Ever since getting lost in the desert, I pay attention to stories about missing people.
Well, more attention.
I’ve always had an interest in helping to find the lost.
Now? Even more so.
That’s because last year, I joined their ranks.
Here’s the thing. People LOVE to criticize those of us who get lost. They talk about how we were unprepared or deserved what we got. They talk about how we should be charged for “what taxpayers had to pay” in our search and rescue.
Never, however, do they imagine that they or their loved ones could one day be one of the lost.
It doesn’t take much.
A wrong turn while hiking. Alzheimer’s. Dementia. A car accident. A small child who gets out of the house when a parent isn’t looking.
And there you have it.
A lost person.
I can tell you from personal experience that all a lost person wants is to be found.
I hoped and prayed to be found alive. But as death drew ever closer, I prayed simply that my body would be found.
That, I knew, would help my family during their grieving.
Several weeks ago, I decided to drive down to Texas to participate in a boot-camp fundraiser for one of the many groups that helped find me and bring me home.
TEXSAR, which is made up solely of volunteers, is one of the entities that showed up at Big Bend Ranch State Park after I went missing.
Anyway, I decided that I wanted to participate in their fundraiser Saturday.
Which, as it turned out, fell on the day after these men and women had had to search for one of their own — a sheriff’s deputy who was swept away in a flash flood.
Her name is Jessica Hollis. She was inspecting low-water crossings to determine whether barricades needed to be set up. She also was a member of a SAR dive team.
If anyone should have survived that flood, she should have.
Her body was found on Friday. TEXSAR’s fundraiser was on Saturday.
I had been following the story of Deputy Hollis. Once you get lost in the wild, you tend to pay attention to stories about other people who run into trouble.
I was crushed when I learned that she had died.
At the same time, thank God SAR teams found her body.
That’s what I prayed for in the desert — that if I wasn’t found alive, that my body would be located so that my family would know what happened.
Members of TEXSAR, I know how much you wanted to find that deputy alive.
But as someone once lost out there, alone, I can tell you that she would be ever so grateful to know that her body was located. You have given a family what they most needed: answers. And their loved one.
Alone in the Texas desert, I wanted my family to know what had happened to me. I wanted them to have something to bury or cremate.
I wanted to be found. Even if it was too late.
Too often, we look at the missing and criticize them for becoming lost. We forget that any of us might, at one time, lose our way.
Thank God for the volunteers who search for those of us who lose our paths.
Thank God for those who dedicate their time and energy to finding the lost.
So tonight, the cat planted himself in the kitchen right in front of the oven.
“What’s he doing?” my daughter asked. “Is something back there?”
“Oh, no,” I breezily assured her. “Our cat’s too lazy to chase anything.”
“I heard some scratchy noises back there awhile ago,” my son chimed in.
“Stop trying to scare your sister,” I said.
“But I did,” he insisted.
“There is nothing behind the oven,” I replied.
Fifteen minutes later …
A horrific screeching noise caught my attention.
“Squee! Squee! Squee!”
I rose from the couch, only to see Mr. Kitty, our overweight orange tabby, trotting into the living room with a small, squealing rodent clenched between his teeth.
“Aiiieeeee!!!” I screamed, leaping onto the couch.
“Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!” hollered my son, who also had seen the rodent.
“EEEEEEEK!!” my daughter yelled. Bear in mind, she had no idea why we were all clustered together on the couch, screaming.
We fled, still screaming,to the front porch.
“What do we do?” my daughter asked, peering inside.
The mouse, having escaped Mr. Kitty’s jaws, fled under the grandfather clock made by Hubs’ grandpa.
Undeterred, Mr. Kitty crouched in front of the clock, swiping a determined paw underneath.
The chase continued, with the mouse running behind two sets of curtains before zipping underneath the buffet in the dining room.
And there it remains, with Mr. Kitty crouched nearby, waiting…
Hubs is on his way back from shooting the Hogs game.
When he gets here, he will be charged with helping Mr. Kitty finish his first kill.
Someone. Hold me.
Responders first on scene, last to leave
NEW YORK — Trapped beneath the rubble of the World Trade Center’s south tower, firefighter Jim Thompson scribbled a note to his wife and mother on a crumpled piece of paper:
If you get this letter, know that I love you. Let Kevin know who I am.
Kevin was Jim’s 2-year-old son.
Nearly six hours later, Jim scrambled to the surface after wedging open a door in a mechanical room.
He immediately went back to work, narrowly dodging death a second time when Building 7 collapsed. This time, Jim took cover underneath a parked tractor-trailer.
He spent three days at “the pile” — a looming mass of wreckage that would continue to burn and smolder for months.
A lack of cell service prevented Jim from calling his wife, Irene, to tell her he was safe.
