There were packets of tissues at the end of every row of bleachers, of every row of chairs.
No one had to ask why.
13 days after one of the worst landslides in our nation’s recorded history, most of the tight knit community had gathered into the gym of the middle school in our small town, taking it over in a way that made the crowded space feel like we were all touching. Like we were all holding hands, even though I sat alone.
Yellow ribbons flashed from every chest, from every jacket stretched over tired shoulders on that windy night: a symbol of our unity. A symbol of our remembrance. A symbol of our grief, still too fresh to even be scabbed over.
I slowly exhaled from my perch on the edge of a bleacher and watched my father on the ground floor beneath me, in the seats reserved for family members of the deceased, first responders, city officials and pastors. He walked to the front of the gym and a blanket of silence slowly descended over the crowd several hundred strong as he began to pray, opening the service: a community gathering to honor the rescue and recovery workers. To pray for our leaders. To remember our lost.
13 days. Only 13 days in, and over 30 people had been identified in the wreckage of what had once been the flowing land I loved just a few miles from my home. From my church. So many more were still missing. Neighbors, friends, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, children.
I listened as my fathers’ gentle voice somehow filled the silent room. Praying for strength. For comfort. Speaking of a deep rooted hope that no mountains could shake.
There was only one church in Oso Washington, and my dad was the pastor. The chapel doors had been perpetually open since The Slide, and he had been there every day hauling donations here and there, speaking with the never ending stream of reporters, government and city officials, and most importantly – the grievers. They came to mourn by the memorial cross my quiet mother had so carefully decorated with beautiful flowers, such a vibrant sign of life set out on State Route 530 so close to where the road officially closed.
I knew they were both weary, and yet - they hadn't stopped once in these 13 days. I looked at the tired eyes and slumped shoulders all around me. At the dirty boots and tightly drawn faces on all sides. Had any of these people stopped? No. They were all the heart of Oso. They wouldn't stop.
I watched from above as the family members below heard the stories from the perspectives of the first responders, and in many cases, their grief seemed to strike anew. My heart broke with each sentence, rising up through my chest and falling in a cold steady stream from my eyes.
I wiped them.
I wrapped my arms around my knees, and that’s when I saw her. She made her way down the center aisle of the reserved floor section, nothing particularly noticeable about her plain gray sweatshirt, converse or simple dark ponytail.
I recognized her immediately. I’d seen pictures of her face on every news station those past 13 days, next to her beautiful fiery haired mother and her perfect 4 month old baby girl.
Her mother wasn’t beside her. Her arms were disturbingly empty.
She’d lost both that day.
As the service continued, I couldn’t help but watch her from afar, thinking about the young woman just my age who had lost more than I could even imagine only a few days ago.
How could she sit through this service?
How could she sit? How could she even breathe?
I’d seen her on tv, telling people that her strength had come from the mother she lost, that she was trying to hold onto hope for a better tomorrow.
I looked down and saw my necklace staring back at me. I loved it. My parents had given me a Giving Keys necklace for my birthday, and I’d barely had it a month. If I’m honest, in my heart of hearts I’d hoped I wouldn’t have to part with it any time soon.
HOPE, it said.
I looked back at her on the ground level with her hands in her gray pockets, her eyes on the floor.
I felt the metal against my neck, still warm from my skin. I knew it wasn’t meant for me anymore.
The service was over, and the crowd blurred into a yellow wall of sound. I kept my eyes on the gray, and made my way down the bleacher steps.
Her dark eyes found mine.
The words came out, haltingly at first, then like a steady heartbeat.
The chain slipped from my palm into her outstretched hand.
I walked through the yellow crowd and out into the dark night.
“‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘plans to help you and not to harm you, plans to give you a HOPE and a future.’” -JER 29:11
More about that day: http://randiray.wordpress.com/2014/04/11/the-heart-of-oso/X