Monday, June 23, 2014

A Life-Changing Event

When I was 11 years old, I experienced a terrifying event that changed my life forever. The truth is, it changed me forever. I didn't realize until just recently how significant this incident has really been in shaping my life--my values and priorities and beliefs--until I had a unique opportunity to relive it in an extraordinary way this past week.

Why on earth would I want to relive a terrifying event, you might ask? It's a valid question, and one I posed to myself a few times, I must admit, but in the end, I experienced some of the sweetest, most meaningful moments with my children and husband--and with other survivors, too--that I've ever experienced, and I wouldn't trade those moments for anything.

On May 16, 1986 our elementary school in the small rural town of Cokeville, Wyoming was held hostage by a man and his wife, who gathered the whole school into one classroom and held us captive with a bomb for nearly three hours. He demanded $2 million for each person in the room. There were 154 of us in all, including students, teachers, a couple of parents, a UPS driver and even a kindergarten job interviewee. His plan was to collect the money, blow us all up and then rule us in what he called a "brave new world." We were in a very serious predicament because this guy never planned on leaving that classroom alive, which meant he didn't care to negotiate. What made our situation even more grave was that he had a string attached from his wrist to the bomb so that if anything happened to him and that string was pulled, the bomb would detonate. It looked like there was no way we were ever going to survive or live to see another day.

This is a replica of the bomb--it looked very much like this. 

That's when a miracle happened. Not just one miracle--but a series of miracles. Angels entered the classroom, surrounded the bomb right before that string was accidentally pulled, and forced the blast upward, instead of outward. All 154 people made it out alive. Although many children were burned or treated for smoke inhalation, only our captors lost their lives that day. It was an impossible outcome.

Of course this incident left many scars, some physical but most emotional. It's just not easy to recover from the trauma of someone threatening for three long hours to take away your life with a shopping cart full of explosives. Every time you close your eyes, you see this man's evil grin; you see the line of rifles and guns along the wall under the chalkboard; you see the details of the homemade bomb; you smell the gasoline; and you feel the gut wrenching fear that your life seems to be in the hands of a mad man, and it's pretty hard to recover from. For some, it would take months and years; for others, much longer.

That's what leads me to this past week. Actually, I guess I had better start a little earlier than that. This past summer we hard news that the film director T.C. Christensen (director of 17 Miracles and Ephraim's Rescue) was thinking of making a film about this event. Some survivors were not happy about this news, while others of us felt hopeful this would be an opportunity to tell the story in the right way and share the miracles of that day. We even thought perhaps it would be an avenue of healing for those who were still struggling with deep emotional scars.

In an effort to reach out to survivors and their families, T.C. and his producer, Ron Tanner, did something extraordinary, something I've never known to be done in the film industry before--they invited the children or grandchildren of the survivors to be extras in the film. Their hope was to involve anyone who wanted to be involved and to reach out in empathy and compassion to those who had gone through this ordeal all those years ago. It was a remarkable invitation.

T.C. Christensen, photo by Sally Meyer

At first I wondered how much our family should be involved. There were the obvious reasons, of course, the first being that the film would be very scary and I wondered how my young children would feel being in scenes that replayed such a terrifying event. But, I also worried about how other survivors who are still struggling with coping with the after-effects of that day would feel about my children being in the limelight (even though they were just extras, not main characters) in a movie that would be difficult for them to watch, if they chose to watch it at all. I didn't want them to misunderstand my intentions or the fact that my heart has deep empathy for the pain they still suffer, even though I have healed in most ways. In the end, I decided to present the opportunity to my children and allow them to choose. I was surprised when they all whole-heatedly wanted to participate.

photo by Sally Meyer

photo by Sally Meyer

photo by Sally Meyer

Regyn and Boston had the most opportunity to be involved because they are the right age--seven and nine. I realized at one point that Boston is exactly the age my little brother was when we were in that school together all those years ago. When a teacher was shoving him through a window in one of the scenes, saying, "It's going to be OK. Come to me!", my throat caught in my chest and I had to choke back tears, realizing that's just what had happened.