Irene, meanwhile, was frantic.
The last time she’d heard from her husband, he had called on his way to the north tower, shortly after the first plane hit.
“One of the World Trade Center towers is on fire,” he’d told her. “I’ll be late tonight.”
But he didn’t come home that night. Or the next.
When Irene called the fire station, the dispatcher offered little information. “All our units are out, but we don’t know where our men are,” he told her.
Desperate, Irene visited her next-door neighbor, who was a fire captain.
“I don’t know where your husband is,” he said. “They’re sending survivors to the hospital.”
As Irene turned to leave, she saw Jim standing in the doorway, covered in a thick white dusting of ash. She ran to him, flinging her arms around his neck.
“I got a second chance,” Irene said on the eve of the 10th anniversary of 9/11. She wiped away tears. “My husband came home.”
But 343 other firefighters didn’t.
They came from everywhere, the men and women who raced to the World Trade Center that sunny morning.
Not just firefighters.
Thousands of New York City police officers, EMTs and Port Authority officers also ran toward the burning towers to help evacuate those trapped inside.
About 2,000 of those first responders were injured. Sixty-three of them perished.
So this year, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg — citing a lack of space — decided to exclude them from participating in the 10th anniversary ceremony and dedication of the 9/11 Memorial, many were stunned.
The brother of a firefighter who was killed in the attacks sent a letter to The Wall Street Journal expressing his indignation:
The firemen, being who they are, would never complain or bring attention to themselves, wrote Michael Burke.
I, however, am not a fireman. Just the son of one and the brother of another. To deny the firefighters and our first responders — these most humble and dedicated servants of New York — the opportunity to honor, at Ground Zero on 9/11, their lost brothers and sisters is atrocious.
Many of those who responded that day stayed, even after they realized that their rescue effort had become a recovery of victims’ remains.
They stayed and they searched and they dug with bare hands into blistering piles of metal.
If they couldn’t find survivors, they would locate bodies for grieving families to bury.
A PRIVATE GATHERING
Lou Angeli, a Delaware volunteer firefighter and documentary filmmaker, headed to New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, for two purposes:
To help fellow firefighters at ground zero.
And to film their grueling work.
In 2006, Answering the Call: Ground Zero’s Volunteers premiered in New York City, Los Angeles, San Diego — and Mountain Home.
That Arkansas fire department had contacted Lou, hoping he would take his film to their town.
So Angeli added Mountain Home to his list of premiere showings.
Narrated by actress Kathleen Turner, the film pays tribute to all of those who worked “on the pile.”
Upon learning that first responders wouldn’t be participating or attending the city’s 10th anniversary ceremony, Angeli arranged a dinner on Saturday night for those who appeared in his documentary.
The next morning, Sept. 11, he co-produced a show that featured these first responders for Phoenix Television, a privately owned Chinese broadcasting company.
The show was broadcast live at the Hilton Millennium, which overlooks the 9/11 Memorial and construction of a new World Trade Center.
Ten years ago, these firefighters and law-enforcement officers were down there, feeling their boots melt off their feet as they clambered up and down the smoldering pile.
Sunday, they watched from a distance, four stories up and through thick-paned windows.
For long minutes, they stood shoulder to shoulder, looking down on a place that brought them horror, despair and proof of miracles.
INTO THE VOID
As the supervisor of the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Emergency Response Team, Jeff Johns has been called to terrible scenes — 30 “man-unders” that involved recovering mutilated or severed bodies from underneath trains.
But the carnage at the World Trade Center caught him completely off-guard:
A pair of severed hands, belonging to two different people, that remained clasped.
Shoes with the feet still in them.
The thud of yet another body part dropped into a bucket.
I can’t believe this is happening, Jeff thought.
He began working at the pile on Sept. 13. Most days, he went there after work. His shift ended at 11 p.m. He used up all of his vacation days.
But he felt called to the place, mainly because he was driven by the hope of finding a survivor.
Just one. If he could find just one.
After six weeks, he relinquished that hope. Still, he showed up every day for five more weeks.
At the pile, Jeff was a “digger” — someone who looked not only for human remains, but also personal effects that might identify victims: an earring, a key chain, a wallet.
At the front of the bucket brigade, night after night, he dug and dug, moving to the back of the line only when his fingers and hands stiffened.
He never got accustomed to the expression on the faces of all of the cops and firefighters.
These guys were familiar with grisly scenes. They didn’t show emotion.
But each night, when Jeff got off work and headed to the pile, he saw desperation etched on weary, tear-streaked faces.
Unlike many of those working on the pile, Jeff needed to talk about what he was seeing and feeling.
So he e-mailed dispatches to family and friends, describing precarious working conditions, such as 100-foot holes and unstable I-beams that weigh thousands of pounds.
