It’s still early in the season, but the delicate, white buds of the Bradford Pear tree in my front yard are starting to peek out. It happens every spring, but it still surprises me. I’ll be walking out to get the paper or the mail, or pulling out of my driveway and the buds will catch my eye. And I always think, “Welcome back, Baylee!”
I know Baylee in the way most people know Baylee – through a photo. Baylee Almon was the limp baby with tiny, white socks, who was carried by a firefighter away from the Alfred Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. She was one year and one day old when she died.
I remember that night. I was hundreds of miles away from Oklahoma. The bombing was on my television, not in my Ohio backyard. But it still threw me over a cliff. This was before Columbine, when the toll was so heavy we all staggered. And it was before September 11th, the terrible divide between Before and After.
I remember crawling into bed that April night and feeling scared, sick, shocked. It was clear someone had planned the bombing knowing full well there was a daycare in the building. How could someone do that? I wondered. It was the first time in my life that I understood evil truly existed in the world.
Of course, I realize the world has always held evil. But I’d never noticed. Or if I did, it was still easy enough to turn away and pretend. I had a led a relatively charmed life. (Still do, for that matter.) I know it wasn’t the world that changed. It was me. I was a young mom with two babies of my own. I had carried their bodies, limp with sleep, to their beds. And then planted kisses in their tiny hands. My boys would be waking me up with their tears in the morning. Baylee’s mom and the mothers of the other eighteen children killed would be waking up with their own tears.
That night, I made a vow to plant a tree in the yard of every house I lived in. In honor of Baylee.
The first one had pink buds. I chose a Bradford Pear because they’re the ones that bloom first, the ones who call back Spring. It was a small seedling I left behind when we moved. The next one I planted, at our new house, had white buds. This one was a sapling, about 4 feet high. It took me a long time to dig the hole by myself. By the time I was done, my back ached and my hands were raw. I planted it alone because I was too embarrassed to tell anyone what I was doing, even my husband. I didn’t know Baylee or her family. Who was I to mourn her?
I watered that tree every day. Like my kids, it grew like crazy. And it grew straight and strong and made me smile. It’s this tree I’m telling you about now. Am I embarrassed to share the story of my Bradford Pear? Not really. For whatever reason, I understand, now, that mourning is okay. Life’s hard. Not all the time. But still. There’s war. There’s disease. Children go hungry and missing. Rivers run over their banks. People are treated in unimaginable ways every single day. Bad things happen. And whether or not they happen to us, they happen to us because we are together on this earth at the same time. But the world would be a terrible place only if we didn’t feel the ache of someone else’s heartbreak.
Why am I moved to write about my secret after all these years? I honestly don’t know the answer. But like I said, Baylee’s tree is blooming. Maybe this year I just paid attention in a different way.
I read somewhere Baylee’s mom, Arin, married and had two more children. Good for her. I know Baylee is in her heart and in her life in a very real way. And I know she is keenly aware her firstborn would have turned 16 this year. (As my middle child will.) I also know I’ll remember Baylee, too. After all, she taught me that if we are just patient, hope – like spring – always comes back around.