photo by Sally Meyer
That wasn't the only scene that caught me off guard. Both Regyn and Boston were in multiple scenes that brought back vivid memories of that day: when the lady walked around to each classroom, telling us to go to the 1st grade classroom because there was a surprise there; when the man shoots his wife, who is on fire after the bomb explodes right in front of her; when the children are fleeing the school after the bomb explodes.

photo by Sally Meyer
There were times it was almost too difficult to watch. The emotions of that day would return in a flash and catch me completely off guard, and I would find myself glancing over to my children, wondering if they felt even a tinge of what I was feeling, worried this might be too much for them. Unbelievably, it never was. They seemed to be able to capture the solemnity of the event, without internalizing the fear and terror.

photo by Sally Meyer

I really wondered if Boston was mature enough to handle 12 hours a day filming, especially such mature scenes. He did amazing! Some of the other children lost their edge at times and had to be asked to leave, but he was always following directions and staying focused. He looks so serious in these photos. I wish I could have a window to his soul and know what he was thinking.

photo by Sally Meyer

photo by Sally Meyer

This is in between "takes" when the children are all lying on the ground because the bomb has just gone off. Regyn thought it was pretty cool that they had to mess up her braids and put fake scrapes on her and fake ash. It's always the little things.:)

photo by Sally Meyer

photo by Sally Meyer

This is one of the only times Regyn actually came out of character to give a thumbs up. When she was acting in a scene, she kept true to the part she was playing the whole time. When she was interviewed by a reporter, she told the reporter she liked to pretend she was me going through the event. That was very touching to me.

photo by Sally Meyer

Regyn and Boston also made some very dear friends during the week. Regyn was thrilled to meet some of the children who acted in Christmas Oranges and Christmas For a Dollar. They hit it off immediately, and she felt like a true movie star!:)

Boston did one scene over so many times, he felt a huge connection to the woman playing his protector in the scene, helping him escape out of the building. This woman just happens to be from Cokeville herself, and it was so sweet how they connected with each other.

The film crew was also very friendly and so great to work with. This guy, Bob Conder, was always so funny and easy-going. The kids loved him!

After one very long day of filming, they decided to film the high school scene. Hallee and Nate were in this one, and it was a very special experience, one I hope none of us ever forget. They actually pulled me into this scene as well. It's not a very long scene, but it's an important one. The high school principal comes into the gymnasium where the whole school is gathered, tells everyone they aren't allowed on elementary school grounds but there is something they can do. Then she says she may get fired for this, but whoever wants to can join her in a prayer. That's when everyone in the entire gym kneels to pray. So simple, but so powerful. When the scene was finished, there was not a dry eye in the whole room, including the crew and the parents watching. I only wish I had pictures, but since I was in the scene, I couldn't take any.

I talked with my children after this experience, hoping they felt something special. After all, we had all had to pretend our siblings or children were being held hostage in an elementary school and we were praying they would be saved. They both said how special it was to be there and do that. I hope they never forget it. I work constantly as a mother to help my children understand how important it is to treat each other like today is their last day. I've told them, "You just never know what could happen, so you have to love each other like you may never see each other again. Forgive each other, be patient with each other, be kind to each other, because you're so lucky to have each other." I hoped this experience helped them internalize that even more and realize how heartbroken they really would be if they lost one of their siblings.

Friday was another unique experience. Everyone from Cokeville was invited to come to be in a scene. Very few actually responded, but I think those who came were glad they did. We had to pretend we were the townspeople and had just found out about the hostage situation. We gathered outside the school, comforting each other and asking questions. Dan and I were in these scenes together, and it was neat to do that with him. The last scene of the day, we were asked to simply hold each other and cry as we would if this had actually happened. They were filming each set of people individually so the filming lasted about four minutes, which is a very long time to think about a tragedy and cry and not look at the camera. It was a poignant experience for me now that I am a mother of five children (which is what my mother was at the time) to stand there with my husband and hold each other, crying and praying as if our own children were inside an elementary school being held hostage. All kinds of emotions swept through me during those four minutes. I was so glad Dan was there to hold me.

