peace tinged with the lingering after-taste of unresolved grief. Despite the reappearance of the purple ribbons and Memorial Marathon banners, I had nearly pushed the approaching anniversary to the back of my mind. It couldn’t have stayed there long, I know. April 19 is one of “those” days.
Today, I read my mother’s account of her experience on the day of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building. It felt strange to read her memories of the worry and fear she never let us see.
We were children, you see. Mothers do their best to protect their children from the terrible, the inexplicable. I was so full of relief when she arrived at my school that day. I had been waiting for her to come. My teacher’s announcement had left my 8 year old mind flooded with images of cartoon bombs of the Inspector Gadget variety. I was confused, unable to understand why the very earth shook beneath our feet. One by one, my classmates left our common area where we sat huddled around a small television. As their parents arrived, they leapt to their feet and ran into open arms, crying “You’re okay!” By midday, the impact of the first terrifying images had been realized and the television had wisely been swapped for a radio. Now we understood. I waited for my mother, growing more and more impatient. I nearly cried each time another parent arrived. I knew she would come when she could. If she could. When she finally arrived, I pressed my hand into hers, flooded with unfounded reassurance. Everything would be alright if we were alright. I never knew she was as frightened as I was.
My mother was brave for us during the following weeks. She was always ready with a much-needed hug or a hand to hold. She did her best to create a sense of order during the seemingly endless days of cancelled classes, hourly television press conferences, and the ever-present nagging “why?” She taught us to push away despair with kindness and purpose, taking us to deliver rescue supplies and teddy bears to our fire station. She was there in the night. The sound of Casey’s soft whimpers in the next room were met by the sound of her low, soothing voice. As quickly as my brother would cry or thrash against the sheets, she would arrive, and he would quiet.
Despite her best efforts, and those of all of our mothers, none of us would escape untouched. Casey became afraid to go to daycare. He didn’t understand, after all, that the bombed daycare full of children wasn’t his, but another. My mind swam with strange new concepts. A boy in my grade didn’t have a mother anymore. My playmate cried with relief that her mother had been too sick to go to her job at the Journal Record. The world turned upside down as adults around us thanked God that they had overslept or been given a traffic ticket or been unable to find a parking spot. Each fortuitous inconvenience had made the difference between arriving at 9:00 am and 9:05. We had never been safe after all, and like Casey, we all began to dream strange dreams.
The dreams have nearly gone, now, but I am still visited on occasion by nighttime visions of shattering glass, high rises with gaping black holes, and gray ash clouds. They returned for weeks after Sept. 11., different and more fiery, but eerily familiar. Did the ground shake? It’s my tell. In my dreams, the ground doesn’t shift beneath my feet. The walls don’t rattle. I see the event, but I don’t feel it, and I know it isn’t real. If it was real, I would have felt the earth move. It’s only a dream.
Tomorrow, I’ll eat lunch with Casey, or be with my friends, and light a candle or wear a purple ribbon or do nothing at all in particular except remember the moment my mother arrived to pick me up from school on April 19, 1995. I’ll think of her calm and her strength, and of the reassurance she offered in place of the safety that was no more. I’ll know it wasn’t real, that she was afraid just like me, but it won’t matter. She was flawless.