Friday, April 23, 2010

The Ones Left Behind

by Kathryn Casey

When you're a crime writer for a couple of decades, some things stick with you. In a prior lifetime, when I wrote for magazines, I jumped around from topic to topic. One month I'd be shadowing a criminal profiler for a couple of days, another time I'd be sitting in a courtroom covering a trial. Of course, it wasn't always crime. There were a few movie star interviews, some first ladies who welcomed me into their homes, and a couple of presidents who answered my questions. But for some reason, I kept getting drawn back to the crime reporting, and, in all honesty, those are the interviews that sometimes still keep me up at night.

I guess it was a year or so after the Oklahoma City bombing, when I was interviewing survivors and victims' families. What I remember from that assignment is the woman who described talking to her husband on the telephone that terrifying morning, fifteen years ago this past Monday. The woman's husband worked for the government in the Alfred P. Murrah building. They weren't discussing anything unusual, just your normal husband and wife early in the morning stuff, when all of a sudden the phone went dead. She didn't hear the explosion. In her living room on the outskirts of the city, she didn't feel the impact. That is, not until she got the phone call that her husband was dead. Then she screamed and fell to her knees.

Years later, after 9/11, I interviewed Lisa Beamer, the widow of Todd, (photo at the top left) the guy who said, "Let's roll!" on United Flight 93, the one the passengers took back, preventing it from being used as a bomb to blow up, experts believe, either the White House or the U.S. Capitol.

I spent much of a day with Lisa and her three children. The youngest, their only daughter, Morgan Kay, was still a baby. She was born four months after her father's death. But it's the middle child, Drew, I remember the most. I was in his father's office with him, talking about his dad. "My daddy taught me to ride a bike," he said. I think the boy was seven or eight at the time. "My daddy said he'd teach me to shoot baskets, but now he can't." A simple statement, true, but to that little boy it symbolized tremendous loss.

Perhaps the case I remember the most vividly is that of a little girl who disappeared at a small town softball park. Her mom was in the stands with her younger son, talking to neighbors, cheering on her oldest out on the softball diamond, and keeping an eye on the little girl who played with a group of children on the grass beside the field. The mom watched the little girl, but as the game broke up, the crowd stood, and for a matter of a minute or less, she couldn't see her child. By the time the mother's field of vision cleared, the little girl was gone. Parents later reported a suspicious looking man lurking around watching the children play. The girl was never found.

When I went to see them, the family still lived in the same house, and although it had been five years or so after the girl's disappearance, her bedroom was still as she'd left it on that awful afternoon they hurried to the ballpark. It was a difficult interview, filled with questions I hated to ask. The mother couldn't bring herself to talk as if her child was dead or, if the girl was still alive, what might have happened to her. "I just have to believe one day she'll come home," she told me. "I have to believe that she's somewhere and she's safe."

But more than the mother, it's the missing girl's little brother I remember. A freckle-faced kid with big blue eyes, he stared up at me with a furrowed brow. "I'm worried my mom might lose me, that someone will take me," he confided. "And I'm mad that my mom didn't find my sister."

Too young to comprehend that his mother had searched and worked for years to recover her missing daughter, the boy only understood that she had failed.


Early Light said...

It's amazing how someone's day is going so normally, without incident, and then, all of sudden, the realization occurs that something that perhaps has crossed their minds but which is humanly almost beyond comprehension has now happened. In the case of the OKBOMB and 9/11, there is no way the thought had occurred to these people that something of such tremendous impact would ever occur, much less to their families.

Good post.

Anonymous said...

I loved this post. It really made me think about how lucky we all are to have our families and friends.