Because most people forget the day after...
I was 17 years old when the walls of my school violently shook. I was at basketball practice, probably running bleachers because I was the one who had a permanent listing in that department. I remember stopping for a split second, wondering what had just happened. It was not until I walked to my first class that day that I heard the news from my mom, who was standing in our hall, crying, that a bomb had exploded in Oklahoma City, 45 miles away; that was the reasoning behind the shake. Like any dumb teenager, I did not realize the magnitude of the tragedy, until I looked at the TV, the bulky one attached to the library wall. I still had no idea.
In the heart of all that chaos, a photo was taken that changed the view of the horror. You can google the picture of the firefighter holding the baby, it is still plastered everywhere. I like so many, looked at that snapshot, day in and day out for the next days, months, and years, never realizing the magnitude of damage and sadness that must have occurred behind that lens. It was a brief moment of that day, filling every ounce of thoughts of what might have happened; A picture that retold the pain, the sadness, the tragedy, replaying the day, every day, for the next 25 years. I would guess most people probably do not understand why April 19 is a day burned into the memories of some. Unless you were impacted by that day, you might skip over it as just another day on the calendar. I was affected, but I was not aware of the impact that story would have on me, until I too, had a day in my life, that for others was just a day on the calendar, but to me, the worst day of my existence.
Trauma comes in all forms, and although most people think of trauma and PTSD as combat-related, and front line-first responder related, PTSD can come to those who call themselves civilians. In the aftermath of that trauma, 25 years ago, I was dumb. I was curious. I skipped school one day to gaze in awe at the impact a bomb did to a side of the building and watched as countless people still dug, looking for pieces and items of anything and anyone left in the rubble. Days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months. I had no clue that my trauma at that point actually had a name, nor could I see the future in that word, and how it would hit me again. Today, I know a little about trauma and PTSD, so I can imagine the days, weeks, and months that must have followed those front line persons. I'm sure many of them begged for images to disappear, pleaded for smells and nightmares to subside, and prayed to every God they knew or had heard of, that the screams would leave their brains. I've been one of those people.
I can see their families and spouses watching their loved one plummet down a hole so deep that they soon become unrecognizable. I'm betting most of those thoughts and images did not go away, because 25 years ago if you were in that line of work, you were thought of as weak, and not capable of performing the first responder job if you showed even an ounce of emotion or verbalized you were "not right." How they must have suffered, and for that, I am sorry.
I am sorry I was just there to see. I'm sorry that I did not know more, and I'm sorry that you were left alone to suffer. I'm sorry, I was too late. I look at you and wonder if you were still on the other side of that fence that day I cried, always searching, still numb. I look into your eyes now, and I can see the pain and the struggle that you must have faced, alone at times, because that is the same pain I see daily with the ones I now help fight. Once again, your pain, their pain, becomes my purpose because I can't bear to see anyone in your line of work suffer anymore, and I feel guilty sometimes that I'm not there to save them all. It took me years of dealing with my demons and finally meeting them head-on before our paths finally crossed. I can look at you today for the person you have become, not only seeing the past pain but also the enormous amounts of strength. I see you now, not of the picture that changed your world.
Twenty-five years later, I met the man behind the lens. I've had the opportunity to hear Chris speak many times about his story. Each time, I'm still amazed at a depth of hell this man and his family went through in the days that followed this photo, long before PTSD in the fire service and first responder world was ever really taken seriously. I'm amazed at the God, the resiliency, the fight and the love and support from his family, that would not let go, and was there for him when he began to claw his way out of the pit of hell. Each time I hear him speak, I'm thankful for his journey and his ability to bring hope to so many, as his new life mission is to spread awareness. The last time I heard him tell his story about the moments he was handed that child, I stopped breathing for a second as he said something that hit me in the face: "Give her to me."
Those were the same words my dad and brother said to me on my most horrific day: "Give her to me." Those were the words they both spoke as they reached for my two daughters, shielding them from the horror that was unfolding before their little eyes. They took both my girls away from that scene. I was left to wait for Brian to finish his duties. I never dreamed I would hear those words again, speaking in a different context, from someone who shares the same message and spreads the same hope as we and so many others now spread:
"Give them to me."
It's still funny to me how trauma and tragedy bring people together, but I do know that in trauma and disaster if you have been there or experienced it, you relate. You relate to the hell, you connect to the pain, but you also relate to the light at the end of the dark tunnel. In no way are our stories the same, but the hope at the end is: "Give them to me."
Today, we share our stories. Twenty-five years ago, as I starred at this building, I never thought that I would be connected to anyone through trauma. I would have politely declined the invitation to experience pain and asked for anyone else to forge a movement and spread awareness. But most days, we don't get that choice. Chris didn't; he was the one God chose to say, "Give her to me." God chose well when He chose you and your family, even though it was hard to see at the time, your pain became His purpose.
And still, we rise…..