Transcript : The Kindness of Strangers - Part 2
Welcome to the Tell Us Something podcast, I’m Marc Moss.
We are currently looking for storytellers for the next Tell Us Something storytelling event. The theme is “Close to the Edge” If you’d like to pitch your story for consideration, please call 406-203-4683. You have 3 minutes to leave your pitch. Our friends from the Deaf community are welcome to pitch by emailing [email protected].
The pitch deadline is February 17th. I look forward to hearing from you.
This week on the podcast… “”I immediately get off of the exam table, and I get to the ground.” “Sometimes, a small act of kindness and compassion, as simple as buying a stranger a sandwich, can change someone’s life, and maybe even their death.” “Never forget. On 9/11, we leaned into each other, recognizing our shared humanity.” “Death. It’s final, it’s in your face, it’s unforgiving.”
…four storytellers share their true personal story on the theme “The Kindness of Strangers”. Their stories were recorded live in-person in front of a sold-out crowd on December 06, 2023 at The Wilma in Missoula, MT.
Winter is traditionally a time when we slow down. Our indigenous friends, during winter, share stories that they don’t share at other times of the year. Tell Us Something acknowledges that we are gathered on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Ponder eh, Salish, and Kootenai peoples.
Traditionally, storytelling is reserved for the winter months for many tribes. This was a practical choice given the fact that during the other seasons, people were busy growing, gathering, and hunting food. It is in the winter, with the long dark evenings, the snow and wind blowing outside, that telling stories is used to entertain — and teach the children. Another reason for winter storytelling, is that many traditional stories contain animal characters. To be respectful, people wait until the winter when animals hibernate or become less active so they cannot hear themselves being talked about.
We take this moment to honor the land and its Native people and the stories that they share with us.
Thank you to our Title sponsor – Blackfoot Communications.
connecting people, businesses and communities. They know that strong connections matter. Connecting businesses, homes. communities. Connecting with each other. They keep people reliably connected.
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Sensitive listeners be aware that Tell Us Something stories sometimes have adult themes and storytellers sometimes use adult language and profanity.
Our first storyteller is Erin Scoles, a mother, who, watrches in shock as a terrifying avalanche burries her young son. Strangers and community come together in Missoula to save lives in the midst of chaos. Erin calls her story “Found”. Thanks for listening.
Erin Scoles: It’s short enough.
Um, I’m not a huge fan of winter, and it’s partly due to the fact that I can’t feel some of my toes. I permanently damaged them years ago while searching for my missing son. It was February 28th, 2014, and Missoula had declared it a snow day. All schools were closed, um, and I was a college student at the time, so I was at home.
with my 8 and my 10 year old. It was around 4 o’clock in the afternoon when they come into my bedroom and ask if they can go outside and play. I of course said yes. Um, I could hear them in their shared room next to mine getting ready and I hear my 10 year old daughter Coral telling my 8 year old son Phoenix to put on an extra layer of clothes because of how cold it was outside.
He of course listened to his big sister. Um, at this time, my partner at the time, Casey, just got home from work. He was able to ski to work that day because of the large amount of snow that had fallen. The kids finish getting ready, and they go outside to play, and I’m in my bed, and I’m watching a show.
And to the right of me is a huge window, and I can see my entire backyard, and I can see my kiddos playing. Um, about ten minutes passed, and I actually start to feel my house shake and I didn’t register what it was. Um, I knew Missoula had earthquakes before. I had, like, have, I have felt them before. And I knew this was not an earthquake.
I then heard it and then I look out. That huge window, and I saw it. And, I don’t know why my brain did this, but it did. And it was two screens, so it was like a split screen. And one screen was this huge white wave. And it was cascading into my backyard. And I couldn’t see my garage anymore. It wasn’t there.
And my neighbor’s house wasn’t there either. On the other split screen, I see Coral and Phoenix. And they’re turned around. They’re looking at this white wave coming towards them. The avalanche. And they start running. I see it hit Phoenix. And I see the avalanche pick him up. And Phoenix gets tossed around a bit.
I remember seeing his orange coat and his black boots. And then I see nothing because the avalanche hits my house. And it knocks me off my bed. And all of a sudden I’m, I’m on my floor and it’s dark and it’s silent and I still can’t register what just happened. I get off the ground and I, I run out of my bedroom in the kitchen and Casey runs right in front of me and we don’t make eye contact.
