By Omar L. Gallaga
Click here to read the original Oklahoma City bombing journals.
Close. Sure. Lose. Cue. Clue. Ruse? Cure?
For me, it's a time of endings, of finalities, of ceremony and burial, both public and private. The buzzword (because it is easy to reduce the most elusive of emotion and of accomplishment to a handy cynical phrase like "buzzword," "psychobabble" and "emotional baggage) is "closure."
It is a word that carries with it the talismanic power of implication: Implications of healing, forward motion and an end to pain.
But pain does not end. Real pain loses power until it becomes a worn-over scar. It never ends. Even "closure" will not bring that.
About 9:45 a.m. April 19, 1997. This morning. I'm reading the quotes and the color I've gathered to my Houston editor at Reuters.
Edie Smith lost two children in the Oklahoma City bombing two years ago. Their names were Colton and Chase. She is a constant figure in the public eye it seems an event related to the bombing does not take place without commentary from the redheaded woman with the piercing blue eyes sharpened by grief and loss. Some say she is a little too friendly with the media. Another editor I worked with once said, "Edie Smith she gives good quote."
I'm reading my quotes from Edie Smith. I'd spotted her easily in the crowd of survivors and family members along the fence in front of the foundation remains of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
The Houston Reuters editor, Jeff, listens to me patiently as I read, then repeat, my quotes. "They're not making such a big deal as last year," Edie Smith had told me. "It's a sacred thing. It brings a sense of peace. It's nice that we can come together despite all our differences and remember."
I pause as Jeff types.
From Edie Smith: "For some, it gives them a little more closure every year."
"Ah, there it is," Jeff says. "I was wondering when we'd get the C-word.' "
What happens in two years: Personal
I covered the Oklahoma City bombing for 10 days in April of 1995. I wrote journal entries every day I was there.
A month later, I came back and wrote stories for The Oklahoma Daily on the day that the Murrah building was imploded. I'd intended to write an epilogue. I put it off.
I didn't go back. Not for a long time.
A few months later, I passed through downtown on a Sunday while participating in an AIDS walk. The empty streets and silences frightened me. We didn't pass the Murrah site.
I continued working at The Daily. I became managing editor, then night editor, then entertainment editor. I finally burned out after my first senior semester. I took a job as a professor's assistant and a part-time Oklahoma correspondent for Reuters News Service. The bulk of the things I work on for Reuters are bombing-related.
I went downtown about nine months ago to the Federal Courthouse to retrieve documents for a story I was working on. While there, I wandered down to the now-famous fence. The teddy bears, ribbons, posterboards and memorabilia made me feel ghosts passing through me, through my soul, through the barriers of cynicism, forgetfulness and apathy I'd allowed in me since the days after the bombing.
But it was all there.
I did not write an epilogue. I felt I had no right. What connection did I have with that incident? What great loss had I endured? Who the hell was I? I did my job, I got my great clips, I even achieved a little notoriety with the journals. Was I to be an emotional strip-miner?
I didn't write.
One year ago, I was curled up under a blanket with Barbara in front of my aging television set. At 9:02 a.m., we watched on the floor of my living room the ceremony downtown.
We'd both been scarred. Every now and then, we talked about it. We always had the journals to remind us what happened, but neither of us went back to read them. The conversations were never very long. We both understood and we understood each other. Words didn't have to be spoken. We'd seen plenty. We didn't need to relive it together.
Barbara came from Muskogee that weekend, arriving Thursday night. The Friday morning ceremony we skipped it. Neither of us tried to get press passes. We were afraid. We stayed home. The bombing was not ours to mourn or be a part of anymore. It had brought us together and that was our only comfort of it.
"It brought us together and thank God, because something good had to come out of it. I can believe in God if I believe that even out of a horrible tragedy like this, good can come."
We'd been together and happy for a year, despite the distance from Norman to Muskogee (two and a half hours). We liked saying that we had to get married if only to tell people for the rest of our lives the story of how we met. Amid chaos, amid death and horror and pain came love. And God works overtime even in the darkest of the bleak.
But the bombing didn't belong to us. We stayed home. Together.
What happens in two years: The city
There is not a week that passes where a story does not appear on the front page of The Daily Oklahoman about the bombing. There is not a week that passes in which the local news stations don't report an update on the bombing trial, on the lives of victims and family members or a story about reparations for victims.
A bumper sticker, common in Oklahoma and distributed at the second-anniversary ceremony: "We Remember," yellow text on green with an emblem of the state between the two words.
