From tragedy and unspeakable pain often comes the realization that courage and sheer determination can finally force their way through the chaos. That is what I have witnessed in the wake of the shooting of my colleague, Congresswoman Gabby Giffords.
There were those initial moments of panic and fear that the assailant had succeeded in his mission to take her life. The joy that she had made it through those first hours was accompanied with the haunting uncertainty of what the injuries would mean for her future. This woman, my friend, a public servant, what would she be able to know, learn and accomplish in the future? But over the months she has proven herself to be a fighter of epic proportions. I have watched her struggle toward recovery with the same kind of focus I often saw as she fought for her constituents.
Something else has gripped me, too. In the moments following the shooting and in the year that has followed, I have watched, on a macroscopic level, our nation pull together to support her in her personal battle. Differences in political beliefs were quickly suspended as our country, with one voice, said, "We are with you."
I saw it happen, too, this week, in the smaller world of Congress. Instead of focusing on differences, spin and negativity, Republicans and Democrats alike joined together on the House floor to honor Gabby and to say goodbye in the wake of her resignation. To say thank you to a person, and a politician, we admire and respect. I saw my Democratic colleagues crying. I saw my Republican colleagues crying. And in a moment I will never forget, I heard one Representative ask another if he was okay and if there was anything he needed. I have never heard these two men speak kindly to or of each other. But there they were, in the wake of tragedy, putting political dislikes aside to be kind, caring ... and human.
I immediately flashed back to two other pivotal times in my life when I saw this happen.
I was asleep in the pre-dawn hours of November 29, 1988, when I heard a noise so loud it literally jolted me out of bed. I thought I was experiencing some sort of weather event. But soon my telephone rang and it was an officer. I was Mayor Pro Tem of Kansas City at the time and the Mayor was out of town. I was soon escorted from my home and briefed on what had happened.
There had been a horrific explosion at a construction site. Six Kansas City firefighters had died. I was taken to the excavation site near 87th Street, which would later become the Bruce R. Watkins Drive to see the damage. I then went with law enforcement officers to the homes of the firefighters to tell family members someone they dearly loved had died in the line of duty.
Immediately, within the city and throughout surrounding areas, the outpouring of love and unity was overwhelming. This was at a time when there were differences and disagreements over issues surrounding work agreements, contracts and the like. But none of that mattered. We pulled together. We recognized there was something much bigger happening.
Many years later, the general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs, Carl Peterson, asked me to deliver the pre-game prayer at Arrowhead Stadium on the weekend following the World Trade Center attacks. NFL Commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, had postponed and rescheduled more than a dozen games after 9/11. That following weekend the Chiefs faced the New York Giants. If you are not familiar with Chiefs fans, and I think we all are, their enthusiasm, zeal and dedication to the team are virtually unmatched. Not often and not with many fans, but sometimes, that fervor turns into a display of bad sportsmanship between visiting fans, especially when a rival team comes to town. But at this game my eyes were glued to the stands during the game and the parking lots following the game. I watched as total strangers gave each other hugs, helped visitors find their cars, and stood together, both physically and in spirit, with fellow human beings who were hurting.
As I stood on the House floor this week and watched the ceremony for Gabby and thought of these two other events in my lifetime, I couldn't help but wonder why we only seem to find our better selves in the face of disaster. No doubt there are those who exhibit this type of kindness all of the time. But as a collective body, a group, and a nation, often we seem to get sidetracked, stalled and stereotyped by our differences in politics, race and religion. But on this day, Republicans and Democrats, men and women, all cried together. I can't help but wonder what kind of a world we would live in if we set negativity aside ... and reached for triumph each day, instead of waiting for tragedy.