We don’t even, we don’t even say, we don’t say anything to each other. And I later learned he knew exactly what it was and he went downstairs to grab his avalanche probe and his avalanche shovel. Um, I continued to go through the kitchen to the side door, which is the quickest way to my backyard, and I can’t open it.
There is so much snow, and there’s a canoe in the way, and there’s part of someone’s roof. Um, I turn around and I make my way out to my front door, and I run down the front steps, and I go to open the gate to my backyard, but there’s no gate. And there’s no 12 foot fence either that surrounds my house usually.
At this moment I start screaming, My babies, my babies. And I enter my backyard and Coral runs up to me. She was in the runoff of the avalanche and was able to free herself pretty easily. She was pretty shooken up though, of course. I asked her where her brother was and she had no idea. I started screaming again, and I’m screaming my baby.
My baby, I go more into my backyard and I don’t see Phoenix and all of a sudden there’s like a dozen people, strangers, neighbors in my yard. And they’re asking me, who is Phoenix? And where did you last see him? And I explain these things to these people and they just know what to do. They start digging.
And some of these people have Avalanche shovels. We’re in Missoula, right? Um, and some people have normal snow shovels and I don’t know how much time has passed, maybe five minutes, maybe eight, and a neighbor comes up to me and makes me go inside my house, and I hadn’t realized at this time, but the entire time I was outside, the only thing I had on was a very flimsy, thin, cotton robe with no tie, because that had been lost in the chaos, and it was just flapping in the wind, And so I was completely naked.
Um, You’re welcome Missoula.
Sorry Coral. Um,
Sorry, I couldn’t help it. Um, So I was completely naked, I had no shoes on, nothing. Um, thankfully she makes me go inside and helps me get dressed. She tells me to stay inside, and I don’t listen. I go back outside and And somebody hands me a shovel, and I start digging. That’s what everybody is doing. I, I look around and there’s like 75 plus people in or around my yard.
And at this time, it’s also learned there’s two missing people, more missing people, Michael and Fred, my neighbors who live behind me, whose house I saw that was missing. So we’re digging for three people at this time. And I look around more, and I, I see people with shovels, and the Avalanche shovels, and normal shovels, and people are using parts of my broken fence, and people are using, like, garbage can lids, like, really anything they can find.
And I start to panic, because I realize I could be standing over Phoenix, or Michael, or Fred, and I wouldn’t be able to get to them soon enough. So I drop my shovel, and I start screaming. Uh, that same neighbor comes over to me, and now a firefighter comes over to me, and they tell me I have to leave the scene, that there’s an ambulance waiting for me down the road, and it has Coral and Casey, and we all have to get checked out at the hospital.
Um, they each put an arm around me, because it’s really hard for me to walk. My feet really hurt. So we’re walking down the road to the waiting ambulance, and at this exact moment is when a photographer takes a photo of me, and The very next morning, it’s on the front page of the Missoulian. We get to the ambulance and there’s three EMTs and there’s Coral and Casey and we start making our way to St.
Pat’s Hospital. Coral’s checked out. She’s got bumps and bruises. They’re warming up my feet and the the EMT that is warming up my feet. I remember he had really soft blue gray eyes and long gray hair and He was really trying to comfort and reassure me that there were so many people looking for my son.
And, it wasn’t helpful at that moment. Um, and I looked at him very seriously and I said, If they do not find Phoenix, or if they do not find him alive, Do not let me out of your sight. He knew exactly what I meant when I said that. What he didn’t know was that 11 years prior, I had lost a child. And I knew I could not live through losing another.
We get to the hospital, they put us in a room, they check out my feet more in Quarrel, and in that hospital room are two police detectives. Quarrel, Casey, a friend, a doctor, a nurse, that same EMT. Um, a few minutes pass and that EMT comes up to me and I’m sitting on the exam table and he puts his hand on me and he says, They found Phoenix.
He’s alive. He’s not awake. I immediately get off of the exam table, and I get to the ground. And I get as low as I can get. And I don’t know why I did this. I am not a religious person. At all. Sorry.
And, While I’m doing this, I am explaining it. I need to be in the most humble position possible. That’s all I knew I had to do in that moment. I get to the ground. I’m explaining that. Everybody in that room does the exact same thing. Even the two police detectives. Which I kind of laugh about, which is like really great, but I don’t think I’ll ever experience that again.
We stay in this position until someone comes into that room and says that Phoenix is in the hospital. And he’s receiving fluids, and he’s getting warmed up, and he’s getting looked at, and we can see him really soon. It’s also explained that, when he was found, his body temperature was so dangerously low, that they have to slowly warm him up, as to not cause any more shock to his system.