On Robinson Street, one of the streets that intersects Murrah, there is a smallish road sign brown with white text. "Alfred P. Murrah Building," with an arrow pointing up the road toward the site. It reminds me of a similar sign in Dallas that directs drivers to the Book Depository building. I visited the Depository last year with Barbara. There, too, a sense of history stopped, marked and held in amber forever.
It's now a landmark, like the Depository, like the Vietnam Memorial, like Pearl Harbor. It is a place of flowers, memory, rubble and faith.
The word: "Bombing." You say it here and people know exactly what you're talking about. "Oh, about a month after the bombing."
"She lost her dad in the bombing."
And other words, now a part of the language of loss. "Denver." "Trial." "McVeigh." "Downtown." "FEMA." "Edie Smith." "Janie Coverdale." "Day Care Center."
Hank Steuver, a reporter who now works for the Austin American-Statesman clued into this when he was here just after the bombing. The whole nation knew where "The Pit" and "The Cave," were, the significance of the day care center, and the visage of the hollowed-out building.
In Oklahoma, each of the words has its own history, connotation and image library. They are part of the city's mythology.
I graduate in May with a degree in journalism from OU. Last year, my parents moved to San Antonio after my father finally retired from the Air Force. Many of my friends and former co-workers from The Daily have moved away, finding jobs in Florida, New York, Kansas and Arizona.
Barbara and I kept seeing each other after meeting during the bombing. The summer after, I interned at the Tulsa World, where I was a lot closer to her (about an hour) and our relationship flourished.
When I came back to Norman at the internship's end, we decided to stay together, despite the distance.
Last September, she got a job at The Oklahoman and moved to the city. We were both thrilled, but scared. If she took the job, that meant she wouldn't be able to just pack up her things and follow me wherever I was to go after I graduated. She'd be starting a new job that she would want to stay at for at least a few years.
We'd be in the same city and practically living together, which we weren't used to. It could be a problem.
But we were in love. We didn't care. We wanted to see each other every day and get rid of the horrible geographic distance between us.
She came. For a while, it was great. We talked about marriage, children, jobs, a home. But every few weeks, she would cry, or look sad, or sit on her black futon with her hands folded in her lap. "You're going to leave me," after I was to graduate, she'd say.
I would have to move because I wouldn't want to stay in Oklahoma with its lack of opportunity for journalists. But this was her home. This was where her mother lived and where she had a home and a job and a history.
Plus our schedules were so different we only saw each other late at night, early in the morning or on the days off she didn't use to visit her mother in Vinita on alternate weeks.
For a lot of reasons beyond and including these, what I called paradise between us got lost.
We broke up in early February just before Valentine's Day. Like any breakup of a long relationship, it has gone through various phases: An instant attempt at a quick friendship, periods of silence, periods of too much contact, periods of uncomfortable meetings, periods of pain, loss, freedom, more freedom, tentative steps into the dating world, reconciliation, rage and anger, loneliness, laughter, acceptance, and realization of where the fault lines lay in the landscape of what we had.
Two months. Weight loss, work loss, emotional instability, insomnia, nausea, stress headaches, negativity, hurt, and then a kind of acceptance.
And here it is April, a month before I'm to graduate and accept an internship at the Austin paper that will take me away from here. I wonder what is left for me here and I realize it is not very much. A few close friends, some strong memories, lost love and little else. I will leave Oklahoma and I think I'll feel loss -- one more emotional black hole in my life for which I need The C-Word.
Toward the anniversary
I hadn't seen Barbara in a month and a half when she called Thursday night. We'd talked on the phone, but the idea of seeing each other face to face had made her uncomfortable for a while. Now, the problem seemed to be scheduling we couldn't figure out a time that we could get together for lunch.
She called and asked if I wanted to go out to eat or to hang out Friday, April 18. I accepted and the next morning we decided she'd come to Norman and we'd eat at The Mont.
Cardinal rule of breaking up after a long relationship: The person you date will look better than when you were dating them at a rate directly proportionate to how long you dated.
Barbara came over looking fantastic. She'd lost weight, her hair was longer, and she smiled much more than the last time I'd seen her.
Lunch was fun, engaging, filled with laughs and conversation. We'd been storing a lot of things we'd wanted to say during the long silent periods when we hadn't spoken.