Today I made it into the lower levels, where the food courts and shops were. I expected to see a real chance of survivors … what I saw was the biggest reason why I was on the pile, disintegrate before my eyes … I cannot tell the guys on the upper level what is down there …
One of the items down there was a baby stroller with broken and bloody restraining straps.
For a father of two young children, that stroller was a sucker-punch to the gut.
On Oct. 27, 2001, Jeff wrote:
We are now getting into the most difficult part of the operation, down we go, as the pile on top diminishes, the voids being exposed are too tempting not to go in. We now have plenty of portable lighting, but it’s still a crushed steel oven cave exploration. Outside it’s forty degrees and biting wind.
… Steam, incredible heat, and penetrating chemical smell await those whom would call themselves men. You can’t wear goggles or glasses of any sort, they fog up in seconds, everyone wears a mask, you can’t breathe without one.
It is literally the closest thing to hell anyone could imagine.
By mid-November, Jeff wondered whether they would ever be able to identify the victims of 9/11.
After digging last night, I have concluded that out of the three thousand still missing, we will be lucky to find two to three hundred, the rest have either been burned into ashes or pulverized into bone chips and muscle fragments.
Ground zero is still, by far, the hardest thing on this planet I have ever faced, it just seems to rip your soul out every time.
And I will not stop until the last brick is lifted and looked under.
One night, Jeff sent out an angry e-mail, asking why none of the friends receiving his missives was writing back.
His phone began ringing. Everyone told him the same thing:
“We didn’t know what to say.”
A DOG NAMED ANNA
Out on the pile, Jeff befriended a woman, a search-and-rescue dog handler named Sarah Atlas.
Sarah, a member of the New Jersey Task Force One Urban Search and Rescue Team, was deployed to the World Trade Center immediately after the towers were hit.
She brought Anna, a young German shepherd with an innate ability to find people, living or dead.
Sarah remembers the 15-block walk to ground zero with other dog handlers, and how the firefighters called out in relief: “The dogs are here! The dogs are here!”
For 11 days, Sarah and Anna roamed the pile. Again and again, Anna stopped and stared. The sudden halt meant she’d found remains. A bark indicated a “live find.”
There were more silent stops than barks.
Anna and the other dogs suffered greatly at ground zero. One night, Sarah found a conduit that had melted onto Anna’s abdomen.
Just before their departure, Anna collapsed from heat exhaustion. As Sarah waited for a veterinarian to arrive with an IV and fluids, a detective ran up to her.
“Please, please don’t stop looking,” he begged. “You’ve got to find my son.”
“They’re bringing in more dogs,” Sarah reassured him. “This one is sick. She has to rest.”
The detective opened a brown bag, pulled out a shirt and thrust it under Anna’s nose. “Please,” he said.
And Sarah cried. There was nothing else her dog could do.
Eleven months later, after suffering through a bacterial fungal infection in all of her organs and a rare condition that caused the discs in Anna’s spine to erode, Sarah had to put her to sleep.
Anna was only 4 1/2 years old when she died. Many of the other dogs who searched the pile also had to be put down.
Something in that still-burning rubble made them very sick.
First responders also suffered from debilitating illnesses.
Sarah was hospitalized soon after leaving ground zero after experiencing respiratory and heart problems.
Several months later, Jim Thompson, the firefighter who was trapped for 5 1/2 hours under the south tower’s debris, collapsed while responding to a call.
His lungs and throat had been severely burned, doctors said.
Jim kept spitting up blood and “black stuff,” his wife explained.
Doctors predict that the damage will one day lead to cancer.
Jim was forced to take a desk job at the fire station, which he hated.
When he continued to go out on calls, his superiors finally persuaded him to retire. The couple moved to Pennsylvania, where Jim grew up.
Jim’s never talked about what he saw that day in the towers.
And he refuses to show emotion, unless he’s around other firefighters.
Even now, he still suffers from insomnia and nightmares. Anna continues to worry about his lungs and labored breathing.
“He lost 68 friends that day,” Irene said. “Everything’s changed. There’s no going back to normal.”
None of these first responders regrets the long days and months spent on the pile.
Jeff tried to explain why in his e-mails:
It’s been hard, so very hard … on everyone here … there are professional counselors and chaplains at the Salvation Army posts, which is a lot better than no one.
I think we all have made our rounds … no one on the pile is above this … and yet we have not slowed down for a second … I want to be surrounded by people like this for the rest of my life.
Take for example, Tobin Mueller, who, after commandeering a one-table doughnut and coffee stand for ambulance crews, managed to organize a 200-man crew who collected any and every item requested by weary recovery workers, from boots and socks to pizza and gloves.
Donations poured in, forcing volunteers to take over a warehouse on the pier.
