Okay...that made me cry. Well done, Justina.
| We were just sitting there when it happened. It was an early morning psych lecture, the kind where only two-thirds of the class actually shows up on a regular basis. I sat with Dave in the middle of the third row. We’d had classes together before and, while we wouldn’t really be considered close friends, in a room of three-hundred any familiar face is a friend.
The weather had been getting really cold, typical for Michigan in late November. We didn’t notice anything amiss because everyone was wearing bulky winter coats. East Hall hadn’t had good heat since we’d come back from Thanksgiving break a few days earlier, so we all looked like Michelin Man imitations. No one noticed his extra bulk.
It was a good morning for me to be running a couple minutes late. The only way Dave could make it through morning classes was with a cup of Starbucks, and he filled up punch cards quickly. If he filled up a card on a day we had class together, he’d bring me the free one. This was such a morning.
He smiled at me when he handed me the cup. “I figured you could use this,” he said. “And I earned another free one.”
“Bless you,” I replied, taking the cup and sitting down. I sipped the coffee. He’d forgotten to add sugar—a must in my opinion—again, but I drank it anyway. I needed the caffeine and the warmth. Within moments of my sliding into my seat the professor arrived and began the lecture.
After maybe twenty minutes I leaned over to Dave to whisper something about the five stages of grief, the topic of the lecture for the day, when a voice boomed out from the middle of the room. We all looked around to see who was speaking. A young man I vaguely recognized as being in the class was standing a few rows behind us. He’d shed his coat so we could see what had been hiding beneath it. I couldn’t understand the words he said, but it only took a moment for me to identify the PVC pipe and wires strapped to his chest. I’d seen home made bombs on the news. I’d heard about the amount of power that could be packed into one of those things.
I turned to look at Dave. I’m sure confusion was shining in my eyes, confusion and fear. I could see fear in Dave’s eyes, too.
“What’s going on?” I whispered.
Dave just shook his head.
The thing was we both knew what was going on. It had happened before. Suicide bombers had moved into the U.S. a year or so earlier and now barely a week went by without someone blowing up himself and those around him. Now we were going to be victims. “We can’t get out of here, can we?”
“I don’t think so,” Dave whispered.
Just then the voice boomed words I did understand. “Prepare to meet God.”
“Get down!” Dave shouted, shoving me out of my seat onto the floor. He pushed my cheek into the floor and covered me with his body as the room shook with the loudest noise I’d ever heard. Then the world went black.
* * * * *
I’d just gotten to work and was sitting at my desk, checking my e-mail, when I noticed the news flash slide over the CNN tickertape. As each word came into view my heart simultaneously sank lower into my stomach and rose higher into my throat. The headline might not have been especially significant to some people. It wasn’t the first time a suicide bombing had happened in the United States, or even on a college campus. But this time, for me, it was different. My son, my baby, was there at the school where it happened. I must’ve cried out because my assistant, Sharon, came running into the room.
“Jenny, what’s wrong?”
I couldn’t respond. I simply stared at the screen. She quickly read the headline and clicked on the “n” the moment before it disappeared. As the computer brought up the Associated Press news article, “Suicide bombing at University of Michigan,” Sharon lifted the phone. “Get the TV in the conference room turned to CNN,” she demanded. “I don’t care that Mr. Thompson has a meeting coming up. There’s been an incident.”
I barely registered her words. I read the short “article,” but it contained little more information than the headline. Sharon’s hand on my arm made me start. “C’mon. CNN is on down the hall. We’ll call Dave from there,” she said, drawing me out of my chair and down the hall.
I was in a fog until I saw the reporter on the TV, the familiar Espresso Royal in the background, the fire truck and police car lights strobing the storefront with red and blue. “The attack occurred in the building over there,” the reporter said, pointing to East Hall behind her, “about thirty minutes ago.” She continued, discussing the rescue measures the police and fire department were taking to get into the building and get the survivors out.
“Jenny, Dave’s not answering his phone,” Sharon said.
I grabbed my cell phone and found the number for Dave’s roommate. “C’mon, Rick,” I whispered. “Pick up!”
I could still hear the reporter’s voice on the TV. “The lecture hall holds approximately three-hundred people, but police are unsure how many people were actually in the room. They are proceeding with caution because they do not know how much damage there is to the structure of the building and the last thing anyone wants is to endanger more lives.”
