It was Wednesday, March 17, 1993. Not more than two months before, all 50 states celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day for the first time and then inaugurated one of the youngest Presidents in its history, Bill Clinton.
In Los Angeles, four of the five officers accused of beating Rodney King were on trial for the second time. Whitney Houston’s version of Dolly Parton’s country classic “I Will Always Love You” had just finished a 14-week run in the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 playlist.
The siege at Waco, Texas was 18 days old. On February 28, a gun battle had erupted between the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) and the Branch Davidians, a Seventh Day Adventist splinter group. Four BATF agents and eight Davidians died during the initial raid. FBI authorities had been in negotiations with them for nearly three weeks but the leader of the sect, David Koresh, and his followers at the Mount Carmel Center showed no signs of backing down.
The news reporters said there were women and children in the compound – Koresh had asked for milk for them.
I watched the events unfold on the nightly news, riveted to the story that gripped the nation.
I knew what those mothers were going through, under siege and trapped within a religious community that values conformity more than compassion.
I am ashamed to admit I don’t remember with any extreme precision what words were exchanged that night in Bishop Felix’s office there at the Orem Institute of Religion.
In fact, for many years I have struggled to remember if I even have the date correct. Was it March 16th or March 17th? Tuesday or Wednesday night?
A deep shame rises up from the seat of my soul. How does a mother not remember with unyielding certainty the exact date she last held her daughter in her arms? Intellectually I understand the psyche’s need to repress such events and I have worked tirelessly to forgive myself for this all too human reaction to the trauma of losing a child, but still…the question lingers.
I have carried a heavy burden knowing I may never be able to pinpoint the exact moment in time I last saw her, what she was wearing, or how she physically got from my arms to her adoptive mother’s.
Did she crawl to her? Did I hand her to her soon-to-be adoptive mother? What did I say to her as I stood to leave? What did I say to my daughter? I know what I felt as I am feeling it all again at the moment I write this, but what did I do? Did I place my lips to the downy soft curls on the crown of her nine-month old head to give her one last Judas-kiss? What did I do in those last moments with her?
Dear God, what did I do?
As I try to write about my last hour with my daughter there in Bishop Felix’s office, I can find very few landmarks to help me recall the order of how things unfolded.
Those minutes have stretched into an eternity and are a vast and empty desert, the salt flats of my life. Memories struggle to put down roots in the alkaline soil. For the past two decades, I have not allowed myself to linger in this parched and blinding landscape.
This is where the bones of my motherhood were picked clean and left to bleach white under the intense heat of the Great Basin sun.
When I do visit, I am like a driver at the Bonneville Speedway. I only catch brief flashes of landmarks as I race onward at the speed of sound.
The color of the thread in the hem of my pants – orange against a weathered blue. The small scrap of paper that has fallen underneath the edge of Bishop F.’s desk. The dusty leaves of the artificial plant on the shelf just behind him. The dense weave of the Prussian-blue fabric on the chairs. The small hairline crack in the cover for the electrical outlet to my left. The smudge of a hand print on the dark brown door frame.
The unimportant and trivial visual minutia surrounding me that night are the things I remember.
It is strange what the human mind will do to ensure our survival, and stranger yet is what trauma across the decades does to a person’s mind, how it distorts and plays with patterns, colors, sights, sounds and memories.
The fact I remember those things but cannot remember the more threatening event of discussing the plans to hand my daughter to these strangers – is because my amygdala took over, a residual survival trait left over from tens of thousands of years of ancestral women living in fear of annihilation.
I can not remember leaving. My mind will not allow me to go there, even two decades later.
My memory always skips ahead five miles to when I am in the parking lot of the North Orem LDS chapel where my sister Carolyn’s funeral was held three and 1/2 years before.
I sit slumped over the steering wheel, sobbing in deep guttural gasps while the windshield wipers struggle to push away the heavy slushy spring rain, thick with the chill of the Rockies in March.