I didn’t have a grandpa nearby while growing up. I had my great-Uncle Don. My own grandparents had either already passed away or were living in another state, so when it came time for Grandparents Day at my elementary school, or ordering Friday night pizza for all of us, or listening to the Reds games over the radio while reading the paper, or doing all those things that grandpas do … that was my Uncle Don. Continue reading →
Ellie the Cat, our sweet white calico cutie who provided much joy and laugher in our household, passed away Sept 21 after a very short illness. She was seven years old.
Born in Northern Virginia as the youngest and smallest of her litter, Ellie and her older sister Kiwi were promptly separated from their ailing mother, and were paired up with another Mama cat. Continue reading →
I missed the President’s State of the Union address this evening, even though walking out of my building after working late made it impossible to avoid.
Since I work just a few blocks away from the Capitol, my building was surrounded by police officers, police cars, police motorcycles, and black vehicles with tinted windows, preventing anyone from getting close, but allowing me to leave, of course.
Clearly, given this city and the constant media coverage, the SOTU address was the talk of the town.
But as I left my building and made my way home, all I was thinking about was breaking the news to my girls that our beloved Dixie was put down this afternoon.
The following is the eulogy I gave at my grandmother’s memorial service over the weekend. It was crafted with help from my step-mother Linda who had input from her siblings and Mary Jean herself.
“There is no limit to the power of a good woman.”
That was the name of an award Mary Jean once earned from [a local high school there in Cincinnati.] She received it because of work she did there, designing stage sets for student musicals, serving as the PTA president, and co-chairman with Bill Fanning to celebrate the school’s 25th anniversary.
Yet, I find it fitting as a description of Mary Jean and the life she lived, and the life we honor here today. There is just one thing I would add to it, though. There is no limit to the power and HEART of a good woman.
And Mary Jean was a good woman.
She was born on April 12, 1930 here in Cincinnati, where she grew up with her late-sister Rita and brother Bert. By all accounts, she was a bright, feisty, and popular girl who made friends for life. After high school, she attended two years at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning, which is where she met a dashing military veteran named Charles, who she married in June 1951.
She incorporated her arts talent and knowledge in so many creative ways while raising their six children, Chuck, Bill, Mike, Linda, Sue, and Karen. There were handmade Halloween costumes: Batman & Robin, Little Red Riding Hood, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and more she kept in a trunk for playtime. Frazzled jeans were hemmed, prom dresses were crafted and sewn.
Christmas cookies were baked by the hundreds, and given away as gifts to family and friends. She thought she was being crafty by hiding these cookie gifts in the bottom of garment bags in the attic, but rumor has it, six little detectives were always able to sniff them out, thinking Mary Jean surely wouldn’t miss just one cookie.
She was known as a real “bandsaw bandit” creating patterns and cut-outs for all kinds of wood crafts, to include a life-size manager stable scene complete with Jesus, Mary, Joseph, three kings, angels, shepherds, and sheep, for all the neighbors on their street, where she and Charley raised their family.
Over the years, there was “Girls Nite” with her girlfriends from grade school and high school at St. Ursela. By then wives and mothers, these ladies met once a month, rotating amongst their homes, always bringing chips and dip, and lots of chatter while playing Bridge.
Mary Jean’s daughters, Linda, Karen, and Sue especially loved when the ladies came to the Magness house. The girls always tried to listen in on the grown up talk and sneak into the circle to refill the chips and dip, to just briefly be part of all the activity.
And activity was a constant at the the house.
With six kids, that was inevitable. Somehow, Mary Jean was always on top of it. She attended football games and swim meets, baton lessons and parades, Girl and Boy scout meetings. She supported all her children, making sure all of them got their college education so they could achieve their career goals.
And when her kids grew up and left the house to begin their own lives, she always kept her home open and inviting to them. As any parent would, she happily welcomed them back in when they needed the support, and just as happily, helped them move out again, too.
Even with her kids out of the house, Mary Jean stayed busy. There was volunteering at Mercy Fest, where she made Christmas ornaments and decorations for fundraising for a local hospital. She served as parish council president at her church, helping with the holiday walk, angel follies, serving as a CCD teacher, and at church festivals. She was also an associate member of the Congregation of the Sisters of St Joseph since 1984, co-founding the Ms Margaret’s Guild, meeting for luncheons to share faith and prayers for others.