Firefighters called the setup “Home Depot.”
Within a matter of days, Tobin, a playwright and musician, even had cruise ships stopping by with supplies handed out by young actresses — who also performed a cabaret for recovery workers.
That, everyone agrees, was symbolic of the support offered to them.
And each first responder can describe a miracle or act of kindness witnessed on the pile.
Sarah received a dog bed from a man whose own pet had died. She also was touched by the elderly woman who loaded a Radio Flyer wagon with ice cream cups for searchers and their dogs.
Jeff remembers being in the honor guard when the remains of “another hero” were found.
Lou recalls a petite, 20-year-old woman who persuaded rescue workers to tie a rope around her ankles and lower her headfirst into a small hole.
Her mission: To retrieve badges from the bodies of two officers in a police car that had been buried by debris.
Those badges allowed workers to identify two more victims.
On Sunday, Lou, Jim, Jeff and several other first responders reminded one another of these miracles as they watched the anniversary ceremony from afar — some of them wearing old uniforms from a lifetime ago, even as others still answer the call.
When we got home from church yesterday, I changed into an over-sized T-shirt and told the kids: “I’m taking a nap. Do NOT wake me up unless someone is bleeding.”
I fell asleep within 15 minutes.
And then the doorbell started ringing. And someone kept knocking. And the kids, when they finally charged into the bedroom, said, “We can’t tell who it is, Mama. But he won’t leave.”
It was Stephen, a friend and photographer at the paper.
“Rick’s OK,” he said.
“He had a wreck. I can go get him if you need me to … ”
No. No. Oh my God. Let me call him. I’ll go.
Rick had tried to call me. But I was the liturgist on Sunday, so I’d muted my phone. Then, after church, I forgot to turn the volume back on.
I called Rick.
“It’s pretty bad,” he said.
My husband is a veteran photojournalist. If he says a wreck is bad, well … yeah. It’s probably pretty bad.
“I need you to come get me,” he said. “But don’t bring the kids. I don’t want them to see this.”
He was driving north on a state highway. A woman tried to cross that highway right in front of him. He swerved, but still hit her.
I got there and I looked at the truck and I looked at her car and I listened to the state trooper and all I could think was …
My husband hiked out of the desert without water and summoned help for me. He could have — hell, probably should have — died out there. But he survived that so that he could be killed by a Ford Fiesta? Really?
Last night, after Rick and I drank lots of alcohol and talked about how he couldn’t stop thinking about how he could have died in a stupid car wreck, I wrote a really mean and hateful post addressed to the woman who pulled out in front of my husband in her Ford Fiesta.
Honestly? I’m still mad at her. She just set me back six months where the whole near-death PTSD thing is concerned — just because she didn’t want to pause at a yield sign.
She almost killed herself and my husband. And for what? The ability to beat a Chevy Silverado traveling 60 mph on a highway?
Because that’s what it boils down to. She was pulling a beat-the-train move. Only instead of crossing tracks with a train coming, she was crossing a highway with a Chevy in sight.
And then a friend — someone I met only in the past year — messaged me and said, basically — “You’re better than this.”
As in — Don’t bash the woman in such a hateful, mean way. (People, I even made fun of her name. I was THAT mad.)
And then I went and looked her up on Facebook and it looks like she doesn’t have much in the way of family or a support system and I thought, I am such a bitch.
The thing about almost dying is that it makes you so incredibly aware of just how vulnerable we are. You can be hiking and taking pictures of cute little pink flowers and then be almost dead within 24 hours. Or you can be visiting your cousin in south Arkansas and run into a Ford Fiesta on the way home.
I think what most upset me is that Rick was in that part of the state because his cousin — one of the sweetest, most good-hearted men I’ve ever met — was just diagnosed with Stage 4 bladder cancer.
So here’s Rick, on the way home, pondering mortality and his cousin and the desert and … WHAM. Near-death by Fiesta.
It’s OK if you laugh. Really. We’re journalists. Even I have to snicker at the thought that my Superman husband who hiked out of the Chihuahuan Desert to save my life almost damn near met his end due to a Fiesta. Sorry. Journalists need a morbid sense of humor to do what we do.
I think what got me is that I was all — Well, we’ve had our near-death experience in the desert. We should be cool for at least the next few years. I mean, what are the chances of nearly dying twice in less than a year?
And then you can Google the story about the two women hikers who were lost and saved and then accidentally drove their car into the water and drowned.
Surprisingly, one big-ass tragedy — or near tragedy — doesn’t mean you’re suddenly immune from potential death. Go figure.
Life is fragile, my friends. It’s precious. Enjoy it. Live it to its fullest.
