My sister named the bear Junior. The blue ribbon wrapped around its neck whipped in the wind as we drove home from school with open car windows on a warm April day. The bear’s cozy white coat absorbed the hot breeze and its soft black eyes beckoned to me calmly. Junior’s eyes said, “Covet me, I should be yours,” although I was in first grade and only the second graders – my sister included – received the gift of the white bear at school that day. Every time I reached across the bench seat for the bear, to pet it, to feel its fluffy coat, my sister pulled the bear closer to herself and reminded me to whom the bear belonged, thus foreshadowing the fights my mother would have to break up in the days to come: My sister claiming the bear which in all actually was rightfully hers while I refused to stop trying to make it mine.
The heavy breeze that carried my jealousy through the car that afternoon was the same breeze that would rustle my blue dress a few days later when my mother took us downtown to see the nine-story Alfred P. Murrah building with its front half blown off. Industrial-sized spotlights illuminated the exposed organs of a concrete structure half melted away. Mounds of rubble barricaded the building’s naked first and second stories and caution tape kept people at a safe distance. Shattered glass, woodchips, concrete splinters, scraps of fabric, shredded paper and other debris still covered the sidewalk as my family and I got closer. The surrounding buildings – their red brick walls seared black – all had glassless windows revealing deserted office spaces, recreational centers and houses of worship. My mother looked down at my sister and me and told us we needed to see this but she didn’t tell us that there were still bodies buried in the rubble. She told us that we needed to understand that something horrible had happened here, something that would be a part of history, but I only understood that 168 was a large number, not the magnitude of grief it held.
I had heard that Junior was a gift to all Orvis Risner second graders in honor of my sister’s classmate who had lost her father, but I didn’t put two and two together, that her father had been killed in the bombing of the building that stood right in front of me. I didn’t really understand why my mother thought it fitting that my sister brought Junior along on this outing. All I understood was an eerie presence surrounded downtown. I didn’t know to give it the name of death, loss, terror, terrorism; I only knew my own desire to hold Junior close to me, to have him comfort me from the eerie, to be mine, not my sister’s.
During the following weeks, my mother, in the name of sharing, allowed me to keep Junior in my room on Sunday nights. Junior would lie next to me in bed, my nightlight brightening his cuddly attributes. Having him for the night is what I looked forward to during the week. Sunday would come, my mother would steer us away from the evening news with a trip to the grocery store and then we’d go home and Junior was mine for the next nine-or-so hours. On one Sunday, when my sister would soon be forced to share her bear, she refused to share her seat in the shopping cart basket, forcing me to walk along its side while she single-handedly enjoyed the adventures that went on inside the basket on wheels. As a way of pouting, I wandered away from the shopping cart where there was a table set up with stacks of the same book. The boy on the cover looked about my age and held a candle and a tiny American flag. I flipped through the books pages’ and first noticed a picture of the half-blown building my mother had taken me to see about a month prior. I continued to survey the book, my skin tingling as I saw images of a woman on the ground, her arms sprawled out, her eyes rolled to the back of her head and her face and arms covered in thick red blood. Firefighters bent over her, and also over a man with a brace around his neck bleeding severely from his head, his white shirt stained red. Another firefighter held a limp baby girl in his hands. I felt hollow. Mortified. My mother grabbed the book away from me. I couldn’t stop asking questions on the ride home. She tried to explain.
That night I didn’t let Junior sleep next to me. I placed him by my door. My nightlight seemed to project the images of the book onto Junior’s white coat. I put him in my closet. I hid him under my desk. I buried him in my laundry hamper. I finally understood what he represented, and every time I looked at him I was overwhelmed. I couldn’t sleep, no matter where I hid him. I eventually went to my mother’s room and crawled into her bed. I knew then I would never ask for Junior again. I lay on her arm and felt her chest move in and out. I listened to my own breath as it came quick and heavy.