I have not walked down this path in a long time. Perhaps I grew overly accustomed to composing sappy vignettes of life in a far off land and then days kept moving forward and I found myself someplace else. And the beauty of life in Upland or Des Moines is more hidden, because my eyes are weak with familiarity. Yet there is grace here. I communicate with the beauty and grace, but also the injustice and iniquity, I encountered in the Middle East through books, articles, people, discussion. They remain my strong companions. This year has been spectacular, terrible, happy, content, betrayed, upland, des moines, los angeles, minneapolis, chicago, bloomigton, engaging, miscommunication, spanish, refugees, heartbreak, new friends, responsibility, cooking, intellectl, spiritual, vulnerable, sad, bored, love. Consider yourself caught up.
This weekend I traveled cross I-80 for the wedding of a friend from my MESP semester. It was in hour 9 of 11 on our way to Ohio that I mentioned the accident. I was thanking Cecka for the note she wrote in Arabic on a big poster Bethel sent to Taylor; it was meant only and specifically for Andrew and I. It was only by coincidence that we actually saw ours names and the few Arabic words on the poster hanging outside the chapel. When I saw it my eyes welled for the one hundred millionth time that week.
Near the end of April I was strung out from long nights of homework and a series of assignmentspaperstests that had left me exhausted. Wednesday I decided to take a day off from homework. I did not know or want that break to stretch into the five day interim that would follow. At 2M’s weekly showing of LOST we saw some new faces of friends who were not regulars, but now their outfits and places on the furniture in our bedroom have become a part of my psyche. I have thought for a long time that I would write this.
Jill is a fair-weathered LOST viewer. Initially, she was intrigued by the cultural indications of the program, but then, about half way through the season when Said tortured that guy she decided she couldn’t take the intensity any longer. Jill still had a presence at our Wednesday night gatherings commenting on the commercials, serving drinks, sitting in for a minute here and there. As the program was ending on April 26 I could hear Jill in the room next door getting ready to meet Courtney to train for the mini marathon they would run in May. Jill called the Hayes House.
And then Courtney’s cell phone.
And Jess’ cell phone.
And whoever else and then Vance Maloney answered one of her calls. A Taylor van has been in an accident. Betsy was on the van. The girls are at the Maloneys praying.
Brent picks up the phone leaning back in the orange chair between the bookshelf and the windowsill. His left arm draped across the arm of the recliner and the phone in his right hand. Randy is not at home. But his wife talks to Brent. He folds his left arm across his chest nodding and making small sounds affirming that he hears her words. There was an accident tonight. Five fatalities. A catering group. Thank God that Andrew, who is a catering manager, is within plain sight. In several moments of twisted selfishness I think: there were two cars in the accident. All the fatalities were in the other vehicle, not mine. And at the same time we bow our heads to pray and tears stream down my face.
The girls hurry back to English to find the news has spread like termites attacking the very core of us. We start checking our email looking for any communication from someone in authority. Anticipating a series of emails that would inform us of our dead classmates, canceled classes, and details for five different funerals. I don’t remember why we decide to go to the chapel. On the way out the door Jill stops to call her mom, because she didn’t want her to find out from someone else. I did not understand that something like this might make the news in Iowa. I called my parents anyway. Andrew calls his parents in Minnesota; I think this is ridiculous because Minnesota is even more removed than Iowa and no one at Taylor died—the fatalities were in the other car, remember.
We arrive at the chapel and people are pouring in. It is hot. It smells rank. It is common knowledge that the chapel cannot hold the entire student body, however, it is rarely full for a regular chapel session. Tonight it is packed, people are standing along the sides of aisles and overflowing to the outside of the chapel. Brittany, Andrew, Jill and I slip up into the balcony. It is quiet. I have a headache and I am wearing too many layers. Someone made an announcement that there were five people killed, all in the Taylor van. Shock rips us wide open and is met with our initial silence. And so sometime between 9:30 and 10:00 pm the waiting ensued.
It is clear that everyone is doing the same thing. I am searching for my friends who work banquets. I am quietly asking if anyone has seen the people I love. Jill slipped downstairs to sit with the girls from the Hayes house. I think I will vomit. I walk to the bathroom where I have walked a hundred times before. I am disoriented and dizzy. My headache gets louder. I see Zack and he looks normal to me. I direct him to the area where Jill had gone. Something in his face feels relief amidst the mounting tension and he joins his friends. I continue to the bathroom. I can breathe a little bit better now. Someone did throw up, but I opted to go back upstairs and find Brittany.
I see Annie Nelson devastated at the thought of losing anyone who works in the DC with her. I hug her, but I still don’t understand what is happening around me. We are slowly finding out whose roommates did not come home by process of elimination, but we still know nothing for sure. We see groups of friends huddled together arms twisting around bodies that had a vicious tragedy to feel unfold.
I see someone gesture from the front of the chapel and watch Betsy’s closest friends file from one pew out of the chapel. I walk around the building and watch them dissolve under the pressure of the grief; they drop to the ground where they stood when they heard their worst fears confirmed. Betsy is gone. Jill is on the phone with her mom; Brittany and I hug her anyway. In the following weeks I heard Jess mention several times the fact that Betsy is dead, as if to remind herself of the fact in the midst of circumstances when that death seeped into every facet of her being. The girls did not return to the house for a long time. I saw them the next day in the same clothes. I know because I remember Courtney was wearing white pants. After a while I hugged them hoping that something unspeakable would wordlessly pass between our bodies. Later, we mowed their lawn.
Excruciating hours drag on. Someone moves to the piano we sing hymns and wait. Some students who have felt great losses speak words to us, but I feel like there is cotton in my ears. Jill, Brittany and I relocate to the left aisle of the chapel and sit on the floor there. Nearby First North, Laurel’s wing, huddles together. We are all crying. Phil arrived at some point and sat next to us on the ground. I am glad he is near. I am glad that he is just as confused as me. He prays with us. More hours pass. I do not think my eyes have anymore tears to cry, but somehow they keep coming.
When I think about it now I cannot remember who announced the names of the students who died. There was Randy, Wynn Lembright, Dr. Habecker standing in front of us crying. Sometime in the wee hours of the morning somebody reads the list of names: Monica Felver, Whitney Cerak, Brad Larson, Betsy Smith, Laurel Erb. Wails break from the lips of friends who had been waiting to hear the worst and hoping to hear the best. The entire chapel heaved enormous sobs together. Hundreds of us feeling the grief sear our bodies. Marylou hugs me she is wearing something pink. The throbbing in my head continues. I do not remember how we decided to go home. I do not remember how I finally fell asleep, exhausted, around 3:30 am.
Thursday morning my face is swollen from crying. Chorale will sing at the chapel. I do not know what to wear. I cannot stop crying. We sing my favorite song: My Shepard. Later we will sing other songs that are eerily appropriate for the occasion. We stumble through the next days. We must remember to love each other. We have to remember to grieve with hope for a new day.