Fragility and Resilience

There are just some people in life that ‘stick’ in memories.  Even after decades of no contact, and then with a reconnection on FaceBook, they bring back all of the good stuff that they’re associated with. Not just a fun afternoon, but the totality of the experience they were a part of years ago.  For me, that was an incredible experience as a camper and then a summer staff member for a total of 10 years at Timber-lee Christian Center in East Troy, Wisconsin (USA). Even though I went to a ‘solid’ church as a kid, Timber-lee has always been my spiritual foundation. People there live what they believe. It’s not lip service, and it’s not ‘on’ when people are watching only to be turned off when the kids leave. It’s legit.  It was 24/7 immersion in Christianity that was good.  Not the negative stuff that can be associated with Christians, but an authenticity that is hard to find. I couldn’t get enough of the place, and wanted to live there permanently (they didn’t have any openings for full-time campers…).

One of the people I first met when I was 8 years old became very ill this week, and her heart stopped. She was somewhere that provided her with near immediate CPR, and EMS was called. They got her heart restarted, and the ER she was taken to figured out the problem and opted for induced hypothermia (dropping her body temperature) and a coma to minimize any neurological complications (that nobody hears about with CPR). It’s assumed by most non-medical people that when the heart is restarted, all is well. That is the outcome in a very few cases.  Recovery is a process- not an event.

A couple of things have stood out in the four days since this happened.  First, I have learned an entirely different level of prayer.  I’ve prayed as long as I can remember, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever had someone come to mind as often as this incredible woman has, or that I’ve actually pleaded to God on behalf of someone else. I’ve prayed for healing for other people, but this has been different.   My sincerity in the past has been just as strong, and I’m not sure that I can really describe how this is different. It just is.

Second, I’m realizing how important those years at Timber-lee have been.  I’ve always been so thankful for the experiences I had there- whether the week long  sessions as a camper, or the 3 month sessions on the summer staff for 2 1/2 summers.  The people I met there are entwined with the experience.  They can’t be separated, and that’s  wonderful.  When I think of one, I’m flooded with the memories of the other.  It’s a package deal.  The feelings of safety, love, fellowship, and acceptance have never been replicated. Ever.

The fragility of life smacked me in the face four days ago (as it did much more so for those who are closer- her husband, and friends and family).  The experiences at camp have been my ‘go to’ memories to ferret out good days when I was going through rough times.  This week, there is part of that whole picture that is in trouble.  The reports come in daily, and I can’t get to them fast enough. I spread them to other pages where people are waiting for news. And we’re all praying.  There is hope.

I’m not sure I’m explaining myself all that well.  I’m  a bit overwhelmed, and in some ways I don’t feel entitled to that level of emotion, as we didn’t have contact for so long.  But it’s Timber-lee and one of the handful of people that has had an impact on me since 1972.  I even wrote a ‘report’ about my first week at camp when I was 8 years old, and she is in that ‘report’.  I got to see her in July, and it was so great to be back at the camp and see people who made it what it has been in my life.  And now she’s in a coma.

As a nurse, I know the possible outcomes. I worked in a coma stimulation unit at a brain injury rehab center many years ago. I saw some horribly sad situations. But I also saw some amazing stories and recoveries.  The people I took care of had been in comas for many weeks to months before they started showing signs of improvement, and the injuries were often because of external trauma (accidents). The damage had been more extensive, and intense. They started out in much worse shape, at least structurally; many had parts of their brains or skulls removed because of the damage.   My friend has already been reacting well to commands, and her reflexes are good. That gives me much hope for her outcome. Yet, I also know that there are no guarantees.  SO, while I’m thrilled every day with the updates, I hold back because of what I know and have seen. And yet, to the part of me that is still seeing Timber-lee as only existing with the people I knew there still like they were, I can’t allow myself to accept anything less than a full  recovery.  And that’s what I pray for, as do many, many others.  This woman is cherished.