Finally, she brought our relationship up, which she said we'd been tiptoeing around in the conversation. She told me she was sorry for what she'd put me through. She told me it hadn't been easy on her either. She'd broken up with me when I had fought hard to try to keep us together despite her certainty that we weren't meant to be.
We talked and it was good healing, warm, without anger, hate or accusation.
She said the bombing anniversary coming up had made her miss me and made her wonder if she hadn't thrown away a good thing. She said she'd been in a bad mood all week and planned to sleep in on Saturday and try to avoid photos of the bombing she'd surely have to look through at work in her job as a copy editor.
Things were comfortable again between us. Love had changed, but it hadn't died. We were still friends.
On the drive home before she went to work, she said part of her wished she'd given it another chance or that we could try again, but she knew it wouldn't work. I wanted to cry and turn back time to when things were certain and pure and unquestionable. I wanted to know that the God that I'd never even been totally sure existed had really meant for us to be together and we'd only stumbled. But God doesn't always speak in these silences when all you want is answers.
We got back to my place and we hugged. She kissed my cheek and said we would do this again soon.
I was thrilled and morose at once, happy that she was again in my life, however tenuously and temporarily as a friend. I was again horrified that I'd let her slip away and that I'd be leaving soon.
But in the best cases, all emotional movement is forward and I was trying for closure on so many fronts that I felt a surging sadness that life, like so many aspects within it, ends, and not always with neat little tidy chapter stops to mark our passage from one phase to the next.
I thought of the next day's bombing anniversary and went inside.
Late night fire, early morning alarm
Kierran Murray, the bureau chief in Dallas, asked me to be downtown for the ceremony and to write a separate story about a design contest for the bombing memorial. Five finalists would be announced at the ceremony. Kierran said he would be in Waco the next day, so I'd be talking to Jeff in Houston when I filed the stories.
I went to bed late after a night out with my friend Marcus. At 2 a.m., I crawled under the covers and set the alarm for ten till 7 a.m. I'd have a half hour to get dressed and a little less than an hour to drive downtown, find parking and beat traffic.
The phone rings.
I leap out of bed and toward the living room where the only good phone in the house (my cordless is barely usable) is. It's Barbara.
She says there's a fire at her apartment building. The roof of the clubhouse/office is on fire. A fire engine is there and everyone is standing outside watching.
"What time is it?" I ask.
"It's about 4:30. Oh, I'm sorry! You have to get up early tomorrow for the bombing thing!"
"Yeah, it's okay. You can call me anytime," I said.
She said she didn't know who else to call, but her old reporter instincts had pushed her to call someone, and if she'd called her mom, she would have gotten a stern lecture.
She told me I should drive by sometime and check out the burned building. I said I would and we hung up.
I called back to say something funny, but there was no answer. She'd probably gone outside to watch. I left a message and went back to bed.
Morning groggy. Tired and weak, but I still leap out of bed with a mild fear that I'll get stuck in traffic and miss the ceremony.
I didn't need to worry. The streets were mostly empty until one reached the intersections near the Murrah site. Even there, ample parking was available for both the families and the dozens of trucks for television stations reporting.
I found parking about two blocks away when a police officer let me park in a private lot. "They're not here today anyway," he said. "I don't think they'll mind."
I grabbed my notepad, a copy of yesterday's Oklahoman and Oklahoma Daily (each had schedules and information about the memorial plans), a tape recorder and a pen.
As I approached the site, I got the familiar queasy feeling. There was a large empty space where a single table was staffed with volunteers. From there, a line of television cameras flanked the area where families and victims milled.
I hesitated. I had twenty minutes until the ceremony was to start. I would take things slow. I hung back near the table and a few yards from mounted officers watching the scene.
There was a table set up by Oklahoma City Memorial Foundation. Volunteers from the foundation were greeting survivors and family members with hugs, and a table full of give-aways including a video tape of last year's ceremony, seedlings from the tree near the Murrah building which had survived the blast, "We Remember" bumper stickers and plaques for each of the 168 who died and programs for the ceremony.
To my left, I heard a woman say, "Yes, I'm Kathleen Treanor."
She lost a daughter and her parents-in-law. She was the woman Barbara and I had spoken to two years ago. I hadn't recognized her.
I had spoken to her by phone over the last few months in my work for Reuters and she'd always been friendly and helpful, never hesitant to give me her opinion and a good quote when I needed it.
"Ms. Treanor? I'm Omar Gallaga from Reuters News Service."
"I think this is the first
time I've seen you face-to-face in a long time. Do you
mind if I ask a few questions?"