But SLOW DOWN. Don’t be the Ford Fiesta headed on a collision course. Your kid gets a tardy? So what? He or she still alive to get it. You’re late to work? Meh. You hate rush hour and just want to get home? Well, focus on getting home safely.
Dear Woman in the Ford Fiesta: I know you that you couldn’t have known that we already almost died. And I know you didn’t have a death wish when you shot across the highway. At least, I hope not.
But please. You. And others like you.
Life is fragile. We are fragile. Slow down. Relax. Breathe.
We’re here for only a short time. Let’s not make it even shorter.
Most importantly, let’s make our few years here on Earth count.
p.s. I owe so much to my family and church family. We appreciate and love you. And, you, dear friend, who messaged me last night? Thank you. You reminded me of who I am and want to be. God bless you.
Surely by now you’ve seen Put on that Swimsuit, the ode to enjoying summertime happiness with your kids written by Jessica Turner on the Mom Creative blog, which hit the Huffington Post and went viral.
Swimsuits can be tough for mamas. Do I ever know this — remember, I’m the lady saddled with a saggy kangaroo pouch for a stomach and dozens of pregnancy pounds I can’t seem to shed.
I want you to know, though, that even I strap on the swimsuit and go for it. I’m not particularly proud of how I look — the definition of beached whale, in fact — but I can’t let that stop me and my kiddos from having summer fun. I’m not at the pool for a fashion show. I’m there to spend quality time with my girls and/or get some exercise.
Arkie Mama recently decided to go bikini and is loving it. Of course, she’s celebrating the fact that she’s still alive after a gut-wrenching, life-changing scare in the desert. And I also think about Lucky Mama and Aunt Jenn, whose battles with MS may someday present physical limitations.
Shouldn’t we all be appreciating life? None of us know how long we’ve got. What disease or disaster may steal moments away from us later. So let go. Live a little. Who cares what anyone else may think — you’re living for yourself, not them. No regrets.
And it won’t be the end of the world.
See that cute little toddler in the photo above? Now imagine a pair of snazzy pink and white sunglasses — that match her adorable gingham dress — perched on that wee freckled nose.
That’s what she was wearing, right down to those white sandals, the day I accidentally threw my trusting and precious child down the stairs.
Rick and I were living in San Antonio, working for the newspaper there. When we’d moved there in 2004, we settled for a rental, not wanting to buy a house until we became more familiar with the city. In 2005, a few months after our son was born, the four of us set out on multiple house-hunting expeditions.
Each Sunday, after church, we’d visit all of the open houses that caught our eye. One Sunday found us at a charming bungalow that had been fully renovated. A few things remained to be done — like adding a bannister to the steep, wooden staircase leading to the second floor.
On this particular home tour, Rick was toting our infant son in a carrier. So when I ventured upstairs, my 2-year-old daughter wanted to go too.
On the way back down, worried that she might fall, I insisted on carrying her.
NOTE: Stairs have NEVER been my friend. I have not only fallen down them, but UP them. Why on earth I thought I was better qualified than my toddler for a bannisterless descent is beyond me. Regardless …
I hoisted my little girl up onto my hip and started down. Which is when one of my cute, strappy sandals gave way. (Yes, the majority of my falling-down stories involve not only stairs, but ridiculous footwear.) Anyway, we weren’t even halfway down when that fickle sandal twisted and I stumbled.
As I lunged against the wall, trying to catch myself, Baby Girl was literally catapulted from my arms. I watched in horror as she hurtled forward, bouncing against each step.
So here’s Rick, strolling from the dining room into the living room. He sets the infant carrier down at the foot of the stairs to give his arm a rest.
Just then, he hears a thud. And then another thud. And then his daughter tumbles, head-over-heels, to his feet, sunglasses askew and eyes scrunched up in that pre-cry sort of way. Meanwhile, the thuds continue as I ping-pong from one wall to the other on my way down.
Rick was still leaning down to pick up our daughter when I landed at his feet. “Oh my God! What are you doing?!” he shrieked.
NOTE: This question has been shouted/screamed at me countless times when I have inexplicably stumbled or fallen down. I reference an incident in downtown Memphis, when a panicked photographer yelled that very question as I tripped over absolutely nothing and fell smack on my hands and knees. He had to hoist me up by my coat collar. I then staggered, bleeding, into a restaurant to clean myself up.
Despite the numerous times frantic people have inquired as to what I was doing, I have yet to produce an adequate answer.
So anyway, back to that Sunday: Rick has just watched his toddler AND wife roll down a staircase.
Baby Girl was fine. Startled and crying, but fine. I, on the other hand, had bruises from ankle to thigh. The next several days were misery as I hobbled from one place to another.
Still, every time I remembered my little girl curled up in a ball at the foot of the stairs — having been launched from her own mother’s arms — I cried. I thought of those little sunglasses sitting crooked on her nose and just wailed.