I should pause here to mention that I learned of these things about Mary Jean a little bit after the fact.
I first met Mary Jean when I was 17 years old. She came into my life, and the lives of my sisters Jill and Jinger, when my dad Larry married Mary Jean’s daughter Linda.
I was still in high school, obviously still living at home, and was well aware of the awkwardness that arises when two families blend together.
Would this new family like us, and accept us? Must we always add that caveat, that we are the step kids? How would we make up for our lack of history?
And what would we call her?
The thing I didn’t yet know, but would quickly learn about Mary Jean, was that her loyalty and commitment to family didn’t stop with those connected through name and blood.
If she loved you, you were family.
From the very beginning, she loved us. And insisted we call her Grandma MJ.
No caveats about being the stepkids, no explanations needed. She opened her heart to us, and we became a part of the grandkid gang with Charlie and Katie, Daniel, Robbie and Sarah. Years later, that love and acceptance extended to my own children, her great-grandkids, and my sister’s daughter.
Here are the things I know about Grandma MJ from countless family get-togethers with Chuck, Bill and Sandy, Mike, Julie, Sue and Tracey, and all the rest, trips to the beach, barbecues on the banks of the Ohio River, lunches, Easter egg hunts, and visits.
Mary Jean was small in stature, but huge in personality, and so full of energy.
She lived life to the fullest. Not a day went by that she wasn’t involved in something with her friends, family, church, and community. Not a single day.
She always had her cigarettes, and her beverage of choice nearby.
She always walked us to the door, and stood at the window, waving goodbye when we left her home, never moving until we were no longer in sight.
She loved her memories, and kept thick scrapbooks full of them. She enjoyed researching her genealogy and left behind books full of information. Photos of friends and family decorated her walls at home.
And she loved to talk.
And she always had to have the last word. The very last one. Once her family accepted that, they loved her more and more. She continued to use her art and creativity to bring love and joy to others.
She personally created all the centerpieces for my sister’s wedding reception when Jill married Greg, and every Christmas, my children are creating memories surrounded by her amazing woodwork and ornaments. She did this for all her grandkids.
Details were important to her. She never forgot a birthday or anniversary. Not a single one. I received my first birthday card from her when I turned 18 years old, and my husband got his first card just months after we were married. In fact, a few weeks ago, when Grandma MJ was checked into the hospital a few days before my son turned two years old, she turned to Linda and my Dad, and said, “Can you let Julie and Martin know that Jaz’s birthday card is going to be a little late?”
All the things she was facing at that moment, and she was concerned that my little boy wouldn’t get his card.
That was Grandma MJ.
She was sentimental, but also very direct and no-nonsense.
When Grandpa Charley passed away last year, she and my oldest daughter were talking about it, and as my daughter expressed her sadness and fear of others dying, Grandma MJ was matter-of-fact. “This is life,” she said. “When it’s our time to go, it’s time to go, you know? It happens to everybody, and we just gotta hope we lived a good life and love each other so when it’s time, we can accept it.”
Grandma MJ was ready for whatever God had in mind for her. She was ready to die, and she wanted to be with her dear husband Charley again.
And because Grandma MJ had lived such a good life, because she loved us so much and did so much to show us that, we were ready, too.
Sad, but ready.
While MJ, of course, could not be here to have the last word, I would like to share with you the last words she heard before she passed.
They were said by her daughter Linda, who crawled into bed with her, and whispered the following in her ear: “I give you permission to return to God. When God is ready for you, you can release your body and relax in your essence. There will be no more suffering, you are forgiven, you are loved. You have been a great mother, and all your work is done. I’m so proud to be your daughter. Return to God, return to home. No need to say goodbye, you will be with me in spirit always.”
He didn’t say anything about it, but thought it was odd there were so many crosses leaning against such a large boulder on the side of the road. He assumed the crosses were for driving fatalities, and wondered how so many could happen at that one spot.
I didn’t see it.
I was too busy in the passenger seat, looking at our cell phone while navigating our way to Stacey’s house along a winding, tree-covered mountain road over the weekend.
It wasn’t until later that evening when we learned the story behind the rock and the crosses.