“Unless your child is in that room,” I muttered.
Rick finally answered the phone. “Hello?”
“Rick! This is Dave’s mom. He’s not answering his phone. Do you know where he is?” I nearly shouted into the phone.
“He had early class this morning,” Rick said slowly, as though not wanting to be the one to give me the news. “Psych. In East Hall,” he finally managed to get out.
I stopped breathing. My son, my baby, had been in the same building as that monster when he blew himself up. “Get me to Ann Arbor,” I said, barely recognizing my own voice. “I need to find my son.”
The airlines were incredibly accommodating. I was in Ann Arbor only four and a half hours later. During the entire flight I was praying, begging, bargaining, threatening God to save my son. Sharon kept calling Dave’s phone, and she still hadn’t heard back from him when I landed.
By the time I arrived at two p.m. the police had gotten into the lecture hall and the firefighters and paramedics were removing bodies from the building, carrying out as many body bags as stretchers. The sickening smell of burning flesh and smoke had saturated the air, and I thought I might throw up right there on the street. I tried to get to the bodies but the police wouldn’t let me anywhere near them.
I glanced around, not knowing what to do. Chaos surrounded me. Everything – every sight, smell, sound was magnified by a hundred. People were shouting, crying, searching. Sirens were simultaneously getting louder and quieter as the ambulances carried bodies to the hospital and then came back for more. Their bright lights threatened to blind me.
Suddenly a hand grabbed my arm and yanked me back out of the street. I whipped around, “Hey lady!” the man attached to the hand yelled. “You trying to get yourself killed?” he said with disgust. Turning back to the street, found an ambulance where I’d been standing. It took a moment for it to register, but when it did I was taken aback. I’d almost been another body to add to the growing count, the last thing anyone needed.
I stood, rooted in place, staring at the chaos around me. That’s when I saw another woman who looked as devastated as I felt. She was wearing a tag with a number and her name. Something drew me to approach her. “Are you missing someone, too?”
She looked up at me, startled. “Yeah,” she said, “my daughter. You?”
“My son,” I replied. “Where’d you get the tag?”
“Over there.” She pointed to the School of Social Work building. “They’re taking names and numbers inside. Here, I’ll show you.”
We walked into the building, and I gave all my information to a harried-looking woman at a table. She asked for my name, my son’s name, then made a copy of the photo I’d brought and took my cell number, so they could call me if… when they found him. She suggested that my companion and I go warm up with some coffee, pointing to a table in the corner that had Styrofoam cups and several carafes. We got our coffee and sat down in some of the folding chairs that were sitting around, warming ourselves briefly before heading back outside to wait with the crowd of spectators, to watch and praying we’d see that familiar face, that we wouldn’t approached be by an officer with a grim face and a photograph.
“I’m sorry,” she said after a couple of minutes. She held out her hand. “I’m Julie.”
“Jenny,” I replied. We shook hands. I studied my companion for a moment. She appeared about five years younger than my own forty-six years. Her hair had yet to gray as fully as mine, but her face showed a few prominent wrinkles, probably from the stress of our present situation.
“How far’d you have to come?” she asked after a moment of relative quiet.
“Chicago,” I replied. “You?”
“Kalamazoo. About two hours from here,” she replied. We sat in silence for a couple minutes before she continued. “I wanted Michelle to go to school closer to home, but she insisted on U of M.” She sounded as though she was going to cry.
“David needed to get away, out from under his mother’s thumb,” I replied. I felt my throat tighten. “I wish he was still there.”
“I know what you mean,” she said. I watched a tear slip down her cheek and then became aware of those sliding down my own.
We hadn’t gathered up the courage to go back outside when we were approached by two police officers a couple of minutes later. “Which of you is Mrs. Robinson?” the first officer asked.
“That’s me,” Julie replied, standing.
“Please come with me,” he said, taking her elbow and leading her out of the lobby.
I stood there, shocked. Part of me was excited for her; the police officer hadn’t had a photo, which meant that her daughter, her Michelle, was still alive. And at the same time another part of me was disappointed that I hadn’t been the one the officer was after. Then I remembered the other man standing before me.