Again, she was fine. I’m the one who bore both the physical and emotional injuries.
This, my fellow mamas, is part of motherhood. We screw up. But then we pick ourselves up — and, ahem, sometimes our children — and carry on.
You will never, ever be a perfect mom. None of us will be. But, just like our children, we are a resilient lot, who, BECAUSE we love our babies so very much, will plant kisses on tiny, bloody knees and plaster countless Band-aids on boo-boos. We will listen to tales of friendships gone wrong and try to explain the many injustices in this world.
And we will forgive ourselves, knowing that our mistakes most often are the result of the best of intentions. The key is in remembering to bandage our own boo-boos — to ask for help when needed and to allow for a good cry now and then.
Then, just like our children, we’ll pick at those annoying, itchy scabs, and continue a journey that, while often marked by pain and sadness, leads us to sweet moments of indescribable joy.
So as someone who came within just a few hours of death — according to the doctors who got to deal with my severely dehydrated organs-shutting-down, “Gee, your kidneys have stopped working” and “There’s an ominous shadow on your lungs” and “You may have some heart issues” self — I can say this:
I am in no position to judge anyone.
As I lay dying — DYING, people, in the the desert and even in the hospital — I wasn’t worried about whether my gay friends were ruining the whole stupid romanticized and fictionalized Biblical concept of marriage. I didn’t concern myself with how legalized marijuana might totally corrupt our country.
I didn’t ponder the circumstances under which abortion should or shouldn’t be allowed.
Because really? It doesn’t matter what other people do or what they believe. It’s none of my or your business. God loves all of us. And because he loves us — AS WE ARE — he doesn’t expect us to judge our fellow human beings or to render “punishment” as we see fit.
We are all human. We are not God. We have NO RIGHT to judge ANYONE for what they do or what they believe. Period.
When I was out there, in the desert, I thought only about how I had lived. How I had loved. Whether or not I had been a good person.
Because, really? That’s all that matters.
Have you loved people for who they are, regardless of what you or they believe? Have you tried to help people, regardless of what you or they believe?
Are you kind? ARE. YOU. KIND?
Are you NICE to people?
Really, that’s all it comes down to. You can read the Bible from Genesis to the very, very end and the ONLY THING THAT MATTERS is whether you were a kind and good and non-judgmental person.
When I was sprawled out there, under that mesquite tree, I didn’t worry about anything but this:
Was I a kind and loving person? Did I use my talents for the better good?
That’s it, ya’ll. That’s what it comes down to.
What. Did. I. Do. To. Make. The. World. A. Better. Place.
Your hate, your condemnation, your ugliness? It means nothing. It’s not scoring you extra “Heaven” points. Sorry to disappoint. You just come across as an asshole. That’s all.
If you look at your friends and colleagues and strangers on the street with judging eyes and a judging heart — well, guess what?! YOU ARE NOT GOD. You don’t get to decide who is good or bad. You’re just an average, run-of-the-mill, sinful human being.
Sorry. But it’s true.
One day, when you find yourself facing your own mortality, you will realize that. And it may or may not be too late to rectify your thinking and your hateful, horrid actions.
We are asked to do one thing: Love one another. That’s all. We don’t have to point fingers. Or judge. Or tell everyone else what they’re doing wrong.
Because when you lay alone in the desert, and you realize that you are probably going to die, and you look at God and hear God and understand God — you totally understand that YOU ARE NOT GOD.
So get over yourself. Be kind.
Even now, seven months after getting lost in the Chiahuahuan desert, my body is a testament to our ordeal.
I’m still shedding needles.
Every time I think the last of them are gone, another blister forms and another teeny-tiny needle pops out. I’m beginning to think that I’ll still be plucking little cactus spines from my butt when I’m in my 80s.
My torso and thighs are dotted with purplish-red spots. These represent where the biggest needles were embedded.
My legs are a latticework of scars. My thighs and calves are criss-crossed with white lines. These are reminders of the cactus plants that scratched our legs without leaving needles behind.
And then there’s my left arm, which still bears the scars left by a three-inch, fixed-blade knife. Those scars show where I tried to cut into my veins, hoping to drink my own blood.
The strange thing is that I don’t find any of these scars ugly. I’m actually quite proud of them. They remind me of what I endured. They remind me that my body didn’t quit on me. They remind me that I survived, that I am here, that I am with my family and friends.
This year, for the first time in … I don’t know … ever, maybe … I bought a bikini. Not just one, but TWO.
I’m no longer in possession of a 20-year-old body. I’ve had two kids. One was born via an emergency C-section.
And the desert left an even more indelible marks on me. I’m scarred. Probably always will be. And not just physically.
