On April 19, 1995, nothing seemed unusual in my world. I was in first grade. I went to school in the morning and Daniel Park and his cadre of cool kids, who had titled themselves “the FBI,” largely ignored me. This didn’t matter to me since Daniel, as the only other Korean in my class, was fated to be my future husband and would come around and fall in love with me eventually, I was sure. In the tradition of Montessori schools, I did not sit at a desk or follow a teacher’s lecture, but roamed my classroom freely. The room was lined with shelves, and the shelves carried learning tools of all sorts that I genuinely believed were games. I spent the morning counting beads, memorizing species of fish, and sorting blocks by shape.
Sometime before lunchtime Mrs. Olsen, the school principal, visited our classroom, the line between her eyebrows deep. She took my teacher, Mrs. Berger, for a conference in the coatroom. I peeked in: a few light sweaters and jackets hung on the hooks around the wall and backpacks in bright shades sat beneath them on the floor. Mrs. Berger’s curly brown hair bounced as she nodded vigorously. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, so I went back to my fish flashcards.
Within a few minutes a woman in a red sweatshirt came to collect Tammy. Anisha left soon after, and then, to my consternation, so did Daniel Park. By lunchtime half the class had gone home. At the time I had a strange fondness for carrots dipped in ketchup, and it was this I was enjoying when my father appeared in the doorway.
“Hi, Daddy,” I said, looking up at him. He seemed so severe in his black suit, his dark red tie. “Why are you here? Do you want some carrots?”
Daddy shook his head. “Come on, Narae,” he said gently. “Let’s go home.”
He packed me up, carefully re-wrapping my sandwich and putting it back in my lunch box, kneeling down to help me into a pink sweater. I held his hand on the way to the parking lot. He didn’t speak on the short drive home. We arrived to find my mother and older sister, Miyoung, in the family room. As my mother poured Miyoung a glass of juice, my father turned on the television, and I saw the ruins of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City.
“April, the cruelest month,” a dear friend would muse fifteen years later, after fifteen more revolutions of the earth around the sun brought me fifteen more tragedies, some crippling, some tiny. It was like that point on the earth’s orbit had a crick in it. April was simply ill-fated. I didn’t realize, watching the news, that this was the beginning of the tragedies, and I didn’t understand what I was seeing on the television. I was too young. Miyoung sat with me for a few minutes as my parents watched the grisly story unfurling. She didn’t ask anything, just sat quietly, and then got up and went to the back door.
“Where are you going?” asked our mother.
“Seeing if Yumi and Leo are home,” said Miyoung, referring to our neighbors at the end of the cul de sac.
“You should stay here,” Mom called, but Miyoung had already closed the door and left.
A few minutes later she let herself back in, reporting that Yumi and Leo weren’t home. She sat on the floor with her back against the back of the couch, facing the kitchen. I heard the thud, thud, thud of a rubber ball against the stereo cabinets. After a while the sound stopped. I looked over the couch and found that she had gone away again.
The woman on the news was talking rapidly and earnestly in front of a flock of emergency response vehicles. Firefighters in heavy hats and heavy suits hurried on- and off-screen; anxious onlookers hung back. I caught very little of what the woman with the microphone was saying.
“What happened?” I asked my father.
He rubbed his chin gravely. “Someone did something very bad, Narae.”
“Was there a fire?” I nodded to the shell of the building.
“There was a bomb.”
“Who did it?”
“That’s what they’re trying to figure out,” said Daddy. “It’s a senseless thing, blowing up a building… No one knows who did it.”
“Why did they do it?”
“No one knows that, either,” Daddy said at length.
At that point, the news cut to a policeman at a podium. I caught the words “FBI investigation” and scowled, thinking of Daniel Park’s secret little society.
That night I lay gazing at our dressers bedecked with stuffed animals and our paintings of ducklings on the wall by the safe glow of the nightlight. The door to our room opened quietly and my mother padded in. I rolled over to look at Miyoung, whose twin bed was flush to mine. She had pulled up the blankets almost over her head and was sniffling.
Mommy sat down on the bed next to her. I closed my eyes again and listened to the reassuring murmurs. Mommy stroked Miyoung’s hair and stretched out next to her.
When I opened my eyes again they were both gone and I went back to sleep.
