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Healing does come
Oklahoma City's anguished path to recovery
By John Mallon
The Washington Times
February 22, 2001
She yells, "come in" when I knock, and she's standing at the sliding door to the little atrium of her condo containing little statues of the Blessed Mother and St. Francis of Assisi. She says, "I'm going to quit, honest I am," indicating her cigarette as she exhales smoke into the atrium, "as soon as all of this is over."
I hadn't said a thing about her smoking. The cats, Theo and Luis, look at me wide-eyed and a little anxious. They know that she's tense. "I'm gonna be all right, honest, I am, just as soon as this thing is over." I look at her. "What now?" I ask. "Oh. That came today." She indicates an envelope on the counter. This has happened before, and these scenes go in cycles of just another thing to get through. She worries about her stress affecting the cats.
I look at the envelope. At various times in the last few years these envelopes have been from the Justice Department, the U.S. Attorney's Office, even the White House, and the messages are always awkwardly but genuinely concerned. They usually contain some kind of update.
They've been coming ever since the bombing, when her best friend, her beautiful 23-year-old daughter, her only child, was killed while working on the first floor of the Murrah Building for the Social Security Administration as a Spanish translator. The job was only until she could get a job as a school teacher teaching Spanish. That, or go on to study the Spanish Mystics like St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Lena believes (and why not?) that Julie's body was found intact, except for two broken ankles and a broken neck, from being thrown by the force of the blast, because she received Communion at Mass that morning as she did every day.
So, the letters come. You can almost feel the pain of the sender who knows their arrival may stir up memories and grief. They are very gently written. They have announced trials, sentencing dates, memorial committee meetings, bombing anniversary details, memorial ceremonies, presidential visits and so forth. All good things, but hurdles to get over. The most dramatic incident occurred in 1996 after coming home from being interviewed by federal prosecutors about being an impact witness. She put some oil on the stove and went in the other room and "zoned out," snapping out of it only to run into the kitchen and find the house on fire. She called me hysterical after the fire engines arrived because the cats had gotten out.
What a scene. The firemen needed no explanation after they heard of her connection with the bombing. They, heroes all, had their own issues. After putting out the fire they helped look for the cats. The cats were born the day of the bombing on her ex-husband, Julie's dad's, farm. During endless nights of grief that first year she would wake in tears and find little Theo on the pillow next to her with his little paw on her neck to console her.
So, after six years Theo and his little brother Luis, named after some of Julie's Spanish friends, are now huge. The letters still come but now they bear the logo of the Survivor Tree and the Oklahoma City Memorial Foundation and things are getting somewhat brighter. Although, the bizarre antics of Timothy McVeigh wanting his execution televised, and talk of a lottery to watch him die don't help matters. She has often said, "I don't believe in the death penalty, just let me have him for five minutes!"
Friday we had a preview tour of the new bombing museum. She said, "I want to see everything because I'm never coming here again." This is a backhanded compliment to the museum because after touring it with her I can testify it really brings back those ghastly days. In this, the museum is successful in its stated mission to bring home the force of that cruel violence — to prevent it from happening again. Every American should tour the Oklahoma City Memorial Center.
President Bush's visit to dedicate the museum on Monday, was, I think, the first time I saw Lena enjoy (if that's the right word) a bombing-related event. Not one to put herself forward, I had to practically bring her to the rope line and lift her arm and put it out to shake the president's hand.
And when he did take her hand I saw him look long into her eyes, and I studied his face as he did so, and what I saw made me very, very grateful. Closure is a hated word in Oklahoma City, but faith is not, and healing, though incomplete in this world, does come.
© 2002, 2020 By John Mallon