I guess when I remember Timber-lee, I’m transported in time to the age I was then, and the feelings I remember when I was there.  It’s technically just a ‘place’…but it was much more than that to me.  I saw how Christians live in a way that I wanted to emulate.  When I’ve been in situations that were literally life-threatening, my first thoughts  often go back to something from camp.  That’s my feel-good place. It’s where I felt the most freedom to be who I really was during that time in my life.  And, I learned so much from the people I met there- either as a camper or on staff.  It also played a role in why I became an RN.

My friend who is sick is one of those examples of being a Christian that has been a role model, even in the 30 years we had no contact.  Her life has had an impact on tens of thousands of lives as she’s worked at the camp for decades. When I’ve thought of her over the years, I smiled.  When I hear music that she taught the music groups, or camp songs we sang, I smile.  When we’ve had FaceBook contact, I smile.  She’s a ‘feel good’ person.  That’s a quality I respect and admire so much. And she’s a very solid Christian, in ways that encourage and inspire- not judge or demean.

So, this is a hodgepodge of words that may not make sense.  That’s OK.  I just needed to write this.  I’m praying that her recovery exceeds expectations, and she can resume her life with this being just a blip in the totality of her life.  I can’t express what Timber-lee and the people I associate with it really mean to me. It goes beyond just a ‘place’.  The experiences were  heaven-blessed.  So many times the good I got from there helped  get me through some really lousy stuff. I can’t really explain that either, except to say that I felt that the God I saw in the people I met there was more real to me because of having been there.  Maybe that’s it- they showed me God.  They made Him more real.  I knew about God from the time I was very young, and believed in Jesus as a young elementary school kid…but I met Him at Timber-lee, through people like this friend who now needs Him to surround her with healing and restoration.

This one’s for you, MK.

September 11, 2001

My dad called me around 8:00 a.m. Central Daylight Savings Time to ask me if I had the TV on. “You won’t believe what they have done”.  They. THEY?. They… I was 5 days post-op from having scalp surgery and vein stripping on one leg, and was still a little out of sorts from the anesthesia and healing process from that.  I dragged myself out of bed and turned on the TV.

At first it was just too much to process. There was smoke coming from both of the World Trade Centers.  They.  It was incomprehensible that fighting a fire at that ‘altitude’ was going to work.  I was having trouble knowing what to think, what to do, what to feel… and I was a couple of thousands of miles away.  They were doing something to us in New York. I saw footage of thousands of people just looking up, their expressions a conglomeration of shock, disbelief, and horror.  How many people were in the Towers?  At that time, estimates were as high as 50,000 regular employees of the buildings and businesses in them. That number didn’t even register in my head.

I saw  replays of the second plane hit the other Tower.  The fireball.  The people who had to have died instantly and then the ones who were trapped filled my head.  The news kept showing people waving jackets and improvised ‘flags’. But they were too high.  When I saw footage of the second plane hit, I knew who they were.  Bin Laden was the one who had done other attacks, but nothing like this. His minions were attacking the United States.  Here.  I called my dad back to ask him if I should go get my car filled up with gas. I don’t know why that was important, but it seemed that everyone gets gas during an emergency.  Nobody knew all of the targets at that point, and I was in Texas. Lots of military bases in Texas.  For some reason gas seemed important. But I was immobilized by what I was seeing.

Another plane hit the Pentagon at 8:37 a.m. CDST. The Pentagon? How could anything get through the Pentagon?  More dead. More trapped. More hurting. Families watching, waiting… More fire.

I watched the South Tower implode at 8:59 a.m. CDST.  How could that happen?  It was a huge building full of people.  Full of people.  How many were trapped, but alert, as the floors started to fall out beneath their feet?  How many knew exactly what was happening as they fell 70-90 stories to their deaths?  How many were instantly incinerated when the planes hit?   How many really jumped?  Then the second tower went down. How many families were watching their loved ones die?  Were they alone? Was someone with them as they watched their lives change forever?

