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In times of crisis, we say what needs to be said

  • Published Thursday, May 26, 2011, at 12:08 a.m.

The audio from inside a Joplin, Mo., convenience store during Sunday's tornado is eerie and horrifying — trivialities ("Did you drop your cellphone?... I don't know if I left it in the car or what... I hope it's in the car") interrupted suddenly by roaring wind, breaking glass, cries and screams.

Then prayers.

And shouts of "I love you."

At one point, the man filming the scene says, "I love everyone, man. I love you."

Similarly, less than a month ago in a parking lot in North Carolina, someone filming an oncoming twister is calm at first —"I'd say it's coming straight toward me.... There goes the roof off a house" — until the wind sends a shower of debris toward his car.

"Hang on. I love you," he shouts into his cellphone.

They are poignant reminders of both the power of nature and the predictability of human nature, that instinctual drive in times of panic to say what needs to be said. To tell people you love that you love them — for the record.

As a wife, mother and working journalist, these are the stories that twist my stomach, the times when news gives way to raw emotion. I remember it from Andover in 1991, Haysville in 1999, Greensburg in 2007 — the prayers and phone calls before lines went dead.

I got a similar call from my husband once, as he was photographing what turned out to be a rain-wrapped tornado along Highway 54. He took shelter near a minivan full of kids, and I could hear their screams in the background. I was home with our kids, waiting for the sitter so I could get to work, keeping them calm and trying to keep Randy on the line. It was somehow both terrifying and comforting.

It happens not just in storms, but with all kinds of tragedies. The most heart-wrenching scene in "United 93," a film that chronicles events aboard one of the planes hijacked on Sept. 11, is when petrified passengers telephone their family members.

"I want to let you know that I love you," Mark Bingham tells his mother.

"Mom, we're being hijacked," Lizz Wanio tells hers. "I just called to say goodbye."

The scene was inspired by actual calls made that day nearly a decade ago. If you go online and search CeeCee Lyles, a flight attendant on United 93, you can still hear the message she left on her home answering machine.

"Please tell my children that I love them very much," she tells her husband, so calm and composed. "I hope to be able to see your face again, baby."

What a nightmare, I think. What pressure to make every word count, to give voice to a lifetime of feelings.

In the end, Lyles opted for the words she and a million other women say every morning when they leave the house, when they grab purses and lunches, jingle car keys, kiss husbands and children on the cheek:

"I love you. Bye."

Sometimes that's all you can say. And every day, as often as you can, it's all you need to.

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com.

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