Thursday, January 13, 2011

Together We Thrive - My Perspective

The tragedy in Tucson began on a beautiful Saturday morning, January 8, 2011. I live in Tucson, Arizona, not far from the now famous Safeway. Gabby Giffords is my U S Congresswoman. That morning I went out to run an errand with my husband, and while we have long "liked" Representative Giffords' Facebook page, we did not know about her planned 'Congress on Your Corner' event. On our second outing of the day we were turned around by Pima County Sheriffs. We didn't know why, but something instinctively felt bad. So we agreed to go home. Within minutes of being home we learned of the nightmare that was unfolding just four miles from our home. Funny, some of my out-of-state friends called or wrote to make sure I was Ok, as they thought this was just the kind of event I would have tried to attend! I do not have to revisit all of this past week, but I was taken by the Arizona Star Tuesday morning headline "Obama Coming Here Wednesday".  I read the details: open to the public, free, University of Arizona McKale Center, doors open at 4:00PM. 

Cherry St view U of A
I made up my mind that I was going to try to attend this event that was being provided by our University of Arizona. My family supported me in my efforts. My reason for writing today is to give you just one person's perspective of the Together We Thrive Tucson & America Memorial.

Around 12:15PM, Dennis, my husband, drove me the 5 miles to the McKale Center. Upon arrival I was directed to walk to the end of the line. I found myself behind five young adults (two were veterans) - Chris, Tim, Juan, Valerie and Ann. I think it was Chris who determined that we were 3/10ths of a mile from the main door of McKale Center. Would we get in? We didn't know, but we did know that the center holds roughly 14,500 people. Chris did the math and figured we had a good chance, so for the next four plus hours we stood, for the most part quietly, you might even say reverently. Conversation was  simple, people introduced themselves to their queue-mates, some people read, some took pictures. We discovered that the college buildings (Steward Building) around us were open and available for us to take turns using restrooms. could take a break, get out of the sun, freshen up and return peacefully to your place in line. 

Together We Thrive T-shirt
As the afternoon progressed...volunteers walked the line and gave us guidelines to follow: no purses, no backpacks, photo ID. Surprisingly, people walked the line offering free water! We were grateful and happy. Even the one vendor who sold water was welcomed. At 3:45PM the line started to move. We moved this point in the day I kept taking breaks sitting down on the curbside (too many hours of standing in the sun). The volunteers walked the line again only this time they were carrying the now famous T-shirts, navy blue with the logo Together We Thrive Tucson & America.  They offered us a free T-shirt. We were stunned. They didn't ask for money, they just said we could have a T-shirt. In fact, we could have more than one if we wanted.

We (Chris, Tim, Juan, Valerie, Ann and I) stayed together. They watched over me, knowing I was at least 35 years their senior. As we approached the ramp to the front door of the McKale Center we were offered Black and White ribbons to wear. These were given to us by the Homicide Survivors Inc of Tucson, AZ. "The white ribbon represents hope for a peaceful nonviolent society. The black ribbon is in remembrance of all who have died as a result of violence."  My fellow citizens: men, women, young, old, mothers, fathers, students, handicapped and I were happy to pin the ribbons on our blouses, shirts, coats, hats. We quietly walked up the ramp, willingly emptied our pockets for the security detail, passed through the metal detectors, and solemnly walked into the center to find a seat. 

Memorial Program

At this point, I was separated from Chris, Tim, Juan, Valerie and Alli. After all, I only had to find one seat, they, I knew, would want to sit together for this historical evening. I looked up and there in the first row of section 104 was one empty seat. Two young women asked me if I needed a seat. I smiled and nodded yes. Finally, I was in the arena. I was sitting! It was now 5:30PM. Looking down on the main floor I could see all of the media, the University of Arizona's Choir and Symphonic Choir, the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, the podium, and of course the four-sided closed circuit television screen. I realized that my seatmates had programs. I mentioned that I was hopeful I would be able to get one at the close of the memorial. Sweetly the man in front of me turned and handed me an extra program that he had received. We were indeed together for this evening. We were quiet, grieving and breathing a sigh of relief that we were together.

Suddenly, on the television screen we could see Dr. Peter Rhee and his fellow University Medical Center doctors. The only way to acknowledge these medical experts was to applaud them. And so, we applauded. When Justice Sandra Day O'Connor appeared, again we could only acknowledge her with our applause...and the next 30 minutes proceeded...Minority Leader Congresswoman Pelosi, Senator and Mrs. McCain, Senator Kyl, Secretary of Homeland Security Napolitano, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Captain Mark Kelly...all seen clearly on the screen and applauded.

At precisely 6:00PM the Tucson Symphony Orchestra played Fanfare for the Common Man. It is a powerful and appropriate piece. The memorial program continued with a Native American Blessing, our National Anthem, a welcome by UA President Robert N. Shelton, UA Student Body President Emily Fritze, UA student and Representative Gabrielle Giffords' intern Daniel Hernandez Jr. followed by a reading from the Old Testament by Janet Napolitano and a reading from the New Testament by Eric Holder. Did we applaud? Yes, it was our way to come together and touch each other. 

Finally, President Obama came to the podium. He began talking to us. We might have been sitting in our living room with a neighbor, brother, uncle. He welcomed us, he introduced us to others, told us about each of our fallen and injured and shared a story of how he had just visited our U. S. Congresswoman and friend, Gabby. And then he said: "Gabby opened her eyes!" And that is when I knew or felt it was true..."together we thrive!"  We are not just surviving...going forward we can and will grow and flourish. 

For those of you who know me, you know a lot about me. You may know that I once had a private impromptu breakfast with President Jimmy Carter and I once hosted John F. Kennedy, Jr. at our inn. These are personal moments in my life that are memorable and remarkable, but January 12, 2011, I shared a moment of history with my neighbors. The evening ended with a poem To the New Year  by W.S. Merwin, U.S. Poet Laureate... 
so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is 
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible

Spontaneously, my seatmates, strangers to me, touched my hands and thanked me for sharing the evening. Today I would like to thank the University of Arizona for being there in every way for all Tucsonans during our tragedy, helping us to understand and begin the healing process. Together We Thrive Tucson & America.

As always, I welcome your thoughts, comments, or questions.

If you are having trouble viewing the video, you can see it here.

2 comments: said...

With just the way you have written this I sense the love and reverence that must have been in the air during the assembly. I am proud for you to have been able to be there and witness this. With each day the healing begins, it will never be forgotten, but pain will diminish. Thank you for sharing . . . Patty

Judy Helfand said...

Thanks for writing. I hope I was able to convey the true sentiment of my fellow Tucsonans. I was honored to be there.

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