So they warn us of all the heating pads and blankets that will be surrounding his little body, all of the tubes and the wires, and the neck brace. Coral, Casey, and I walk into the room where Phoenix is at, and we start approaching the bed, and I’m not ready to see it. I’m not ready to see Phoenix like this, because his cheeks and his lips are still slightly bluish.
And that was probably the hardest thing for me to see. I scan his face more, and I, I see dried blood, and I see a black eye, and I see a really long cut. Where the black guy is, and that’s where the avalanche probe found him.
Coral, um, approaches the bed even closer and she grabs his hand and she won’t let go. And she starts saying his name over and over again. Phoenix. Phoenix. And I shit you not, it is just like the movies, you guys. Phoenix opens up his eyes and he looks at his sister. And then he looks at us. Uh, a few minutes later, they’re able to take off the neck brace and the tubes out of his mouth, and he’s, he’s having a little bit of a hard time talking, but he can talk to us, and he remembers everything.
Um, Phoenix was hit by an avalanche just plain in his backyard at almost 120 miles per hour. He walked away with a lacerated spleen, a bruised lung. Nasty concussion, a black eye, and one hell of a story that he now tells ladies in college because he’s doing great. Um, we, it happened ten years ago and we knew this day was coming and he’s, yeah.
Sorry Phoenix. Um, so we stay in the hospital for two more days and we had a lot of visitors at this time. Um, and. One of the visitors was the man who found Phoenix. He actually happened to live across the street from us. We didn’t live in that house for more than five months when it was hit by the avalanche, so we didn’t know our neighbors too well.
He had a son, Phoenix’s age, and when he heard the avalanche, he looked out his window, saw what happened, grabbed his tools, and just ran out there. He put himself in so much danger to search for three people. Those 75 plus other people put themselves in so much danger. That is amazing. That’s Missoula, right?
Um, unfortunately I can’t remember this man’s name. Trauma fucks with your head in a lot of different ways. Um, but I will forever be grateful to him. And not just for saving Phoenix’s life, but for saving mine. Thanks.
Erin Scoles is grateful to have lived such a full life. She’s given birth to 5 children, hitchhiked across the country, lived in a school bus before it was cool, endured huge loss and loved big. She’s most proud of her Irish heritage and how badass & compassionate her kids are. Erin looks forward to the day where she can focus on just one project at a time and for her kids to finally and truly admit she’s the funniest person that they know. For a link to the Missoulian article and to see the photograph of Erin from the front page that day, visit tellussomething.org.
Next up is Jen Certa
Jen shares her story about how a simple act of kindness helped eventually house an unhoused person, led to closure for a family, and reaffirmed her hope in humanity. Jen calls her story “Life, Death, and Teaspoons of water”. Thanks for listening.
Jen Certa: Sometimes, a small act of kindness and compassion, as simple as buying a stranger a sandwich, can change someone’s life, and maybe even their death. I know that sounds kind of strange, but I can tell you that it’s true. It was a crisp fall afternoon several years ago and my favorite co worker, Rebecca, and I were in the middle of our Friday afternoon ritual, what we refer to as get shit done time, and we were getting ready to kind of start wrapping up for the day when we were interrupted by three strangers who had just walked in the door of our office.
The strangers were a retired couple in their late 70s named Gingy and Pete, and a gruff, middle aged man named Michael, whom they had just met on their weekly lunch date. Gingy and Pete had noticed Michael sitting alone, not eating. He appeared to be carrying all of his worldly possessions in his backpack.
And so, um, They decided to invite Michael to join them for lunch, struck up a conversation, and learned that Michael was currently living in a tent in Greeno Park. He’d been having a really difficult time finding a job, getting a job, because he didn’t have an ID. And in order to get an ID, he needed a copy of his birth certificate, which he also didn’t have.
He had explained that recently he’d actually been scammed by someone in town who had claimed they could help him get his birth certificate for a fee, and then disappeared with Michael’s money. So, Gingy and Pete thought maybe we could help. And I’ll be honest with you. For a minute, I did consider passing the buck.
Sending Michael to somebody else that could help him. Because, technically, it wasn’t actually my job to help a random stranger get a birth certificate from another state. And I did have other slightly more urgent shit to do. But the expression on Michael’s face told me everything that I needed to know.