“Mrs. Raynard?” he asked, softly.
“Yes,” I said, standing.
“Please come with me,” he said, but I barely heard the words. All I could focus on was the Polaroid he held in his hand.
“No,” I cried, my knees collapsing beneath me. “Not my son.”
* * * * *
I awoke slowly. My eyes felt so dry, and I felt like I had cotton stuffed in my ears. All my muscles ached, and my face felt like it was sunburned. I moaned and found that my throat felt like I’d eaten one hundred jalapeño peppers. “Baby?” my dad’s voice worked its way through the cotton to my brain.
I moaned again. “Here, Baby, I’m calling the nurse. Why don’t you open your eyes and put on your glasses?”
I tried to open my eyes, but it hurt. “Dry,” I said.
‘The nurse’ll be here in a moment,” my dad said. “She’ll give you drops. That should help with the dryness.”
I nodded. “Dave.” I tried to croak. I felt a straw touch the corner of my mouth and took a drink, allowing the cool water to soothe my throat a little.
“What was that, Honey?”
I was about to repeat myself when a new voice entered the room, hovering right over me. “Michelle, I’m a nurse. I have some drops here for your eyes. I’m gonna put a couple drops in the corners of your eyes and I want you to open them to let them in when I tell you, okay?”
I groaned, which she must have interpreted as an affirmative, because I soon felt cool drops in the corner of my eyes. Slowly I opened one eye, then the other. Though they were still dry, they felt better.
I felt cool metal on the sides of my face and soft rubber pads touching my nose as my dad slid my glasses onto my face. After only a moment of the right bow of my glasses touching my skin, I felt searing pain. I cried out and tried to reach up and touch my face, remove my glasses, anything that would get rid of the pain.
“It’s a flash burn,” the nurse said, “from the initial blast from the explosion.”
I nodded. “Where’s Dave?” I asked.
“Dave? Honey, who’s Dave?”
“Dave Raynard. He was sitting beside me. He pushed me down.”
My dad turned and murmured something to the nurse. I could only catch the phrase, “authorities told my wife.”
“Should I tell her?” he asked.
“She’s going to be upset regardless,” the nurse replied. “It’s better to be honest.”
“Daddy.” I could feel the hysteria rise inside me. I think I knew before they even said anything, but I needed to know for sure. “Daddy, where’s Dave?”
He shook his head. “I’m sorry, Baby,” he whispered.
“No!” I cried. “No!”
Daddy quickly moved to the bed and pulled me into his arms. He held me as my cries turned to sobs. “No, Daddy. He can’t be gone.”
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, kissing me on the forehead. “I’m so sorry.”
Early the next morning I woke up when the doctor came in and told me I needed to get up. Part of me was afraid to get up; part of me really had to go to the bathroom. My bladder won out. When I went into the bathroom, I was careful not to look in the mirror over the sink, but something inside me forced me to take a glimpse as I washed my hands.
I looked up at the mirror, my eyes closed, not sure if I was prepared for what was going to greet me. I gathered up all my courage, took a deep breath and opened my eyes. It took a second before my vision focused on the green eyes in the glass. After a moment I had to blink, rewetting my corneas. Even with my lids closed I could still see eyes. But these eyes were hazel and afraid. They were Dave’s eyes the last time I’d seen them.
Strange, that from that moment of terror I remembered his eyes; I’d never really noticed them before. In the past I’d noticed his good looks and his cute light brown hair and the Michigan baseball caps he always wore, but I’d never noticed his eyes. I don’t know how I’d ever missed them.
I looked back at the mirror. My once long blonde hair was now crudely chopped off at the shoulders. On my right cheek there was the outline of three fingers where Dave’s hand had tried to shield me from the blast. There was a solid burn from where his ring had lain on my cheek. The left cheek was clean. Pressed to the floor, it had been protected from the blast and the flames. I reached up and touched my cheeks as tears flooded my still smoke-dry eyes.
My mom knocked on the bathroom door. “Michelle, are you okay?”
“Uh-huh,” I said, my voice shaky from the tears.
She opened the door. “Oh, honey,” she said, coming up behind me. “It’ll be okay. It’ll heal.” But her words barely registered. In the short seconds I’d looked into the mirror, it had finally hit me. Dave was dead. No more whispered comments during lecture. No more coffees every twenty cups. Dave was gone and he’d saved me. I broke down, sobbing. Even after my dry eyes ran out of tears, I sobbed.
