20 years. That’s how long it has been since my world was turned upside down, inside out. That’s how long since so many lives were forever changed by the heartless acts of a domestic terrorist in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 168 people died that day in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building at 200 NW 5th Street. 168 men, women, and children, husbands, fathers, wives, mothers. This weekend, 100’s of us will gather together on the ground where my “home away from home” once stood and remember our loved ones. But we will have something else on our mind during that time. It will not be just the past and the dead that we will be pondering. We will also be thinking about our present and our future and the living. We will be looking at those who are standing around us and marveling at the resilience of life. In our office alone, (DEA 9th floor) I am aware of the births of at least a dozen children and grand children borne by survivors. Out of the ashes of death, life blooms. In places where it seems only darkness can live, survivors manage to defy those odds. They get married. They have families. They graduate. They get jobs and promotions. They love and they grow. They retire. They continue to work and be passionate. They live on. They just live.
When I woke up on April 19, 1995, I fully expected to go on with my day, business as usual. But that was not to be the case. I simply cannot describe the feeling, the emotions and the devastation that consumed me standing in the rubble at the base of my building, trying to organize my thoughts, the names and faces rolling through my head: Who’s dead? Who’s alive? The tears streaming down my face were mixed with the sweat procured after sprinting from a meeting 4 blocks away to the sight I now beheld in grievous disbelief.
If you talk to anyone who survives a disaster, a car crash, a battle field, a bombing, while others they know and love perish, then you are certainly familiar with the term “survivor guilt.” In the weeks to follow, I know that I struggled with this. And 100’s of others did as well. Not just those of us who worked in the building. But also the rescue workers who spent hours recovering the bodies and endangering their own lives to do so. So many struggled with the question “Why them and not me?” And truly, when someone would say to me, “God must have a plan for you,” it would dig the knife in a little bit deeper. After all, did God not have a plan for my beloved friends? Did he not have a plan for the children? But I knew then (and now) that it is so difficult to know what to say to someone who has suffered a great loss. I know because I have been the one attempting to offer words of encouragement to others as often as I have been on the receiving end. I love and appreciate all who care so much for me that they struggle with what to say in my hour of need. So it was that after the bombing as recovery efforts continued to deliver us the news one by one of the names of those found in the rubble that day, I found myself contemplating the “why” and the “what!”
The “why:” As I sit here, incredibly 20 years later, I wish I could give you a reasonable and enlightened answer for the “why.” Why did Timothy McVeigh do what he did? Why did my best friend, or my spouse, or my child have to die like that? Why why why? I can’t. Sometimes you just can’t explain such evil and devastation. It has been going on for 1000’s of years, and I am sure it will continue as long as there is the will of some (or many) to pervert a civil society. In the same way, any tragedy that ruthlessly befalls us-the loss of a child, divorce, hurt, betrayal-the “why” can plague us, paralyze us, and break us. And truly, though I cannot answer the “why,” I do know that the unending pursuit for “why” will likely render us hopeless and helpless. It can and will pluck the fruit from our tree and rob us of our peace. At some point we must simply put one foot forward, forcibly if necessary, and trust in the Creator that indeed He has an “eye” on us. And moreover in this world, He has the last word.
The “what:” I can’t answer the “why,” but ironically because of that, I am compelled to ask “what?” What must I do now? In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, that was different for all of us. The “what” included grieving. It included supporting the families of the fallen, attending funerals, burying the dead, gathering up the physical remains of our office files, counseling, rebuilding, and the list went on and on. As the days turned into years, the “what” turned into- continue to do my job well, take care of each other, celebrate babies, birthdays, graduations, communions, baptisms, live life, retire, and perhaps even suffer more loss. Because as we know all too well, loss is an inevitable part of living.
So this Sunday, as we reflect and celebrate those loved ones who have died, we will look around and consider the living. We’ll say things like, “I can’t believe how much she’s grown,” or “Congratulations on retirement,” or “Have you seen his grand kids? They are adorable.” And in those moments whether we realize it or not we will have achieved the “what.” Presently we have answered the question we were posed 20 years ago-the most important question of all, not the “why” question, but the “what!” As one of my dear friends told me once, “when something goes wrong, we do the next right thing.” That’s the “what.” The next right thing. In that we honor our lost loved ones and we also find a great measure of healing.
I will see many people this week that I love like family though we don’t actually share DNA. They have suffered much. And while it’s true that many of us have suffered with survivor guilt, there is truly nothing to feel guilty about. We have continued to work hard. We have had beautiful children. We have taught others well. We have remembered our lost loved ones, each in our own way, and we share those stories with our children, their namesakes, who will continue to do the same. We have lived lives of integrity, examples of goodness and perseverance. Now what will we do in the next 20 years? Much of the very same thing I hope. Always remembering and always moving forward.
Psalm 27:13-14 I remain confident of this:
I will see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord.
Be strong and take heart
and wait for the Lord.
5 thoughts on “The “why” and the “what” of April 19, 1995”
This was beautifully written and articulated. I’ve personally struggled with the “why” in my life as well: first after watching the Texas Aggie Bonfire fall in 1999 (I was standing 100 yards from it when it collapsed) and then after the Battle of Fallujah (we were flying in support and had to listen to a lot of people we were managing on the ground, die horribly). I don’t think we’re meant to know the why of these situations. Perhaps it’s God’s way of nudging toward the first step of moving on.
Please keep writing.
I love reading your words Judy. Thank you for writing.
Thank you for reading.
Thanks Nick. That’s what every writer hopes to hear, that something you write is helpful.