"We need this," Kathleen Treanor said. "We need the hugs."
The woman at the table from the foundation, Joanne Long, spoke to me about their efforts. She seemed to know from sight the names of every family member who stopped at the table.
I walked past the empty stretch of dirt and past the TV cameras. Family members carried flowers, crosses, photos, cameras. Many of them wore a button with a picture of the victim they came to remember and memorialize.
I walked straight to the fence. I began to take notes on what I saw. Dozens of teddy bears, t-shirts from all over the country, poster boards with photos and poems for victims, flowers, American flags, a worn out license plate that read, "God is My Pilot."
I began to get teary. I didn't want to cry here, but the emotions were pushing me over the edge. I saw the one that almost did it: A wreath with a photo in the center of a middle-aged man with a beard. "I Miss You Daddy" a purple ribbon read.
But the mood was different than I imagined it must have been last year. People were smiling, hugging, laughing, celebrating seeing old friends they'd made during the ordeal of two years ago. There was hope here and a feeling of moving on and strength that was palpable.
I turned away from the fence. Walking toward the site, I'd noticed that Journal Record Building, which housed the newspaper next to the Murrah building, still looked just as ripped up and damaged as it did two years ago. The building had been abandoned, and through jagged window holes, I could see broken wood, cracks and failed plaster inside. The Oklahoma Water Resources Board building next door was also destroyed The roof had caved and the fallen, demolished property had not changed in two years.
Almost by accident, I ran into Janie Coverdale. A radio reporter was interviewing her, microphone in hand. I eavesdropped.
"I still pretend Aaron and Elijah are still alive," she said. "If I ever heal, it will take a long time."
A young, pretty girl I assumed was Coverdale's daughter looked up at me with wide eyes. "Are you a reporter?" she whispered.
"Yes," I said. "I'm with Reuters News Service." She nodded.
The reporter asked Janie Coverdale what it felt like to be part of this ceremony. "Like I'm getting ready for a mass funeral," she said.
She went on to talk about the media's help. Like a lot of victims' families, she had no bitterness toward the news people. "We have to keep this alive in other people's minds," she said.
An older woman stood near a group of about four people. They stood next to an elaborate three-foot-tall cross with the name "Carol Louise Bowers" on it.
I found out the woman had worked with Carol Bowers in the Social Security department. They had started working together on the same day in 1961.
I spotted Edie Smith and interviewed her. She was friendly and open as ever. She carried a large teddy bear wrapped in purple ribbon as she spoke.
I wandered around, wondering how many more people I wanted to speak to. I ran into Christina, the Daily's current editor, and Heather, the managing editor. They both looked tired, but enthusiastic. Heather was working on stories for Monday's paper. She held a notepad in her hand and asked about the press area. I hadn't noticed a sign that read, "Media restricted behind this line."
No one had asked me to leave, even as I clearly held a notepad and pen in hand. I tried to go undetected whenever I went near the fence, holding my notepad under my datebook.
Larry Medina, his wife, and their daughter spoke to family members near the fence. Larry had given me a guided tour around the Murrah when he worked as a rescue worker with the Air National Guard. I knew Larry from his leadership in OU's Hispanic American Student Association. He waved sadly to me as he spoke to a family member. I smiled and waved back as I walked by.
The music that had been playing over loudspeakers stopped. The ceremony was about to begin.
A group of color guard personnel were on top of the cracked foundation of the Murrah building a few hundred feet from the fence. A silence hung over the crowd of several hundred as everyone watched.
They raised the flag to the top of a pole atop the Murrah. Then the flag came down to half staff. Two trumpeters played "Taps." A man in front of me held a salute through this part of the ceremony.
A man from the foundation read the mission statement on a stage near the fence. Behind him, I recognized five local TV anchors. They were to read the names of the 168 victims later on.
Phillip Thompson, co-chair of the foundation's family and survivors' committee, read, "We come here to remember those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever. May all who leave here know the impact of violence. May this memorial offer comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity."
He asked for a 168-second moment of silence.
Some around me bowed their heads. Other sniffled into tissue, sobbed, or merely stood, sorrow clearly lining their faces.
A loud siren broke the silence as it circled down one way on a street behind the Murrah and then back another. I wondered if it was intentional. Whether it was or not, it was an eerie reminder of the scene two years ago.
The silence seemed to hang forever. When it finally broke, it was two sets of church bells from the left and right of the Murrah.