* * * * *
I’m not really sure why I stayed in Ann Arbor for as long as I did after I identified Dave’s body. The police told me that everything else could be handled from Chicago, but for some reason I couldn’t bear to leave. I said I wanted to attend the memorial services being held around campus. I said I needed to pack up Dave’s belongings from his apartment. But I don’t think either excuse was entirely true. I attended the memorial services, but couldn’t force myself to go into Dave’s apartment. Rick offered to pack up all his stuff, and at first I said I’d do it, but as the days passed, I wondered if maybe letting Rick do it wasn’t the right thing to do.
I spent most of my days sitting in my hotel room watching bad daytime TV and crying into the sheets or just wandering around campus watching too fat squirrels chase each other across the lawns. I met Julie for coffee a couple times. Her daughter was doing better and they expected to be able to take her home any day. I meant to go and visit her daughter in the hospital, but something held me back.
Shannon, my daughter, Dave’s sister, kept calling and asking when I was coming home, but I couldn’t give her an answer. I didn’t know. She offered several times to start planning the funeral and memorial service. But she was six months pregnant and didn’t need that kind of additional stress. Losing her little brother was hard enough on her as it was. I told her I could handle it.
I knew I needed to go home. I should be planning a funeral, not sitting in Ann Arbor, but I couldn’t force myself to go back to Chicago. That would make it real. Like packing up Dave’s things, it would be too real. I especially dreaded the idea of packing up his clothes. I could still remember like yesterday the last time I’d folded his clothes. It had been the spring after his sophomore year. He was coming home for the summer and I was so excited to have my little boy back. We’d lost his dad three weeks after Christmas and my house had seemed so empty when my kids were gone. Dave was just glad to have someone to do his laundry for him. I wasn’t sure I could handle folding his clothes and knowing he’d never wear them again.
And on top of everything else, the medical examiner hadn’t released Dave’s body yet. I couldn’t figure out why they needed it. It wasn’t as though there were any questions surrounding his death. He was murdered along with so many others in the lecture hall that morning. There was no way I was leaving Ann Arbor without my baby.
But when that call came I wasn’t prepared. When my cell phone rang, I expected it to be my daughter or my office, but I was wrong. “Mrs. Raynard?” the low voice came over the speaker. “I’m Officer Carlsen from the Ann Arbor Police Department. Mrs. Raynard, I’m calling to let you know that the coroner has released your son’s body.”
I must have responded somehow because Officer Carlsen said “Good bye” and hung up. I sank down onto my bed, stunned. They just call you with such news? I don’t know what I’d expected them to do, but I wasn’t prepared for a phone call.
When I finally managed to look at the clock it was almost an hour later. Dave’s death was real now. That reality I’d been so afraid of was here now and I couldn’t hide from it any longer. Slowly I realized there was so much I needed to do, so many people I needed to call.
So I began. I took a deep breath before calling Shannon. “Honey, I got the call. They’re releasing…” I choked. It was a moment before I could continue. “Could you get things set up with the funeral parlor? I’m bringing Dave home.”
“Oh, Mama, are you okay?” Shannon asked, her voice thick.
“I’m doing okay, Baby. I just need to come home; to bring Dave home.”
“I’ll make those calls. Don’t worry about anything. Just get him back to Chicago.”
I sighed. “We’ll be back as soon as possible. I promise. I love you.”
“Love you, too, Mama.”
Next came Dave’s roommate. “Rick, this is Dave’s mom. I know I said I would get Dave’s stuff together, but I was wondering if you’re still willing to do it.”
“Of course, Mrs. R. Are you going home?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “They’re releasing Dave’s body today. I’ll call you when I know the details of the funeral.”
“Thanks, so much. Do you want Dave’s things before you go home or can I bring them with me later?” I could hear that Rick was choking back tears.
“Oh, Rick, of course, you can bring them later. Take whatever time you need. I know this is hard for you, too.”
“It is,” Rick choked. “Dave and I were good friends.”
“I know. I’ll see you soon, Rick.”
“See you soon. Call me if there’s anything else you need.”
