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During a week in June 2002, after making a personal and public commitment to be mindful and to “smell the roses,” my travels took me toward Oklahoma. I left the Tulsa training, breathing in the beautiful May afternoon as I made my way to Oklahoma City.
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There were many signs for the Oklahoma City National Memorial. Once again, I fought my litany of excuses in favor of going directly to the hotel: “I’m tired”, “My feet hurt,” “I’d rather watch Frazier,” and “What if I get lost again?” Figuring I would see Oklahoma City on a less rushed trip, I checked into the hotel and went to dinner.
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While reading the brochure for the National Memorial during my dinner, tears stung my eyes. The haunting words in the brochure had grabbed my attention:
We come here to remember those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever.
May all those who leave here know the impact of violence.
May this memorial offer comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity.
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I recalled all those weeks I sat in front of the television, numbly riveted by the grief the Oklahoma community was experiencing. I wanted to comfort them, but also needed to be comforted. I think most Americans realized how easily it could be for our life to be turned upside down in a moment. I hurriedly finished my dinner and set out to experience the place that offered comfort and to pay my respects.
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As I neared the memorial, the large number of people surprised me. A chain link fence still surrounded the site and was covered with rememberings and love. A tiny pair of royal blue mittens with hot pink stripes – toddler size – was hanging from the chain link fence, as was a pink ribbon, a pair of white, size 4 toddler sandals. The pair of little girl’s sandals had a blue bird and a purple butterfly on the toes. Whose tiny feet and hands were meant to fit into these mittens and shoes? Did this dear little girl lose her life or was a parent killed in the explosion? I prayed for the child who wore the shoes and the memories that must go with them. I wonder what the holidays are like for that family now? Do they still cry themselves to sleep?
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A multitude of laminated photographs were attached to the fence and now the victims were no longer faceless names. They looked like such kind and beautiful people…smiling and giggling faces of children lost in the blast…faces of lives cut short. It’s heart wrenching to know the hole they must of left in their families.
Further down the fence hung a battered cap from Emergency Medical Services. On the cap, the following words were scrawled:
FIND PEACE. I’M STILL LOOKING. I HAVE LOST MY FAITH. – Kirk Owens.
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Did Kirk Owens work as a rescue worker at the blast sight? I didn’t want to imagine what his memories must be. The sights, the sounds and yes, the smells. As you go to sleep tonight, Mr. Owens, there will be at least one person that will say prayers for you. Thank you for the sacrifice you gave some family for the hard work of searching, rescuing and recovering someone’s loved one. You gave someone your peace. Maybe someone can help you get yours back.
After reading Mr. Owens’s cap, I stepped in the sacred emptiness that was once a building filled with colleagues. Laughter, the early morning giggles of children at daycare, coworkers gossiping over their first cup of coffee package were the kind of sounds that would have been heard on that day. Some people may have been experiencing the feeling of the first stage of love – infatuation – and no doubt thinking about the person they couldn’t live without. There were others wondering what happened to that feeling of love that is no longer there…replaced by restlessness. These people were/are just like you and me. It began as a typical day…until 9:01.
Two towering walls stood at each end of the 3.3 acres. One of the most striking visions at the memorial are the two walls noting the times. One wall has huge numbers 9:01 carved on it, representing life as normal and the other wall with 9:03 on it, representing how quickly life be turned upside down. In between was a sacred emptiness – a massive reflecting pool. Although the memorial grounds held many visitors, there was utter and complete reverence. Bronze and glass chairs of varying sizes were scattered non-symmetrically – to represent where people perished – with names of each of the victims etched in the glass bases. The fourth side of the memorial grounds held the Survivor Tree and the Rescuers Orchard. The survivor tree was badly damaged, but still stands strong…a symbol of resilience…of human spirit and human compassion.
Meaning and messages came at me from every directions…a single moment can change our destiny. The defining moment can be a wrong decision, a betrayal, one drink too many and getting in the car, the death of a loved one, not being honest and vulnerable, not taking a risk that can change our life. After those moments, we sit in silence…with God…and reflect on that sacred emptiness.
The resilience of the Survivor Tree was inspiring. That tree made it in spite of the odds. A blast that took scores of lives, leveled a multi-story building did not destroy a tree. We are often like that tree. Reflecting on the resilience it has taken for many of us just to get to where we are now: maybe through traumatic childhoods, the experience of war, a rape, the death of a loved one, a job loss, a serious illness…. and yet the human spirit still survives…even thrives.
When I tell my clients they are really warriors, they say, “I am not. I am scared.” I say, “So are warriors…but they keep going beyond their fear. That is what it means to be a warrior.”
What are the defining moments in your life? Are you like the Survivor Tree, standing tall and strong, in spite of the odds? What helped you to survive? What would people put on the fence to represent you and your life? How would you want to live your last day? Would you want to live it bickering and gossiping and complaining? Or would you rather be laughing, loving and sharing? It is a choice…each and every moment.