It was the point of impact when an airliner carrying 85 passengers and 7 crew members slammed into the side of the mountain on its approach to Dulles airport nearly 40 years ago.
We learned that little tidbit as we were sitting around in Stacey’s house, chit-chatting with the other adults. We were sharing stories of personal haunting experiences, things we remembered from childhood that scared us, or even things we experienced as adults that made us pause. This was to be expected, I suppose. Stacey is an author who has published several “horror-lite” books and articles, and with a background in anthropology and archaeology and a passion for both history and the paranormal, her stories are always good.
So, it’s not surprising that we were talking of such things.
However, I think it was one of her neighbors who first brought it up, and Stacey confirmed that the spot Martin had seen on the side of the road was, in fact, the scene of a violent and horrific tragedy that took place decades earlier.
Of course, once we got home late that evening, I got online and immediately researched it.
It was TWA Flight 514, and it crashed on December 1, 1974 shortly after 11 a.m.
The flight originated in Indianapolis, Indiana and had a lay-over in Columbus, Ohio. It was meant to land at Washington National Airport, but due to weather, was re-directed to land at Dulles Airport instead.
Because it happened in 1974, there wasn’t an avalanche of information readily available on the Internet. Not like other, more recent airplane disasters.
But I did find quite a bit online, especially since that specific plane crash changed a lot in the aviation industry. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was split as to what caused the crash, and eventually it was decided it was a combination of many things, but mostly miscommunication and language used between the pilots and the air traffic controller. They learned that six weeks earlier, a United flight almost met the same fate due to the same miscommunication errors, but the pilots were able to divert the plane in time.
So flights became safer because of the lessons learned from the crash of TWA Flight 514.
So the crosses are there, and a small plaque listing the names of those killed. It’s not permanent. It’s just placed there, balanced on top.
But in that space, even without the small plaque and the crosses, I’m sure a person coming upon the spot would know something definitely happened there.
On Sunday, as we were driving home, I had Martin pull up alongside the boulders so I could get some pictures. I intended just to hop out, take a few, and jump right back in since it’s just a two-lane road there on the mountain.
But as soon as I stepped out and closed the door, Martin pulled away, leaving me there. He saw a space up ahead where he could park off to the side and wait for me.
But it left me alone in that spot.
And it was quiet.
I turned to face west, and could see the very trees that in the old black-and-white photos were razed and cut away decades ago. They’ve grown back, of course. But they’re not as thick and tall as those around.
I turned to the east, and faced the boulders.
When the plane hit, the nose cone slammed into the boulders and disintegrated. In my online research, I read many accounts made by locals who lived near the spot, who recalled where they were and what they were doing when they heard the sound of the airplane hit. Many said they could feel it, even being miles away. With the sort of force, the debris flew up the mountain and into the trees up there.
The most identifiable piece of aircraft was the tail with TWA on it. The rest was just bits and pieces, spread over a large part of the land. Even now, decades later, folks can still find things up there. In my Internet search, I’ve found blog and forum posts and pictures from as recent as last year, describing things like singed and dated clothing, credit cards, wires, and aircraft pieces found up in those woods.
I didn’t dare go up there myself.
My curiosity allowed for me to stand there at the boulders, but that was enough for me. For one thing, Martin and the kids were waiting for me down the road. But also, while I wouldn’t say I was spooked, I was definitely aware that there was an energy that demanded from me some respect and reverence. The idea of picking around up there and disturbing the area just didn’t appeal to me.
That kind of energy, the damage, the loss of life … I think that sort of thing stays around and gets absorbed in the places where these things happen. It was similar to how I felt in the 9/11 chapel at the Pentagon, at the 9/11 site in New York City, the Oklahoma City memorial site, and on the Civil War battlefields surrounding our area. And on the hill in Northern Kentucky where the Beverly Hills supper club caught fire and killed 165 people, to include some of my father’s cousins.
Life goes on, of course.
But I think it’s definitely worth something to pause, learn and reflect wherever history presents itself.
We went out to Ohio this past weekend to attend my grandfather’s memorial service.
Even in death, my grandfather is a giving man, and he made the decision to donate his body to science, for medical research or training, so there was no viewing or burial to attend.