A group of white jets, three of them, flew overhead in what Jeff would later tell me was the military "missing man" formation.
Linda Cavanaugh, a local TV news anchor, was to begin reading the 168 names of the victims. She asked family members to bring their mementos up as the names were called and place them inside the fence perimeter in a grassy area before the light brown rock of what's left of Murrah.
I needed to get to a phone. I would call in what I had so far while the names were being called then get back and get information on the memorial plans for the other story.
Heather offered her cell phone, but I couldn't make a collect call with it. I wandered down Robinson Street looking for a pay phone. Police officers didn't know. A Boy Scout in uniform didn't know.
I walked down the street, the echo of names being called out behind me. A man walked close to me. "It's eerie walking away and hearing the names being called out, huh?" he said. "I couldn't take it anymore. I had to leave."
I asked if I could interview him. He was a professor at a medical school (OU's, I assumed) who had worked in the rescue and in the triage area.
"The thing I found hardest was the bells ringing," Stephen Hull said. "I just can't listen. I thought I could come down after two years and deal a little bit more. I just thought I was stronger than this."
He said he'd parked in the same spot he'd found two years ago and was retracing his steps. "It's just a tough, tough day," he said.
I finally found a dry cleaner that allowed me the use of their phone.
I called Jeff at home in Houston and read him my quotes and color. He seemed impressed and said he'd been watching most of it on CNN. He asked some good questions and knew a lot more about the ceremony from observing it on TV than I'd expected.
The whole process took about 15 minutes and I headed back to the site.
The names were still being read. I talked to Heather and Christina while we waited. At the end, the speaker said, "And three unborn children."
"Oh my God," Heather said. "Do they usually say that? I've never heard that before." I hadn't either.
Governor Frank Keating spoke when the ceremony continued. I got a transcript of his speech from a press secretary, but before that, one quote struck me. "Healing is a process. It's not a destination."
Keating talked about the trial, the design competition and the pain Oklahomans had overcome.
The design competition turned out not to be such a big deal they were announcing five finalists who would submit final designs for a memorial that would house an interactive learning center, a collection of information about the bombing, bios of the victims and an institute for the prevention of violence and terrorism.
But a final design would not be decided on until July. The memorial would be about three acres and would each from the south end of the Murrah building to the north end of the Journal Record building.
It was also announced that locally headquartered Kerr McGee was donating $1 million to get the project started.
The ceremony ended soon after the architects and designers were introduced. I didn't need to worry much Jeff decided later we wouldn't be able to get a full story out of the design competition. He was more interested in quotes from Keating because CNN had cut off coverage before the governor spoke.
I left the site, looking back at the remains of the Murrah building and the crowd still gathered there.
I'd seen it and spoken to families and been to this place again for what would probably be the last time. Was it closure? I don't know. But there is a peace and a resolution when I think of the bombing that wasn't there when I woke this morning.
And there is a similar peace now when I think of Barbara, the one person who was linked forever in my mind with the events following the bombing. With the bombing anniversary (and our own, which would have fallen on the same day) coming up, I'd felt the twin wreckage of two emotional pains in my life unresolved and entwined together.
Now, I don't know. I'm happy. And I'm sad.
I am nostalgic, but realistic, and certain that there is a future where before there seemed to be only darkness, for me, and for others.
I don't know that it is closure. I don't know that it is resolution, or moving on or any kind of growth.
But is movement toward some forward trajectory.
Two years later and the bombing still affects me, at best a peripheral participant, in ways more profound than I'd like to think. What came from the bombing for me brought me infinite happiness and some pain, too. As the circle closes on those more deeply affected, the ripples are deeper, darker and more permanent.
But there is good of it. We saw good that day two years ago and in the days that followed. Infinite good and humanity and hope and spirit.
Yes, good can come of any evil so long as we remember it and cherish memory and let go.
I do not know that it is closure. But it is something that feels like a step forward. It is something, for me, and for all the others, that can not be measured, evaluated or timed.
Two years later, and it's what I hope for.
Forward movement, closure, a release of the past and a embrace of the light that the future might bring. It may not be what we seek -- an ending exactly, but at last, it is something.
Omar L.Gallaga is a graduating senior in news communication at the University of Oklahoma. He is a stringer for Reuters News Service. He has worked as in intern at the Tulsa World and Wall Street Journal Dallas bureau. In June, he will intern at the Austin American-Statesman.
Copyright 1997-2001 by Omar L. Gallaga. May not be reproduced without permisson.