I could see that he didn’t really trust other people. And he definitely didn’t have much faith that I would be any different than anybody else who had already tried to help him with his predicament. Now, something you need to know about me is that I am pretty competitive and definitely stubborn, and I was not willing to be another person that let Michael down.
And besides that, if someone even so much as hints that they think I can’t do something, then to that I say, challenge accepted. Hold my pile of work I’m supposed to be doing instead, and watch this. I quickly found the number for the Minnesota office of vital records, and dialed, hoping not everyone had gone home for the weekend already.
And miraculously, Debbie answered. Hi, Debbie. My name is Jen, and I’m a social worker in Missoula, Montana. I’m here with Michael, and he has been having a heck of a time trying to get his birth certificate. He really needs it so he can get a job. And Debbie, he has just been given the runaround. Gosh, I just know, Debbie, there has to be something that you and I can do together to work this out today.
I’m really hoping you’re gonna be our gal. Now, Debbie did deliver. She directed us to a form that Michael needed to fill out, and some other bureaucratic hoops to jump through, since Michael didn’t have a permanent address. And it was all hands on deck that afternoon in the office. Anyone who was still there was running around, scrambling, trying to help Michael compile everything that he needed, get it notarized, get it to Debbie before it was 5 p.
m. in Minnesota. And finally, Debbie did let us know that Michael’s birth certificate would be arriving in about a week or so. I took the form that Michael had filled out with his information and tucked it away into a folder, just in case he needed it again, and we parted ways. Shortly after that, Michael did get his birth certificate, and then finally that ID.
And over the next several months, his life began to look a little bit like the opposite of a country music song. He got a job, he got a bank account, saved some money, he made some friends with coworkers, he kept in touch with Gingy and Pete, and eventually, he did move out of his tent in Greeno Park into more permanent housing.
And I wish that I could tell you that that is where the story ends. But on another Friday afternoon, almost about a year later, get shit done time was again interrupted. But this time, it was St. Pat’s Hospital, and they were calling to tell us that Michael was in the ICU on life support. When My co workers and I arrived at the hospital, confused, a short time later, the doctors told us that Michael had gone into cardiac arrest and collapsed, and that there really was little hope that he would ever recover brain function or wake up.
They had found Rebecca’s business card in his wallet, along with his ID, which is why they had called us. And they wanted to know if we had any idea how to contact Michael’s next of kin. Because someone was going to need to make some decisions about end of life care for Michael. And soon. Outside the hospital, buckets of rain poured over my windshield, pounded on the roof of my car.
As Rebecca and I sat inside it. We were absolutely gutted by the thought that Michael could die alone without anyone in his family having any idea what had happened. But he had never really said much to any of us about his past. We didn’t know anything about his family. Except, I still had that form that I had tucked away.
And on it, were his partents’ names and birthplaces. So, armed only with that information, and our phones, we started Googling.
We found his mother’s obituary, which did tell us that Michael had four sisters. Pam, Sue, Jane, and Michelle. And judging by the order of the names in the obituary, it was safe probably to assume that Michael was the youngest and all of them were older than him. That was the good news. The bad news was that it appeared that all four sisters were married.
No Last names were mentioned anywhere in the obituary, nor were any locations of where they might have lived. So, to recap, we’re now looking for four middle aged women from the Midwest with the names Pam, Sue, Jane, and Michelle, who may or may not still be living somewhere in the state of Minnesota.
Didn’t really narrow it down a whole lot. But somehow we found a phone, a list of phone numbers with people with those first names and we just started calling down the list. I left dozens of the same message over and over again. Hi, my name is Jen. I’m a social worker in Missoula, Montana. I’m looking for the sibling of Michael Smith.
If, if you know Michael, please give me a call back as soon as possible. Now. Um, honestly, I don’t know if either Rebecca or I truly thought that we would actually find any of them that way. But the next morning, I answered a phone call from a Minnesota area code. And on the phone, on the other end of the line, was Michael’s twin sister, Michelle.
She hadn’t seen her brother in 20 years, and she told me she’d been waiting for him. A long time, dreading getting a phone call like this. Michael’s four sisters all found last minute flights to Missoula, and arrived at the hospital the next day. They spent a long time with Michael, talked to his doctors, and made some really difficult decisions.
And the next afternoon, Michael died, with all four sisters of his sisters by his side. The day after that, Pam, Sue, Jane, and Michelle met us for breakfast. Though we had been strangers just a few days before, we now gathered together for a meal to celebrate Michael’s life. Gingy, Pete, my co workers, and I shared what we knew of Michael’s last year of his life in Missoula with them, and they shared stories with us about the brother that they had known.