But I’m proud of these scars. They are proof of strength. Proof of miracles. Proof of God’s mercy.
I don’t mind showing them off.
Several months ago, I went to my dermatologist for my annual checkup. I didn’t talk about the desert. And he didn’t bring it up. But I could tell that he knew. It was the way in which he traced the scars on my arms and legs. He was knowing, yet gentle. I almost felt he was paying homage to them.
Or maybe that’s just my own interpretation.
Because not a day passes that I don’t look at my scars and marvel over the fact that I am alive.
The marks all over my body may not be pretty. But they remind me that anything is possible, that some things just cannot be explained.
And I am so, so grateful.
When I transferred to the University of North Texas and moved away from home in 1990, I quit going to church.
While I have some wonderful recollections of my childhood/teenage church years, I also have a lot of bad ones. I grew up in a church that judged people. I grew up in a church that closed its Mother’s Day Out program because the “wrong people” were enrolling in it.
Only once did a black family attend Sunday services. And that’s the day a member up front said something racist.
My childhood church liked white people. It liked middle-class or affluent people. It reveled in sameness.
It had no pity for the poor. No compassion for those who struggled. No desire to throw open its doors and let anyone “different” enter.
I thank God for parents who DID care about those less fortunate. And who DIDN’T fear change or diversity. If not for them, that church might have tainted more than my memories.
Speaking of memories, my last recollection of that church is spring semester of my senior year in high school. Five of us were graduating. We’d grown up together. Four of us were going to the “appropriate” college — a private one associated with our denomination.
Me? I was headed to a public, state university. Oh yeah. I was totally a heathen.
For weeks, the young adults in our church told me I was wrong in my college choice. I remember sitting up late, sobbing, and asking my mom why a state school was so “wrong” or “bad.” I wanted to be a journalist. Shouldn’t I pick a university that would help me become one?
I will never, ever forget the Sunday that the pastor called my four friends up to the front of the church and gave them scholarships.
Me? I didn’t matter, even though I’d grown up in that church. I had chosen differently, and therefore, I was undeserving of a scholarship. A loving and non-judgmental church doesn’t make an 18-year-old kid feel worthless about going to college. I mean, really? It hurt my mom even more than me. After all, she’d been the church pianist there since I was a toddler.
Anyway, once I left home, I was done. No more church. No more judgements. No more haters.
Once I had kids, I tried out a few places. But none seemed to fit. Or rather, I didn’t fit in.
And then four years ago, I decided to become a Girl Scout troop leader. I found a co-leader. I had girls already assigned to my brand-new troop.
But we had no meeting place.
My co-leader, who lives in Argenta, suggested that I call First Presbyterian, which is located in Argenta.
I called. Left a message. And the pastor called me back and said, “Sure! We’d love to host you. When do you want to have your meetings?”
And just like that, I had a place for my girls.
Over time, I met the pastor, Anne Russ, in person. I met members of the church. I walked by their bulletin board every other week. I eavesdropped on congregants who showed up at odd hours and chatted just outside our meeting room.
I met the people who rented space from the church. Artists. The community booster club. The guy who ran a recording studio there. We talked.
I liked what I heard. And what I saw. This church welcomed everyone.
I also noticed that this church did a lot in the community. It wasn’t afraid of poor people or black people or gay people or transgendered or “different” people.
It just was. It was itself. It didn’t care about who walked in or what their “Christian qualifications” were. It was there and it accepted. Period.
Intrigued, I started going to the occasional service. I mentioned to the pastor that I might be kind of sort of interested in hearing more about First Pres.
I went to Wednesday-night Bible study — which was and still is held at Crush Wine Bar.
I made stealth appearances at a couple of church functions.
And then, in December 2012, my husband, children and I became members of First Presbyterian in Argenta.
There, we found acceptance. We made new friends. We could just go to church and just … be.
No judgements. No questions. No chastising.
I love that my church isn’t afraid to open its doors to the community. I love that it welcomes EVERYONE. I love that couples and families of all types are welcome. Divorced? Gay? Poor? Struggling? Doubtful? Agnostic? Atheist? Doesn’t matter.
I was 42 when we joined First Pres. So yeah. I quit church at age 20. And then I randomly stumbled across a church and liked it. Why? Because I spent three years watching from the wings. I spent three years watching members of this congregation and their pastor. I spent three years quietly assessing what I saw and heard.
These poor souls had no idea they were being watched. But what they did and said unknowingly is what made me want to become one of them.
A lot of churches out there are worrying about attracting new members or retaining current ones.
I can tell you — it doesn’t matter what your services are like. I don’t care about your in-house coffee shop or way-cool Kid Zone. It doesn’t matter how many members you have. It doesn’t matter what is said from the pulpit.