The next morning I watched as Miyoung left for school. Although I had my own perfectly good Montessori uniform, replete with plaid jumper and red neck sash, I envied Miyoung’s: a white polo and a stylish looking skirt, also plaid. She had her violin with her.
As I did every Tuesday and Thursday, I asked, “Why are you taking your violin to school? Are you doing show and tell?”
“No,” Miyoung said patiently. “I have orchestra.”
“Why won’t Mommy let me bring my violin to school for show and tell?”
“Because you’ll break it,” Miyoung said. She was right.
At school, my classmates were abuzz with news of the bombing. “It was a crazy man,” said Aaron. “It was terrorists!” John said confidently. “We don’t know who did it yet,” I protested.
We sat on the floor at Mrs. Berger’s feet, chattering noisily. Ordinarily she would quiet us and we would discuss a topic of the day or learn a new game before standing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, but today we were much too excited to learn about contracting “do” and “not” into “don’t.”
“When are we going to find the bombers?” someone asked Mrs. Berger.
“The police are looking very hard and will probably find them very soon. They already have several suspects.”
“What are suspects?”
“Suspects are people who might know something about a crime or who might have done it. The police ask them questions and then can let them go or put them to trial.”
Finally Reem spoke up. She was a shy girl who had been my best friend in kindergarten, but then abandoned me to befriend another girl. I had forlornly grabbed a disparaging nickname from some children’s book and referred to them both as “bad hats.” After our kindergarten teacher made me apologize to them both, I resolved to ignore them as much as possible.
Poor Reem, it seemed, had not been kept abreast of the situation, and asked what everyone was talking about.
Mrs. Berger nodded understandingly and explained that there had been a bombing in Oklahoma City. “Almost a hundred people have died already,” she said. “And a lot of them were children.”
She took a deep breath. “Can you imagine? You’re a parent and you dropped off your child at daycare and your child is supposed to be safe and taken care of and then… someone hurts your child. Your child was supposed to be safe.”
She looked at us for a long moment, one hand resting on her stomach.
“Let’s stand for the Pledge of Allegiance,” she concluded.
The FBI investigation reached every corner of the country. A veritable army of detectives, policemen and investigators flooded out of Washington, DC to perform over 28,000 interviews. This deluge turned up evidence of such mass and scope that the only effective way to measure it was in tons. It would be the largest investigation the FBI ever performed.
Of course, it would take years for the investigation to reach these proportions, and in those early nights all we knew was that several suspects were in custody. I wondered to myself if the perpetrator would ever be caught.
I came home from school and found Miyoung had spread her homework all across the dining room table. She was only in third grade, but she toiled ahead of her prep school classmates, eager to stay at the top of her class; whether or not she had a lot of homework on any given day, she made sure it appeared that she did.
It was unusual that she was already home and studying when I came home from school; usually I had to spend two anxious hours at the window, waiting for the green sedan belonging to the middle school girl she carpooled with. “Why are you home early?” I asked.
“Bomb threat,” she said blandly, not looking up from her papers.
“What’s a bomb threat?”
“Someone called the school and said there was a bomb and we all got sent home early.”
I completely missed the crassness of the situation, that someone had made such a call a week after the bombing in Oklahoma. Miyoung had not. I begged her to come out back and play with me, and when she refused, I sat on the floor near her and fished a book out of her backpack and rolled onto my stomach to read it. We stayed there until late that evening, when Daddy arrived home from work and chuckled to see us so diligently focused.
A few days later, as I lounged around in the kitchen with a plate of celery sticks and a glob of peanut butter, Miyoung came home and slapped some drawings on the fridge. Previously it had alarmed me that she had stopped bringing home drawings from school, and I was worried that third grade would be a fun-killing array of desks and teacher monologues. So I should have been heartened by these drawings, but I wasn’t: she had scrawled the shell of a building in crayon browns and grays, gouged the hull of the façade with black scars. Mommy looked at the drawings, her mouth drawn in a tight line.
That evening she and Daddy retired to their room early. I could hear their voices, passionate but not angry, long into the night. Miyoung pulled the blankets over her head.
That Sunday Mommy took Miyoung and me to a Korean Catholic church that was almost an hour from our house. In hindsight, I have nothing but respect for her perseverance: right as we pulled into a shady parking spot under an oak tree outside the elegant church, I vomited all over my pretty white dress. Miyoung groaned and yelled in concern, asking if I was alright; my undeterred mother wiped me down with a roll of paper towels and marched me into the church anyway.
