I was eleven years old when two terrorist blew up the Oklahoma City federal building on April 19, 1995. I grew up in a home without a television and I don’t remember the radio playing much. It was mostly Raffi CD’s, James Taylor, Carol King, and a few of my Dad’s Led Zepplin tracks mixed in. My siblings and I learned about current events from my parents and in terms we could understand and digest.
So when I went to school April 20th I was shocked to hear my classmates saying words like “bomb” and “bloody” and “blown up” as they talked about buildings and trucks and babies. Finally, our teacher decided to have a classroom conversation instead allowing a room of fifth graders to continue one upping each others stories about what they had seen and heard on the television the night before. So she invited us to raise our hands and share what we were thinking and feeling.
I listened to my peers for a few minutes and felt my hands get clammy and my blood run cold. My heart pounded in my chest and I wanted to close my eyes and ears to all that was being said around me. I left my seat and walked up to my teacher and asked to leave the room. She sent me to the nurse’s office and they called my mother.
When my mom arrived at school I climbed into the passenger seat of our new Windstar minivan and we sat silently for a few minutes. Then I asked my mom what happened and she told me plainly, but without all the graphic descriptions my classmates had used. Then we sat for a bit longer as I digested terror for the first time in my life. I couldn’t do it. I was horrified and frightened. So my mom said, “We can pray. Do you want to?” I nodded.
I don’t remember the pray or how I felt after. I just know that stuck with me. When terror became real to me, and I couldn’t process it and fear ran through my veins, my mom came to me and we prayed.
Four years later my dad was deployed and two teenagers shot up Columbine High School. I was a freshman in High School and once again that feeling of horror washed over me as I tried to close my eyes and ears to the news. I didn’t call home, but I wanted to. I didn’t sit in the school parking lot to pray with my mom. This time I went looking for my older sister in the halls of our High School. I just wanted to be near her while I tried to make sense of it… I couldn’t.
This too familiar scene has played out over and over again. Senseless violence and acts of terror crash down on innocent families who were simply living their daily lives one moment and in the next are either dead, maimed, wounded, or forever traumatized. And we watch it, helpless and confused from our televisions, computer screens, and smart phones. Terrorism does exactly what it intends – injects fear into the hearts of the world. I am not immune and I cannot make sense of it because it doesn’t make sense.
But I have learned this: we don’t have to pretend we’re not afraid because fear is nothing to be ashamed of. I just do for me and my family what felt necessary and right when I was a frightened child in the passenger seat of my parent’s minivan…
I seek out my people and move closer to them. My daughter left her room multiple times last night because she needed water, then a snack, then one more story, then she had a bad dream. And what would usually frustrate me brought comfort. I wanted to be close, to snuggle her, to gather her to me.
We pray. What, I don’t always know. “Jesus be near.” Or simply, “Help.”
We repeat the cycle together because there are no shortcuts or easy answers to how we respond to terror. But I want my children to know that when they are afraid they can come to me and look to God. That their fear will never be belittled by their mother or turned away by their Creator. That their confusion is normal and that as long as I’m able I will continue to gather them close and utter heartbroken prayers with them.
Last night I watched my twitter feed explode with images of children smiling for the camera and words that didn’t match. Things like, “This is my sister. She was at the arena and she isn’t answering the phone. Please share until we find her.” Over and over and over these messages poured out for sisters and friends and sons and cousins. And I felt the panic and terror and trauma of each one.
As I held my daughter to me I prayed, “Help. Help them find each other.” Because right now that’s all I want for every family with a loved one who was at the arena in Manchester. I want them to be united with their people.
But twenty two families won’t be united this side of heaven. All I have for this senseless, evil fact is the broken cry, “Jesus be near.”
I don’t thank God it’s them instead of me – I grieve and wish it hadn’t been any of us.