40, 20, stuck in the middle

20 Apr

1995

1995

I got a call a few days ago from a student reporter at OU’s Oklahoma Daily newspaper. I don’t ever turn down those interviews; I worked there for four years in college and I’ll always credit the paper with giving me my career start. The interviews never take very long (student reporters, for whatever reason, have three-to-four questions and that’s always it; never more, never a longer conversation than that), and they’re always cordial and flattering.

I’ve become accustomed to getting that call before landmark anniversaries of April 19, 1995, the day of the Oklahoma City bombing. At five years, 10 years, 15, I’m pretty sure I did an identical interview about what it was like to be a student reporter in the middle of such a giant story. But the questions are less urgent now, especially the ones about not having had Internet at the time. It seems like ancient history now, a world without a live feed for everyone, and maybe it is.

The second or third question in the interview started with, “Most of our students either weren’t born yet in 1995 or were only a year or two old” and that stopped me cold. Yes. Of course. That makes total sense. This was 20 years ago. These students are 18, 19, 20, 21. They weren’t here or they weren’t aware of it as it was happening. Total sense, but it blindsided me anyway. We’ve hit that point, have we?

April 19, 1995 was only two weeks after my 20th birthday. The 20th anniversary, on Sunday, was two weeks after my 40th and the bombing itself is now right at the midpoint of my life. It’s a marker in so many ways, of change and sudden, unwanted maturation and of how little I knew that I had to learn very quickly.

And I’ve mostly been avoiding that marker for a lot of years, mostly out of guilt. Not survivor’s guilt; I was not close enough to the tragedy to claim it as anything close to my own. But something like reporter’s guilt. The sense that once the stories were published, this was no longer my story to tell or share anymore. The story belonged to the families and to the reporters who stayed in Oklahoma and continued covering the trials and memorials and anniversaries.

It belonged to people like my friend Carla Wade, who is both a television reporter and someone who lost her father in the bombing and has written poignantly about the ways it destroyed parts of her life. She is a survivor. I was a distant bystander.

Even writing about it now feels weird and selfish. After it happened and I wrote about it, I got a series of internships that I’m positive were landed because of that reporting. Part of me has always felt strange about that, on the way 168 deaths opened career paths for me. Sometimes I feel gross for it and wonder if I would have earned those opportunities without the bombing coverage. It’s the same twinge I get when I wonder if affirmative action allowed my unusual name and brown skin color to get me into doors that I wouldn’t have been good enough to pass through otherwise. It’s not a good feeling to carry around, so I mostly don’t think about it. Or look back.

Maybe I should. I’ve never been to the memorial in Oklahoma City, though I’ve been back there a few times over the years. The closest I’ve come was visiting the 9/11 Museum in New York last year, where I got a weird feeling of déjà vu. First responders, fire, death, loss, reflection. The scale and the reasons were different, but the despair and horror identical. It’s possible to live with memories and feelings and to recognize how much of yourself was shaped by an event without actually processing it and to feel like you have no right to owning any of your role in it at all.