Instead, there was a lovely memorial service at their church. Family and friends gathered just before, and it was so good to see all my uncles, aunts, and cousins, and talk about our favorite Grandpa Charley memories. They had photos on display from throughout Grandpa Charley’s life, as well as Hershey bars for the taking. Continue reading →
Last week, my father let us know Grandpa Charley was very sick and the descision was made to move him to hospice care.
Updates trickled in via email and phone calls.
On Tuesday, I was sitting in the press room at the Air Force Association conference, on military orders for my annual Air Force Reserve duty, when I got a message from my father. Things weren’t looking good, and my family in Cincinnati was gathering around to say their goodbyes.
He promised to keep me updated.
In another one of those life twists that proves to me that nothing is mere coincidence, just minutes after receiving that note, I left for my next writing assignment that day: to cover a panel of World War II pilots talking about their experiences.
For the next hour, those pilots – who were the same age as Grandpa Charley, who looked and moved just like my grandfather – spoke of their war experiences while based in England, Italy, and the Pacific. And during the last 20 minutes of their panel discussion, they spoke of their gratefulness fortheir aircraft maintainers. They mentioned how those were always the last men they saw before a mission, and the first they saw to welcome them back, and how they loved those men as if they were brothers.
I sat in the back of that room as they spoke and quietly wept.
Grandpa Charley worked on the bombers during World War II in England.
He was also the father of my stepmother, Linda, but even though we weren’t his biological grandchildren, he welcomed my sisters and me, and loved us, just the same from the very beginning. And of course, that extended to my family as it grew. When Miss C finally arrived, it was with great love and joy Grandpa Charley and Grandma MJ introduced her as their very first great-grandchild.
Grandpa Charley was a classic man of his generation. He came back from World War II, got his education, ran a successful shipping business, built a comfortable house in the suburbs (which they still live in), raised six children, and took care of those around him. He and Grandma MJ were married for 61 years. His world rotated around his family and faith.
He was always kind, loyal, and humble, and never without a smile.
I last saw Grandpa Charley at my father’s surprise retirement party last July. Martin and the girls got to see him just a few weeks ago, when they went out to Ohio while I was in Germany. After we broke the news of Grandpa Charley’s passing to the girls, we spent some time talking about our favorite memories.
Miss C mentioned how Grandpa Charley always stood at the window with Grandma MJ to wave goodbye to them after a visit.
One of my own special memories with Grandpa Charley was the time I visited him before I left for my deployment in 2007. We went over to the house, and sat around and talked. I think it was my Dad who asked Grandpa Charley what things were like before he left for England, and he told us about a conversation he had with his father.
“He told me that I shouldn’t hate the Germans,” said Grandpa Charley. “He said, never forget your enemies are people, too. And I never forgot that.”
Neither did I.
Later, Dad said that after my news team was attacked in Iraq, he printed out my blog post about it to share with Grandpa Charley and Grandma MJ. He said out of all the people who heard or read about the attack from my father, Grandpa Charley was the most shaken by it, and expressed the most concern about what kind of effect that it was going to have on me when I returned home. For some reason, that really touched me. Out of all my close relatives, Grandpa Charley was the only one who also served in a combat zone. My father was stationed stateside as a Reservist during the Gulf War, and my uncle Ray, who served two tours in Vietnam, died when I was still a toddler. Knowing that Grandpa Charley understood the seriousness of what I was going through was somehow comforting to me.
Maybe that’s why I got teary there on the job as the World War II pilots spoke of the gratitude they had for their fellow Airmen, why it was devastating each time an aircraft didn’t return from a mission, how seriously every person took their job. The dedication. The loyalty. The heart.
As they sat there describing all the things that made those men great, I couldn’t help but think that THAT was Grandpa Charley. They were describing who he was.
Not just during the war, but every single day of his life.
It was bitterly cold that evening, and black. In fact, everything seemed to be painted with an ominous cloak of foreboding that I could not shake. I got no work done at the Pentagon earlier that day.
Instead, I sat at my desk near the telephone, watching the clock and hoping she would call me.
She never called me.
Nancy was my neighbor.
At first glance, we were two completely different people. She was tall, blonde, and gorgeous; a 49-year-old Princess Diana lookalike who was also a seasoned DC businesswoman with a social circle that included names I regularly read in my Washingtonian magazine.