What matters to people like me is how you live. I don’t want to hear about your Christianity. I want to SEE it. I want to see you continue your sponsorship of Boy Scouts — because, I’m sorry, but what church casts out CHILDREN?
Only a church full of haters.
People like me, those who teetered on the brink for years — we want a church that is nice to people. We want a church that welcomes those who live in the area. We want a church that doesn’t judge us. We want a church that represents Jesus — one that isn’t afraid of those who are different.
So there you go. I’ve given you the blueprint for salvaging your congregation and attracting new members.
Stop judging people. Stop hating them. Stop condemning them and pointing fingers.
Jesus accepted people — lepers, prostitutes and thieves — as they were. And so should we.
When Rick and I decided that we would elope to Big Bend National Park in 2001, I told him I didn’t want an engagement ring.
“Just pick out a wedding ring,” I told him. “Nothing big or clunky. Just something simple.”
Which Rick did, with the help of my best friend Amy Webb.
The first time I laid eyes on that ring was on our wedding day, when he slipped it on my finger. It was an unusual style, with a small diamond set so that you could see all of the stone.
The only time I didn’t wear it was during my two pregnancies, when my fingers got too swollen.
So when we left for our vacation — which we all now know went disastrously awry — I wore my ring as usual. During my time alone in the desert, the ring fell off my finger. I groped around, but couldn’t find it. I was too weak to really look for it anyway.
When my rescuers arrived, I told them I lost my wedding ring. Immediately, several people began poking around the dirt and underneath my tree. No ring.
I was found at 11:45 a.m. mountain time. Once at the hospital in El Paso, I spent hours in the ER. No one could decide where to put me. My temperature was going haywire and I was in acute renal failure. One doctor told me they also were worried about my heart, lungs and liver.
It was around 9 or 9:30 p.m. before they admitted me to the telemetry unit.
When Rick arrived, someone was in the midst of asking about any valuables I might have.
“Well, the only thing would be her wedding ring,” he said.
Our friend Claudia, the reporter sent to be with me and write about what had happened, had to break the news.
“She lost it,” Claudia told him, cringing at the fleeting sadness she saw on his face. But Rick recovered quickly. We were alive. We were together. That’s what mattered most.
But when we got home, I cried and cried over the loss of that ring. It’s a silly thing, I know, given what we went through and what could have happened.
But that ring represented to me not just love, but the trust we have in each other.
I trusted him to pick it out for me.
He trusted me enough to marry me, even though his last marriage ended in divorce.
He trusted me to be a stepmother, even though I’d only ever cared for a dog.
I trusted him on assignments together, even while driving through downtown Houston as glass fell from skyscrapers. (Hurricane Ike.)
Over the years, we dealt with all of the issues involving blended families. We had another two children together. We juggled weird jobs with weird hours.
Our home was always busy with people coming and going. Four kids. Their friends. Our friends.
All of our family still live in Texas. But we’ve cultivated another sort of family in the newsroom. Other couples. Singles. Rick’s famous for his venison chili parties. And Amy, remember all those nights the three of us spent watching Sex & the City? Rick grilled steak, offered commentary on Samantha’s antics and then went bed while we sat up late and gossiped?)
On one occasion, when Rick and I had an argument, I went over to Amy’s to vent. “But ya’ll are the perfect couple,” she said. “That’s how I’ve always thought of you.”
And we are. We fit. I’ve always known that I can depend on Rick. He knows I will always be here.
That ring represented all of that.
In the desert, we faced the ultimate test of our marriage when I told him to leave me.
Best-case scenario: Rick would make it out, find help and I would be rescued.
Next-best-case scenario: Rick would make it out and the kids would have at least one of their parents.
Worst-case scenario: We would have done our damndest to save ourselves and return to our children.
I can’t imagine what Rick felt when I told him to go. I can’t imagine having to make that choice. But he knew I trusted him to get out of there. And he believed me when I told him I would wait for him.
When we went back to the state park in November, a kind game warden accompanied us to my little mesquite tree — the “tree of life,” yet another game warden called it — and helped us look for my ring.
When we got home, the first thing our daughter asked was, “Did you find Mama’s ring?”
“No,” we told her. “But we tried.”
She went into her bedroom and returned a few minutes later.
“Hold out your hand,” she ordered. Then she put one of her own rings on my finger.
And once again, I cried.
For Christmas, Rick bought me a wedding band. It’s simple. Looks vintage. This time I picked it out.
So yeah, there’s a ring on that finger again. And I know that in the coming years, it, too, will come to represent the love and trust we share.
But sometimes, I still feel the sting of knowing that my first ring — THE ring — lies somewhere in the desert…
… just a few hours’ drive from where Rick first put it on my finger.