At 9:03 a.m. CDST, the fourth plane went down in Pennsylvania, obliterating it.  The stories were scattered about what had happened, but word was that the passengers got control of the plane and crashed it themselves.  More lack of comprehension, and awe at their presence of mind in the middle of the crisis when I was dumbstruck many states away.  What had they felt? How had that group of people been on the same plane, and able to enact a plan to avoid more disaster and loss of life as they heard of what had happened in NYC and DC?  How had they been able to call loved ones ahead of time and get word about what was happening?  How were those loved ones when they heard news of that plane going down… Was someone with them to offer some token of support in a situation that defies the scope of ‘normal’ grief?

9:28 a.m. CDST- The North Tower falls.  The debris and aerosolized concrete  and building materials blanket the end of Manhattan, while the rest of the city has amazingly blue skies. The tops of the towers are both gone; the city is engulfed in particles of walls, papers, paint, office equipment…people.  The steel frames were bent and twisted when what little of what was left  materialized on the TV screen. It was still hard to really understand the magnitude of what had happened.  I was numb.

The next two weeks, I was off of work because of the surgery, and 24/7 for much of that time, the news channels were glued to the coverage; cable stations ceased programming. I was immersed in the news about the attacks continuously.  For some reason, I couldn’t turn the TV off.  I had to know what was going on. Were there more attacks?  Were we safe?  I’d see the shots of people putting up photos and descriptions of their missing loved ones on fences and walls near the Trade Center site.  They had to ‘know’, but also had to hang on to a bit of hope until there was none left to grasp.

Rescue workers were going through the wreckage of the Towers with buckets, pausing only occasionally when a body was found.  Everyone stopped working, paying their respects to the person coming out in a flag covered stretcher.  The NYFD carried out their priest on a chair. Dead.  Both the NYPD and NYFD lost SO many of their own.  How unfair that anybody die, but they died going in to help the others.  And the buildings caved in.  They didn’t have a chance up in those buildings or near the bottom where the twisted pieces fell.

Dogs wore special boots to keep from shredding their paws on the steel and glass.  They were there for survivors at first, and then those who were temporarily buried in that burning metal tomb.

In total, 2,606 people died in NYC, 125 at the Pentagon, and 40 in the plane crashed by heroes in a field in Pennsylvania.  The youngest to die was 2 1/2 years old.  Ninety countries lost citizens.  Nineteen highjackers also died, but I refuse to add them to the total victim count. In total, more than 2975 people were killed in the span of  102 minutes.  For what?  

In two days, it will be the 11th anniversary.  I still can’t see documentaries about that day without dissolving into tears, and I wasn’t even close to the situation.  This had no ‘borders’ or ‘city limits’. This was an attack on America, collateral damage in the form of foreign nationals- our friends- be damned.  It still makes no sense.  I still wonder how the people in NYC deal with their grief, and how the families of the victims are doing.  I wonder how those who inhaled that stuff  have fared; various illnesses have been reported- in those who were there to help.  My guess is that the actual number of victims is really unknown; the families and friends of those who actually died will never be the same. They are victims,too. And survivors.

September 11, 2001 showed the vulnerability of all of us.  While I’ve gone through a personal attack in my home, the magnitude of 9/11 isn’t something any of us could comprehend.  There are countries that go through terrorism regularly, but not us. Oklahoma City was the closest we got to knowing what that is like. Even the first WTC bombings didn’t come close to 9/11.

I changed that day.  The fact that life can be cut short in a nanosecond at the hands of lunatics was graphically shown for days on end.  For the first few weeks after I returned to work, I was overwhelmingly annoyed when my coworkers talked about everyday mundane ‘problems’ (matching shoes to a dress for some 3rd rate banquet? Puhleeze).  It took me a while to get out of those two weeks, and back into my regular life.

But I’m so insignificant in the grand scheme of things.  What about those families and friends, and now the survivors of those lost in the wars fought in response to 9/11.  In many ways it has been a world war.  I’ll never forget that day, and I hope those who were too young to remember it will grasp the magnitude of that day and learn from history.  I hope that we can regain some of our prior sense of safety without neglecting common sense.  It happened once… we can never guarantee it won’t happen again.  But we have to go on living if we are to really honor those who were lost.  Otherwise they win.