At the time, I was a 25-year-old military working wife and mom of a three-year-old, sporting stretch marks and flat hair, and my social circle was regulated to a furry little monster puppet and a big purple dinosaur.
She drove a Jaguar with a custom leather interior. I drove a Honda that smelled of sour milk and stale cookie crumbs. Her closet was filled with power suits and dresses made by French and Italian designers. I wore Target and Old Navy from the clearance rack.
But somehow, over the course of the year that we were neighbors, Nancy and I became friends.
As it turned out, we were both Midwestern girls: she from the suburbs of Detroit; me from the suburbs of Cincinnati. We both grew up Catholic. We both came from large families. We shared a similar sense of humor. We both loved Europe, and we both loved to talk, which we ended up doing a lot during the evenings when she would come over to my messy, cluttered townhouse that winter. She took great interest in my job and my passion for public relations, politics, news events, and communication.
At the time, I was a very low man on the totem pole at the Pentagon, convinced that any venture into the real world of Washington DC employment would be a spectacular disaster.
She constantly told me I was wrong.
“You are smart and amazingly talented,” she told me. “Stop underestimating yourself and your potential.”
To prove it, she took me to social events downtown during the fall of 2006 and introduced me to her friends; female powerhouses who worked at the White House, or had started successful international companies, or smashed glass ceilings within government. She loved to talk me up, and I didn’t mind it. It was the first time it dawned on me that maybe, hopefully, I could actually find success outside of the military.
Despite her energy and excitement over my budding career, though, there was a part of Nancy that was very dark. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I could sense it. It wasn’t until months into our friendship that she started to open up about her depression. At first, she would just make a comment here and there. But one night in early January 2007, she really let it spill.
For her, it was not some passing mood swing. It was a real, debilitating sickness that started when she was a young college student and remained her entire adult life, rearing it’s chronic ugliness in several grave episodes over the years. Only a few close to her knew about it. Mostly family. She came from a generation where this sort of thing was not addressed openly.
When I asked how she managed to have such a successful career and never let on, she gave an impish smile and said, “I have a few very good friends who fly cover for me.”
She admitted that she needed me to fly cover for her. She was in a deep depression again and she was flying home to Michigan to get treatment at a clinic near her family that routinely sees clients who fly in on private jets. She was going to be gone indefinitely.
She needed someone to watch the house while she was gone, to tend to her mail and plants. Of course, I agreed. I didn’t see her again for weeks, but then one night, she was standing near her mailbox. I was surprised to see her and invited her over to the house for dinner. She seemed frail and a little confused, but agreed to come over. We spent the evening on my couch watching American Idol and holding hands. She didn’t eat the take-out I ordered. I gently asked her questions about her visit to Michigan. Her answers were vague, and there was more silence than usual. So I talked to fill the space.
At one point, she finally squeezed my hand.”You are a good friend to me,” she said.
Later, as I got her settled in her beautiful home, she finally opened up that the trip to Michigan had not gone well, that she had left the clinic midway through her treatment, and that she wasn’t sure if she should go back.
I told her she needed to go back, that she should fly up there the next morning, that I would drive her to the airport. For some reason, when she didn’t answer right away, I blurted out that I would even travel back to Michigan with her.She seemed shocked by that.”You would do that?”
“Yes,” I said, and I meant it.
However, she said she wouldn’t want me to miss work. But she did agree to go back to Michigan on her own. I said I would call her in the morning and take her to the airport the next day.”Call me when you are awake,” I said before leaving her house.She never called.
Nor did she answer my calls to her the next morning or afternoon. Initially, I thought maybe she was finally getting some restful sleep. Maybe she was making the travel arrangements for Michigan. I called Martin, who assured me he had seen Nancy during his lunch break, walking to her car and back. That brought me some ease, but not a lot.
I snuck out of my office early and went home. There was a taxi cab waiting in front of her townhouse with the engine running. This was a good sign. She probably didn’t want to bother me, I thought. I called Martin to ask if he knew about the taxi: he did, as he had seen Nancy talking with the cab driver as Martin left the house earlier for his night job.
