In the midst of it all, my family tried to make plans for Thanksgiving-the day we give thanks for all that's good in life. Gee, thanks God... I guess.
As I grappled with the possibility of racing across town in order to attend each funeral, the idea of Thanksgiving seemed more than absurd. Two dead babies. A nation at war. 5,000 fatalities on our home turf. A faltering economy. And a group of friends without jobs. Give thanks?
When Mark is not at war for the Air National Guard, he works as a 767 captain for United Airlines. He's a model husband, a father of four, and a man willing to risk his own life for the country that makes his lifestyle possible.
A pillar of stability in the ever-changing airline industry for decades, his company is in trouble to say the least. The company survives on the life support of dwindling federal bailout money. Because fewer people are flying, Mark was downgraded to fly a 737, a much smaller plane.
Two of the four planes that were used to attack America on Sept. 11 belonged to United. The United 767 that crashed in Pennsylvania was flown by Jason Dahl, Mark's friend and colleague. The men shared a desk at United's offices in Denver. So in just two months, the human cockroaches who attacked our country had the following direct effects on Mark:
- They killed his friend.
- They jeopardized his job and the jobs of tens of thousands of his colleagues.
- They demoted Mark and hundreds of other wide-body pilots.
- They started a war that has taken Mark away from his work, family and friends, and put him in harm's way.
So what does one in Mark's position do? Here's what a lot of people would do:
- Become bitter and angry.
- Hunker down and hoard resources like so many people did in preparation for Y2K.
- Spread fear, anxiety and blame.
Not Mark. He's far too great of a man to do any of that. Instead, Mark spent the days between Sept. 11 and his deployment spreading joy. He talked about how great God is for giving us life and love; he stood up before the assembly at his Catholic parish, three days before leaving for the Middle East, and told everyone how important it is to give away ten percent of everything they earn-no matter how meager their earnings-to charities, the church or individuals in need.
I asked Mark how he could stand before a crowd of people-including many who had recently been laid off from once-lucrative high tech jobs-and tell them to give away their money. The state of affairs made it the perfect time, he said.
"September 11 was a wake-up call for all Americans," Mark says. "It made people say 'I'm glad to be alive.' It made people give thanks for simply being able to come home at the end of the day and hug their spouses and children... I'm seeing a country full of people who are taking inventory of all that God has given them and saying 'thanks.' I've flown about 60 hours for United since Sept. 11, and you know what I'm seeing for the first time ever? People are being nice to flight attendants... Good can come out of these tragic times. In fact, greatness can come out of these times. It's an excellent time to start tithing, because if you still have anything, anything at all, you can afford to give."
I thought of Mark's wise words as I headed off to the funeral of Mary Louise, a newborn who was left to die near a dumpster behind the Louisville Safeway on South Boulder Road. I thought of his words while trying to imagine the pain of the child's mother, and the pain of Jon and Mara Caldera. At the same time as a rabbi, two priests and several ministers prepared to bury Mary Louise, the Calderas were memorializing their 11-month-old daughter, Parker. The baby was diagnosed with brain cancer Nov. 11 and died a few days afterward.
At the funeral of Mary Louise, and later at the burial, mothers lined up at a microphone to speak about the gift of life. Each of them offered prayers for the unknown mother who threw Mary Louise away. Each lamented the despair of a mother who could do such a thing.
Since Sept. 11, Americans have been thrown into an atmosphere of routine death and economic uncertainty. We've witnessed suffering that surpasses the plots of even the most creative fictional horror writers. Those who can still hug their loved ones have nothing to complain about. We have our lives and the lives of those who love us. Everything else is of little importance. We have reason, more than ever before, to give away our wealth and give thanks for what we have.