“I will, I promise.”
“Love you,” he said, softly. Then we hung up.
I knew there were other people I should call—my office, Julie, but I couldn’t think of them at that moment. Those two calls had left me completely drained. I lay back down on the bed and curled up onto the pillow. Tears slid from my eyes onto the rough polyester. My son was finally going home.
* * * * *
I sat down in the back of the church, staring at the closed casket in the front. My best friend, Rachel, was sitting next to me. “You’re here for closure,” she said, trying to get me to go to the front. “Go close.”
“I can’t,” I whispered. I just sat there watching people file down the aisle, men and women, young and old. Some were crying. Others made it all the way to the casket before they broke down. They would place a hand on the shiny brown lid, and their shoulders would begin to shake. It would take several minutes before they were composed enough to even walk away. I didn’t really recognize anyone other than Rick, Dave’s roommate. He looked like he was barely making it. I don’t think I’ve seen a guy cry so hard since my grandma, my dad’s mom died. “I can’t do it,” I whispered again.
We sat there for an hour before the minister headed to the lectern and people made their way to their seats, filling up the pews almost all the way back to where Rachel and I sat.
The minister read Dave’s obituary. “David Daniel Raynard went to his rest on November 30 of this year. Twenty-one years old, Dave was a senior at University of Michigan.” I listened as the minister stoically read Dave’s life story. I wanted to cry as the minister moved on to his homily, but no tears would come. Dave’s brother-in-law’s gentle voice singing “Go Rest High on that Mountain” had little effect on me until the chorus; my throat constricted when I heard the soft words, “Go rest high upon that mountain/Son, your work on earth is done,” but even then my eyes remained dry. Several people went to the front and shared memories about Dave from his childhood and high school, but even those could not draw tears from my eyes.
I glanced around the room and Dave’s mother caught my attention. Something in her posture, hunched over as though in intense pain, brought me to my feet. As I moved out of the pew I glanced back at Rachel. She had a “What are you doing?” look on her face. I didn’t know what I was doing. My legs drew me to the podium and my mouth spoke into the microphone without permission from my brain. “Hi,” I said. The microphone squealed, causing me to jump back.
I cleared my throat and leaned toward the microphone again. “I’m Michelle Robinson. Dave saved my life. We’d become friends in an English class a couple of semesters ago, and we sat together in Psych lecture. He’d brought me a coffee that morning; he’d earned another free one at Starbucks.” A couple of people laughed. Rick, Dave’s roommate nodded, a broad smile on his face. At this point my brain caught up with my ramblings.
I cleared my throat again. “We were sitting next to each other that morning. I didn’t know what to do, but Dave did. He pushed me down. He covered me with his body. He saved me.” I nearly choked on those last words. I reached up and touched the burn on my cheek and found my face wet. “Dave saved my life,” I said again, before I rushed back down the aisle to my seat.
No one else had anything to say.
After the final hymn and the pastor’s final prayer, we all made our way to the front to say our last goodbyes. There would be no graveside service; the ground was too frozen. Because we were at the back, Rachel and I were among the first dismissed. Rachel looked at me, asking me what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go. I moved back up the aisle to the front. I was just going to touch the casket and say a quick goodbye, then leave, but when I reached the front, Dave’s mom stood in my way.
“Thank you,” she whispered, wrapping her arms around me. We both sobbed as we held each other. I don’t know how long we stood there, but when our sobbing died down and we were able to speak again, his mother said softly, “Dave was going to be a police officer. He always used to tell me that he wanted to save people’s lives.” Her words set me to crying again.
“He did it,” I managed to whisper. “He saved me.”
I was driving west down I-94 from Ann Arbor when the song came on the radio that made me think of Dave. “But sooner or later it comes down to fate/I might as well be the one,” I whispered, along with Billy Joel. A tear slipped down my cheek as I thought of Dave. At graduation earlier that day the university had honored him and the others killed in East Hall in November with posthumous degrees. Rather than graduating them all at once with the rest of us, the President read each name and their degree. I’d sobbed when I heard “David Daniel Raynard, Criminal Justice and Psychology.”
I rolled my window down and rested my arm on the ledge, allowing the wind to dry my tears as I threw my head back and sang, “Only the good die young!”
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