Satisfied with his answer, I got Miss C settled for dinner, though I kept watch on Nancy’s townhouse through my window.I couldn’t shake the feeling.And then, just as I sat down with Miss C to watch some television, the phone rang. It was my other neighbor, Karen, who was wondering if Nancy was with me. The cab driver was growing impatient as he’d been out there for almost two hours now waiting for her to come out of her house again.
My heart started racing from somewhere in the pit of my stomach.I asked Karen to meet me in front of Nancy’s house. Later, Karen said she knew from my voice that something wasn’t right. But she agreed to meet me, and I will forever be grateful for her compassion and heart because had she not gone, I would have made an awful discovery all on my own.At some point between the time Martin saw her with the taxi driver to the time Karen called me, Nancy went down to her basement and shot herself in the head.
It took several more years before I stopped getting the adrenaline rush whenever that image creeped into my thoughts.
In the military, there is training for supervisors about the warning signs of depression and suicidal behavior. There are steps everyone is encouraged to take if he/she suspects someone is hurting and thinking of suicide. It’s so easy to watch the videos and read the examples, and think these things would be so obvious, but in real life?
In real life, people want to be respectful, to keep a safe distance from another’s emotional pain. I understand the embarrassment. The perceived shame and weakness. I thought I was being kind and proactive when I gently prodded Nancy for answers. I thought I was being direct when I asked if she was thinking of hurting herself.
But I did not ask the most direct questions: Are you thinking of killing yourself? Are you feeling suicidal?
I learned afterward that she had been planning it for months. That trip to Michigan was a last-ditch effort, and really, she didn’t have any hope that the treatment would work. Nancy had a plan and she was an intelligent woman. Even in her depression, she was lucid enough to know that none of us ever expected her — the same nonviolent woman who cringed whenever we talked about my upcoming deployment to Iraq, who weeped at the idea of me in a combat zone — to go out of her way to purchase a gun.
It was part of her plan to call that taxi driver with the hope that he would be the one to discover her.
What she didn’t plan — or couldn’t realize in the fog of depression — was that two neighbors cared enough to rush into her house to check on her.
But it made me question and reflect on the way I thought about mental illness and suicide.It made me wonder that if society was a little different, if we talked about depression, death, and suicide as freely as we talk about sex, politics, and religion, then perhaps Nancy wouldn’t have suffered in silence for so long.
Perhaps she wouldn’t have needed friends to quietly fly top cover to safeguard her career and social standing. Perhaps I would have been more brazen with my questions to her. Perhaps Nancy, who had all the connections and all the resources in the world, wouldn’t have felt she had to violently end her own life alone in her basement.
Depression is serious, but it is not shameful. Neither is asking for help.
Fortunately, the good memories I have with Nancy outshine that one horrifying, heartbreaking memory which no longer scares me. Despite that awful tragedy, beautiful things resulted from it. I remain good friends with her family, at one point returning the favor Nancy paid me by giving writing advice to her niece when she was applying to college. The confidence Nancy had about my career still buoys me to this day, especially when I get nervous.
First and foremost, we were friends and I’ve never felt anger or regret over the things that happened. Sadness and grief, yes. But I learned a lot of positive things from her.I learned to be a better listener and to trust my gut more.
And I speak up more, which is why I’m posting about this today, to both honor Nancy’s memory, and to maybe, hopefully, in some small way, remove the stigma of depression and mental illness.
I had another post planned for today: a frivolous Flashback Friday.
But then my alarm clock went off this morning.
It’s set so that the radio plays, but instead of music, I wake up to news/talk radio. Usually, the voice of the newscaster or the jingle before the traffic report startles me awake, but sometimes I get caught in that shadowy, surreal stage of sleep, where I’m not really awake, but not really asleep, and the things that are real and awake influence the things that are still a dream.
This morning, as I slowly slid out of sleep, I dreamed of people screaming and crying, of running from chaos. It was violent and unnerving.
There’s been such a cloud over my heart all day about this. It’s one thing when Mother Nature flexes her power and devastates with a hurricane, tsunami, or wildfire. Yet, when it’s another human responsible for such pain and sorrow?
There are not enough words to express how sorry and sad this makes me or how much I wish this wouldn’t happen, that people would just stop hurting others like this. There will never be enough words.