By the end of the week, I was physically and especially emotionally exhausted, but mostly, I was so grateful for what our family had experienced together. A newspaper reporter from the Salt Lake Tribune had interviewed me, along with a couple of other survivors, asking us why we would ever put our children through what we had gone through. It was difficult to explain, but I loved what Kamron Wixom, another survivor said. It was something like, "Sometimes you have to feel the fear and the other bad emotions to appreciate and understand the blessings and the miracles."

Here is a picture of Kamron. He had a chance to play a paramedic in the movie.
By the way, another amazing part of the week was reconnecting with other survivors. Many of these people I have not kept in close contact with over the past 28 years. We've all moved on with our lives and not kept in touch, but when we saw each other again and began to talk, it was a pretty incredible experience. I think when you go through a life-changing experience with people, you are always connected with them in a special way, regardless of other differences. I truly love these people and feel honored to be numbered as one of them.

Here are just a few that came, with their children (photo by Sally Meyer).
As fate would have it, I had agreed to speak at a Youth Conference fireside in Taylorsville, UT about miracles, sharing the events of May 16th, just yesterday, two days after the filming. I have spoken at firesides many times over the years, but it was a unique experience to speak when I felt like I had just relived the incident over the past week. The other rare opportunity was that I was speaking with George Throckmorton, a man who had worked as the lead Forensic Investigator in the Western U.S. for forty years, solving high profile cases, such as the Mark Hoffman case during that time. He had simply heard of the Cokeville incident a few years after it had occurred and when he found out the facts, he couldn't believe what had happened. Being a forensic expert, he was fascinated by the aspects of the bomb and how it didn't blow up and kill us all, so he began doing firesides about it.

Unfortunately, Nate took this picture and seems to have missed the main focus:)
 It never ceases to amaze me that no matter how many times I share the story of what happened that day so many years ago, there is something so special about it. People are drawn to it because it is a story of hope and faith and miracles--and it really happened! I know it is still hard for some survivors to talk about--or even think about--but I hope that will change some day. I hope they too can arrive at a point where they feel peace, where the events of that day won't haunt them anymore, and where they can feel, as I do, immense gratitude and happiness for their lives and all the good that has happened since then. I know it doesn't happen overnight, but one day at a time. Maybe this movie will be one step in the healing process for some. That is my hope.

I know that for me, it added another layer of healing to my own soul, healing I didn't even know I needed. It also reminded me once again of how much I have to be grateful for--my life and my family and so much more. I guess that's why to me, this story is one the world needs to hear. It's a story that reminds us that God is real and that He answers the prayers of His children and that angels do help to rescue us when we need it.

I remember praying earnestly to God in that classroom that day, pleading for Him to save us, and promising Him that I would do my best to follow Him if He did. I have certainly made tons of mistakes since that promise, but I've never forgotten it. It has been a driving force in my life, constantly reminding me of what really matters, especially at times when the world seems to get me a little sidetracked. That's why May 16th, 1986 changed me forever--because I realized my life was not my own and that I owed everything to God who saved us that day.

I think Nate may have summed it up best in his journal entry he wrote just tonight and shared with me:
"My mom did a great job at the fireside and helped me realize that I am a miracle, she is a miracle, my whole family is a miracle because of what happened that day on May 16, 1986."

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Movin' On Up

My goodness, I don't think I have ever been so busy! I have longed to sit and write about everything going on, but already I have been getting up at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning and going to bed past midnight each night, so fitting time in to record our lives right now has just not been an option. Finally, today I have a small window of time to breathe, so here I am.