Miyoung was deposited in a Sunday School class for third graders, and I in another for first graders. I was delighted to find that there was another Narae in my class, but less delighted to receive indecipherable worksheets covered in boys’ names. The young, nervous-seeming teacher had to show me the Bible’s table of contents and guide me to the correct books. Everyone else knew how to do the exercise without her help. Then we sang Korean hymns. I tried to join in but then just swayed in place.
“How was it?” Mommy asked when she collected me after class. “Did you learn a lot?”
“I had fun,” I told her halfheartedly. The swaying had been pleasant enough.
She walked me up the hallway, where Miyoung was waiting for us in her classroom. Mommy and I hung outside the room for a moment, as Miyoung was having a discussion with her teacher. They were alone in the room.
“And that is why you should never, ever, ever be scared,” the teacher was explaining. “Because Jesus is looking after you, no matter what, and He loves you.”
Miyoung didn’t reply. I stared at the teacher’s back, sloped in earnestness, in a desperate attempt to communicate Jesus’ devotion to my sister. I stared at her glossy, tightly wound black bun. She was holding both of Miyoung’s hands in her own. Miyoung was looking at the floor.
She looked up and saw us. The teacher glanced back as well and saw us too. She turned back to Miyoung and gave her hands a small, emphatic shake.
“Remember that,” she said, and turned to us.
She and my mother had a rapid conversation in Korean and then Mommy whisked us away.
“Did you learn a lot?” Mommy asked Miyoung on the drive home.
Miyoung nodded but didn’t say anything.
“Did you?” Mommy repeated.
“Yes,” Miyoung said softly.
That night, I woke to find myself alone again.
Terry Nichols had turned himself in, and Timothy McVeigh was considered the primary suspect: so the perpetrators had been caught, after all. The incident hadn’t begun to fade from the news, and the possibility that it could disappear from public consciousness did not occur to me.
One afternoon our parents took us to the mall for what was supposed to be a pleasant diversion. I was excited. I loved going to the Disney store and staring rapturously at the shimmering princess dresses, the gossamer, the glitter. Miyoung seemed amenable enough, putting down whatever book she was reading and pliantly following us to the minivan.
We walked past brightly lit windows of dresses. We cooed over the chocolate strawberries in the Godiva window and we clamored for Cinnabon. Mommy held Miyoung’s hand and I trailed behind, holding Daddy’s. At Macy’s, Miyoung pointed out a silly-looking necktie to Mommy and Mommy laughed, tossing her head back. I marveled at how clear her laugh was. It had been a while since I had heard it. Daddy gave us a few pennies, first me and then Miyoung, to throw into the fountain. I wished for a Cinderella dress and threw in my fistful of coins. Miyoung slowly chose her wishes, judiciously, and then threw her pennies in one by one.
Daddy was smiling and Mommy was smiling and even Miyoung seemed pleased with what was going on when the skylights over the mall darkened and the thunder rolled in. This wasn’t the typical distant rumble of a cloud on the horizon; this was a deafening, heart-stopping boom. The storm must have been directly overhead. The clap was followed by several more.
The lights around us flickered and the skylights overhead grew rapidly darker. There were a few gasps, but Miyoung let out a loud, high wail. Her screams became higher and broke into violent sobs. She was grabbing at my mother even though she typically professed to be too old to be carried. My mother, in turn, was looking for me. I was only somewhat startled by the thunder, but because of Miyoung’s tumultuous response I felt I, too, should panic, and bolted in no particular direction. It took a minute before Daddy caught up to me, grabbed me by my denim jacket, and scooped me up. He gripped me tightly, asking me to calm down, please calm down, as I gasped for air. I took deep breaths, just like he asked, and calmed down.
The lights steadied. People around us looked skyward, listening with awe to the growing roar of the pounding rain. All I could look at was Miyoung. Mommy had finally picked her up, and her face was buried in Mommy’s shoulder. She was shaking, completely, viscerally shaking. She shook all the way home.
When I turned fourteen, I began to wonder: How did Mom know to come to Miyoung at night? If Miyoung had been crying loudly enough for Mom to hear, it would have been loud enough to wake me up. If she hadn’t been crying loudly enough to wake me up, then how could Mom have known to come to our room?