It was the mother of a wounded Virginia Tech student who provided an emotional connection of understanding to my husband during my deployment five years ago. I woke up this morning to my radio news channel announcing the fifth anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre today, and it brought forth a bittersweet memory that’s not really mine, but I hold it as dear to my heart as if it all happened to me. It happened between Martin and someone we just refer to as the “Virginia Tech Mom.”
The Virginia Tech shootings happened about a month before I was scheduled to deploy to the Middle East. I remember following the initial reports online that day, when CNN uploaded grainy cell phone videos submitted to them from students there on the scene. This was before Twitter, obviously, before YouTube really became the resource for footage like that. Having been in high school in the late 90s, when it seemed like there was a school shooting somewhere every semester culminating with the Columbine shootings my senior year, the news of a school shooting was not shocking. Of course, learning the details and about the loss of 32 lives was horrifying and tragic, especially when we learned that the shooter and countless victims (both those killed and injured) were from our area. But as it goes with major news stories that don’t really claim any real personal investment, Martin and I never thought about it beyond the headlines, especially as we were focused on our own situation: my involvement with the war in Iraq, which was peppering the news with scary and tragic headlines on its own. I was gone in the Middle East for a few months when she walked into his bank. She was a new client, and she needed to cash some checks and make some changes to some personal accounts. As Martin was the first available finance manager to assist her, he approached her and led her to his desk. Initially, the conversation was a pretty generic exchange of information. As Martin plugged away at the computer, though, he realized the mother was making some changes on behalf of her daughter. More questions were asked. More information was given. As it turned out, a few months before, the daughter was a college student in another part of the state before a gunman walked into her classroom and shot her at her desk, along with several other classmates. Her daughter survived, but many around her did not. She was critically injured, and had to wait in that classroom for hours before medical assistance was able to reach her. Now, she was back home with her mother and on a long road to recovery. Maybe it was because he knew about the Virginia Tech shootings. Maybe it was because this woman spoke with him so easily. For whatever reason, Martin opened up to this. He shared that I was deployed and my news team had also survived a recent surprise mortar attack that required my team’s broadcaster to be medically evacuated by helicopter for his injuries. Thus, what would have probably been a simple 15-minute banking appointment evolved into something much longer than that. The two of them talked about how awful it is to send a loved one off with the reasonable expectation that they would return safely, only to discover that something terrible can happen in a second. The mother admitted she worried if her daughter would ever be the same again, having witnessed all of that, and Martin agreed he worried about the same thing with me. They spoke of what’s it like to appreciate the flood of support from the community, but to be embarrassed and uncomfortable with it, too. They shared the frustration of not knowing all the details of what happened, and being scared to watch the news anymore. Martin spoke of how powerless he felt watching me walk away from him and Miss C at the airport, and knowing he couldn’t stop me from leaving. The woman spoke about watching her daughter struggle with physical therapy, and feeling the rage that all of it was beyond her (the mother’s) control. Throughout the conversation, Martin worked to complete all the woman’s transactions, and when they were done, he walked her out of the bank. Then, my stoic German husband had to step away and collect himself before returning to his desk. All during the deployment and for a long time after, Martin never opened up to me about what it was like while I was gone. He, of course, shared that he missed me, but assured me he didn’t worry as long as I was writing. In a letter, he briefly mentioned meeting the Virginia Tech mother, only saying it made him feel weird to hear the mother talk about what happened to her daughter. Only a year later, when I was going through all my deployment paperwork and rereading the letters we’d sent to each other, that I remembered and asked him for more details. Martin saw his client every now and then over the years, but never exchanged more than greetings and passing updates about her daughter. Now that he’s no longer working at the bank, there’s no way to find out how that family is doing this anniversary. But I am thinking of them, of the young lady who got shot, but especially of her mother. I’m sure she wouldn’t remember that conversation with my husband, but I do, and while I know she was probably sharing with Martin as a way to vent some of the emotions she was experiencing, she actually allowed my husband to articulate a lot of what he was going through at the time, too, something that does not come easily for him at all. Her strength and grace in such a situation was — and continues to be — very inspiring. I never think those kinds of encounters are merely coincidence. I hope on this anniversary that Martin’s client, the Virginia Tech Mom, and her daughter — and all the people who were affected by the shootings there — have come to a place of peace now, and that life has moved in a positive direction for all of them. We’re definitely thinking of all of them.