Four weeks ago our renters moved out. I am so very, very sad that I do not have a picture of the Wardens to keep forever. It's actually not that I didn't try--Smadi (the mother of the family) is simply a very particular woman and never felt she looked good enough to let me snap one of her or her family. I almost did it anyway, but then decided to be respectful of her wishes; thus, no picture. But, this dear family became such an integral part of our lives for nearly three years. Can you believe that? Three years!

Little did we know when we first welcomed this family from Alaska into our home to rent our upstairs for a year that it would turn into two years and nine months. Nor could we foresee that we would come to love this family, to serve them at times when they needed it and to learn from them. They were sort of a unique family. Paul was originally from Davis County and grew up here, but his wife, Smadi, was from Israel and grew up in very different circumstances. They had three boys (one of them was born while living here), and my kids adored their boys.

I remember when we first made the decision to move downstairs and rent our upstairs. Everyone thought we were crazy. I'm sure it seemed like we were. It made me realize how little we really know about the integral pieces of people's lives. We knew without any doubt that we were doing exactly what we needed to do at the time. We had just adopted Berkley and needed a plan to pay off the very large loan we had had to take out to make that happen. It had been a huge step of faith to move forward with an adoption, knowing we really didn't have the finances to do it, but also knowing it was absolutely what we were supposed to do. I remember telling Dan, "I don't know how we will pay off that loan and make things work, but I know that this baby is supposed to be in our family, and so I know the Lord will help us figure things out." And He did.

After praying and praying for answers, one night, while I was up in the middle of the night feeding our precious new baby, praying and pondering possible solutions, the answer came as clear as a bell. I knew exactly what we needed to do. I talked with Daniel the next day, and he agreed. The miracle to me, though, was when we approached our four other children and explained to them that we would need to move to our basement so that we could rent the main part of our home to strangers. We told them we would all have to sacrifice for a while so Berkley could be part of our family. There was never a complaint, only complete support. And when we asked who would be willing to fast and pray for a family to rent our home, they all participated. It was so humbling to me! That very night after we fasted the Wardens called.

So, we finished the last parts of our basement and moved down. It's funny to me now to think of how much smaller we were three years ago--literally! Berkley was a little five pound baby, and my other children were just smaller than they are now. We have grown so much in the nearly three years we've occupied our downstairs. We did without a dishwasher and more than one bathroom (which was hardest of all!). We sold nearly half of our belongings in a huge yard sale and learned to simplify our lives. It really was wonderful in so many ways! I learned I didn't need a huge house or a lot of things. I learned it was nice taking care of a smaller space for a while. I learned how nice it was to have our family so close (most of the time:). I learned how wonderful it feels to pay off debt!

When the year was over and the adoption was paid off, our renters wanted to stay longer. We couldn't believe how quickly the time had flown by. We decided we were fine downstairs and thought it would be good to pay off other debt now as well, so we told them they could stay. To get the kids motivated, we hung up a large sign in their bedroom that had the loan amount of our car (Honda Pilot) on it. Each time we made a large payment on it from the rent money, we would let them cut off some of the amount. It was always very exciting!

When we finally paid the whole car loan off, we celebrated by going to Golden Corral, something we NEVER do! The kids thought they had died and gone to heaven. It's funny how little things can mean so much. It was a fun goal to meet together as a family.

After that second year had passed, I was beginning to feel a desire to have more space. Berkley was now out of her crib and our kids were starting to outgrow the space we had, not to mention I was teaching preschool in our basement as well. I had to be pretty creative at times with our room arrangements, I tell you. I was so grateful to my older kids for not complaining about sharing rooms, especially Hallee and Nate, who were definitely old enough to demand some privacy.

Hallee, Nate, Regyn and Boston all shared one room--it was pretty crowded.

This is how they looked sleeping a lot of nights.

