Today we celebrate Mother’s Day, and in two weeks flags and wreaths will honor the fallen on Memorial Day across the United States. On both days I’m reminded of a trip I took to attend our grandson Dan’s graduation from the University of Oklahoma at Norman. It was the first time in years I would be with my children and grandchildren to celebrate these holidays.
Flying over America’s heartland, Bob and I were excited about sharing our “Boomer Sooner” grandson’s big day. Excluding short visits home, he had lived away from California for five years, pursuing the two degrees he’d receive. We’d visited him on campus once before. During that first trip we’d toured the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, but didn’t have time for the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum.
“We’ll do that next time,” we said, and after landing we drove into Oklahoma City for an afternoon tour.
The Memorial and Museum sit on the site of the second largest terrorist attack on American soil, (the largest is the World Trade Center). It honors victims, survivors and rescuers whose lives were changed forever on April 19, 1995. The brochure says, “It encompasses the now-sacred soil where the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building once stood, capturing and preserving forever the place and events that changed the world.”
We weren’t prepared for the emotional impact when we entered the Memorial through its formal entrance, “The Gates of Time,” which frame the vivid results of a terrorist worldview we now experience as a nation.These monumental twin gates frame the moment of destruction––9:02 a.m. The East Gate (below) represents 9:01 a.m. April 19, and denotes the innocence of the city before the attack. The West Gate signifies 9:03 a.m., the moment everything changed forever. In between is a long, shallow reflecting pool. Intended to help soothe wounds, it supplants what was once N.W. Fifth Street in front of the Murrah building on which the Ryder truck full of explosives was parked. This sacred ground brought silence as we walked from one section to another. Instead of headstones there is a “Field of Empty Chairs.” crafted of bronze and stone with a glass base and etched with each victim’s name, a poignant reminder of each of the 168 lives lost “reminding us of the absence felt by family members and friends.” Nine rows of chairs represent the building’s nine floors. Each chair is placed according to the floor on which the 19 children and 149 adults who worked or were visiting there were killed. Bob, our daughter Sharri and I parted ways to view alone what we saw and felt. Since it was Mothers Day, a sign on the door of the Museum announced Mothers could enter free of charge. Sharri was at the door but wasn’t ready to visit the museum yet. I entered the lobby alone, decided to return later and went back outside to find my family. They were across the way.
I was distracted by the “Children’s Area,” a wall of hand-painted tiles, sent to Oklahoma City from children around the world, that encloses a courtyard and a series of embedded chalkboards. Here, visiting children can create and continue to share their feelings. I walked along a chain link enclosure named “The Fence,” first installed to protect the building site and now where tokens of remembrance and hope are viewed.
I dallied too long. When I looked up Bob and Sharri were gone. Just like the victim’s families, I returned to the last place I’d seen them, but they weren’t there. I walked the entire site, sitting for a moment on the promontory wall encircling “The Survivor Tree,” an 80-year-old American elm that survived the explosion. Its inscription reads, “The Spirit of this city and this nation will not be defeated; our deeply rooted faith sustains us.” I realized that they were probably in the museum looking for me and returned to the lobby. Upon entering, visitors are asked for their zip code, which should have made it easy to find them, but the receptionist didn’t have ours. That meant they weren’t there.
I walked to the Heartland Chapel, across the street from our car, to wait for them. Except for fate, I thought, I could be a devastated family member praying for their return. And that’s when I felt the full impact of this special place. While 168 empty chairs signaled that some families would never see their loved ones again, I knew Bob and Sharri were safe nearby. I gave thanks.
News Anchor Tom Brokaw was the keynote speaker next day at the Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. He addressed the new world graduates would face: the economy, politics, war and terrorism––their inheritance. My grandson received his diplomas. We celebrated. Graduation ended. Bob and I made plans to revisit the Memorial Museum before flying home.
In the museum we heard the terrifying sounds of the actual explosion, relived the impact, confusion and chaos of that morning, saw heart wrenching displays of broken eyeglasses and small shoes and watched a video of a young boy insisting that his mother was alive in the rubble, a grim reminder of the televised scenes we had watched years before in the comfort of our home. I will never forget what I saw. Some day I hope to visit the New York Memorial at The World Trade Center.
We live in a changed world now and we owe it to those who died at the hands of terrorists––domestic and foreign––to always remember.