I once asked Miyoung about it.
“Half the time I just went to Mom and Dad’s room,” she admitted.
“But there were lots of nights she came to us before you went to her.”
“Mom picked up on a lot more than we realized. She knew something was wrong and something told her to come visit us.”
“So she had some sort of motherhood-spider-sense?”
“I don’t think it was that clear, even to her,” Miyoung clarified. “Probably during the day she would subconsciously pick up on my distress signals, and then at night, when she relaxed, her subconscious would bring it to the front of her mind and she’d come check on me.”
“Possible and likely,” I said.
Inwardly, I continued attributing it to the magic of motherly intuition. I didn’t see then that the bags under my mother’s eyes had deepened, didn’t notice that for the next five years she would drag Miyoung to myriad other churches, even a few psychiatrists – as though medicine could dare to compete with faith. It took me years to understand that my mother was scrambling to give Miyoung certainty, reassurance, a foothold that she didn’t have herself.
We don’t talk about it much. We try not to. Spring after spring Miyoung disappeared farther into her books. Sometimes they weren’t even hers: she was as content with my father’s discarded economics textbooks as she was with Harry Potter. My mother tried harder every year to break through to her, but despite this, every year, Miyoung closed a little more. Books began to appear on the bookshelf: “Speaking To Your Adolescent.” “Troubled Teens.” “Through The Storm: Unconditionally Loving Your Child.” Miyoung read them all and never asked why or how they got there.
I can’t imagine the inescapable and aching sea of loneliness my sister must have had within her. I can’t fathom the shores she stood on, the sadness moving in front of her without cease. I have a faint idea of the questions she had. They are simple: Why are people cruel? Why do people die? Why do people kill? There were no straightforward answers, so she made her own. When she wasn’t looking I took the stash of pills she had amassed. It was terrifying: handfuls of smooth, glistening capsules in lots of charming pastels. Why do people die? Because it’s less painful than living. That night, when my parents got home, I tearfully turned over my find. Miyoung went away to the hospital for a week.
She never accused me of betraying her, and I also refrained, albeit reluctantly. We don’t talk about it.
So it made headlines when Timothy McVeigh was charged with the bombing. He briefly resurfaced in the media as he fixated throughout his 1997 trial on his venomous anti-government ideology and the “collateral damage” that had, he said, been worth the carnage he inflicted on the federal offices in the Murrah Building. During his execution by lethal injection in 2001, a brother of one of the casualties of the bombing screamed at him to burn in hell.
I, too, grew up, and as I read the stories of McVeigh’s trial and execution, the horrors of April 19th filtered back to me. Like a hand-me-down tragedy, the event was faded and stretched in my perception. I had my memories of Mrs. Berger’s stilted explanation, of Miyoung’s crooked drawings and the hours in front of the news channel. I had the photos of the destruction that the newspaper printed in full color spreads across columns and columns.
I also had my memories of Miyoung’s sleepless and tearful nights. It took two decades for me to put the memories side by side.
Vienna, Austria, August 2009: as my college friends reveled in a local bar, I snuck back to our hotel. We had come to experience the music, the history, the culture, the bars – mostly the bars. Miyoung had flown in from London, where she was working, to visit with us. Unlike my inebriated friends, I wasn’t enjoying the buoying effects of jetlag and was ready to sleep forever, so I headed back to our hotel. Miyoung had already gone to bed earlier that evening, and I tried to open the door quietly so as not to alarm her.
In the moment before she started, I saw what my mother must have seen night after night: Miyoung, curled up in bed with the blankets pulled almost over her head, afraid, vulnerable, and peaceful.
She jumped up and gasped. I quickly hurried in and closed the door and rushed to apologize: it’s just me, shh, it’s just me, don’t worry, I’m sorry, go back to sleep, I’m sorry.
She floundered until she recognized me, then leaned back against the headboard and sank back slowly. “Sorry,” she murmured, wiping the tears from her cheeks. “I just… had a bad dream.”
“I know,” I said quietly.
Alexandria Narae Young is a resident of Washington, DC and an alumna of Wellesley College. She writes about racial identity, gender relations, multiculturalism, mental health, and orientation. She is working on her first novel, a post-apocalyptic coming of age story. By day she enjoys a career as an accountant.