Berkley had her own very small room, which also was wall-to-wall furniture. 
We talked it over and finally decided we would give our renters one more year. One more year! I'm not going to lie--it seemed like an eternity at this point. I was feeling so cramped. I think it was the clutter I saw everywhere and just simply not having a place for things anymore. When winter came, I thought I would go mad. Here is just one example of what I mean--no space for snow clothes, that's for sure:

The last year was definitely the hardest. One bathroom for seven of us seemed inadequate a lot of the time, and I felt like I would burst at the seams sometimes just because I needed some space--somewhere I could think, some place I could go and not see clutter and stuff and just breathe. When May 15th came, and the renters handed us the keys to our house, I could hardly believe we would have all that space again. I wondered what it would really feel like. I opened the door and just walked around our empty upstairs, and I nearly cried. That probably sounds so silly and ridiculous, but after sacrificing for nearly three years, I just couldn't help but be grateful for what we would have again. It was so much different than I thought it would be. I thought it would be all about the fabulous kitchen and the three bathrooms and such, but that wasn't it at all in the end.

When we tore the wall down (we had built a wall at the top of the stairs for privacy) and it was just our family again living in our home, I realized how wonderful it was to just be US. We decided to paint a lot of rooms upstairs and replace some flooring, so we didn't actually move upstairs for nearly three weeks. I distinctly remember lying in my bed one morning after the wall had come down and hearing footsteps above me like usual, but when I realized they were our footsteps, instead of another family's, I literally got choked up. I hadn't realized how hard it had really been to share our space constantly with five other people, and when it could just be us again, that felt so intimate and so good. I also felt like I had been set free, which is another feeling I hadn't expected. It was like I had been a caged bird or something, but I guess there is just something about owning a space you couldn't ever live in or be in or go in without someone else's permission that just makes you feel so confined. When we could walk into the front door of our own home, it felt so amazing! I'm sure this all seems quite hard to understand, but I had to record this because I don't want to forget these feelings. I don't want to forget this experience and what it has taught me.

Now, for the past month, we have all worked very hard to make our home OURS again. It was so hard for me for the first couple of weeks to walk upstairs and notice it still smelled like the Wardens (not that they smelled bad--they didn't); the fact that it wasn't "our smell" in our home was so hard for me. I wanted our home to be ours again in every way. So, the kids worked right beside me every day they could to help me make it our home again.

I forgot to take "before" pictures of most of the rooms, but here are a few of the outcomes:

Hallee's Room:

Nate's Room (now that everyone has moved out):

Regyn's room (man, I wish I would have remembered a "before" picture on this one--it was SO different):

Boston's room:

Berkley's Room:

My bedroom: Before . . and After

The Living Room:

I stenciled that far wall where the curtains are, and that was a chore, let me tell you!

At the end of it all, I gathered the children together and we talked about our home and the changes we had made. And then we talked about what really made our home special, things that had nothing to do with paint or carpet or wall hangings or bed spreads. We talked about how to have the spirit in our home so that our home would be a safe place, a place where we would always want to be and even a place where our friends would want to be. We talked about loving and serving and forgiving each other better and more. I looked around at these children of mine, and I looked at Berkley, who was the cause of this whole scheme in the first place, and I felt so much love for each one of them and for her.

Was it worth it to live in our basement for two years and nine months? Absolutely!! It was an experience we will never forget, one we will always be grateful for. The Lord blessed us so much during that time. Am I glad it is over? Absolutely! I would be lying if I answered differently. It was time to get our home and our lives back. It was time to just be our family again and to have some room to breathe and grow and share again. I don't know if everyone is as sentimental about their homes as I am, but to me, a home becomes part of a family; at least ours has. I am so grateful for this home. It is a sacred place to me--a place of learning and love and mistakes and growth and so much more.

It feels great to finally have "moved on up." Now I hope our home will be a place where we welcome friends, family and guests for many years to come and a place where our own family learns to love each other and the Lord. That's what homes are all about.