And though it was clear there had definitely been some hurt and relationship rupture over the years between Michael and his sisters, there was also very clearly a lot of love. The sisters expressed their gratitude that they got to have some closure, that they knew with certainty what had happened to their brother, that they had had time to say goodbye and anything else left unsaid.
And that they knew Michael was not alone at the end of his life. And I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. In this particular moment of our collective history, when we are all witnessing, experiencing, enormous amounts of pain and suffering as human beings on this planet. And I don’t know about you, but I have been finding it really hard to not feel like I’m losing my faith in humanity right now.
To Not fall into despair or wonder if anything that I do actually matters in the grand scheme of things. Or if it’s basically the equivalent of trying to put out the massive raging dumpster fire that is the world right now with a teaspoon of water. And maybe it is, I don’t know. But then I also think about how it’s also true that Gingy and Pete saw a man sitting alone offered to buy him a sandwich.
And because of that That stranger didn’t die alone. In the story of Michael’s life and his death, Gingy and Pete, for me, really embody the words of humanitarian Albert Schweitzer when he says, Each of us can always do a little to bring some portion of misery to an end. They remind me that Even a small act of kindness can have vast ripple effects that expand outward further than we can even imagine.
And that, that’s what gives me some amount of hope for the rest of us and our teaspoons of water too. Thank you.
Jen Certa is originally from New York, and accidentally began a love affair with Montana in 2009. She is a social worker and currently works as a therapist with kids and families, which basically means she’ll help you process your feelings after she beats you at Uno. When not at work, Jen can most often be found traversing the trails around Missoula with human and dog friends, guessing people’s Enneagram numbers, and/or running late for something.
Coming up after the break: “Never forget. On 9/11, we leaned into each other, recognizing our shared humanity.” “Death. It’s final, it’s in your face, it’s unforgiving.”
Stay with us.
Remember that we are currently looking for storytellers for the next Tell Us Something storytelling event. The theme is “Close to the Edge”. If you’d like to pitch your story for consideration, please call 406-203-4683. You have 3 minutes to leave your pitch. Our friends from the Deaf community are welcome to pitch by emailing [email protected].
The pitch deadline is February 17th. I look forward to hearing from you.Thank you to our Title Sponsor Blackfoot Communications. Learn more about them at goblackfoot.com. Thank you to our Story Sponsors who help us to pay our storytellers. Missoula Electric Coop , a member-owned rural electric cooperative that serves electricity to members in parts of Montana and Idaho. You can learn more at missoulaelectric.com Thanks to our second story sponsor, The Kettlehouse who strives to match the quality of their beers to the quality of the Montana outdoor experience. Learn more about them at kettlehouse.com. Thank you to our Accessibility Sponsor, Reep Bell and Jasper allowing us to hire American Sign Language interpreters at this event in order to be a more inclusive experience. Learn more about them at westernmontanalaw.com
Thanks to our media sponsors, missoulaevents.net, and Missoula Broadcasting Company learn more about Missoula Broadcasting Company and listen online at missoulabroadcastingcompany.com.
Thanks to our in-kind sponsors: Float Missoula – learn more at floatmsla.com and Joyce of Tile – learn about Joyce and the work that she does at Joyce of Tile.com.
Alright, let’s get back to the stories. You are listening to the Tell Us Something podcast, I’m Marc Moss.
Next up is Jennifer Robohm. Jennifer recounts her 9/11 experience, witnessing the tragedy, offering help, and cherishing acts of unity amidst chaos and despair in NYC. Jennifer calls her story “As the Dust Settled”.
Thanks for listening.
Jennifer Robham: It was a beautiful Tuesday morning, and I soaked in the sun and the clear blue sky on my way into work. I was already at my desk by a quarter to nine, drinking coffee and chatting with a colleague when we heard a truck backfire really loudly outside. It was so loud that it made us both jump. And then we laughed at ourselves like you do.
We thought nothing of it. Until we noticed the sirens. I called a friend who worked in finance because she had a news feed at her desk. Hey, what’s going on by City Hall? She told me a Cessna had just crashed into the World Trade Center.
My office building was three blocks from where the tower stood. I sat at a cubicle on the 11th floor, but I’d go to a small office to make private phone calls. I loved that part of my job because I’d lean back in my chair and I’d look out the window at those unbelievably tall buildings. They were incredible.
But on the morning of 9 11, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The North Tower was in flames, cut in half by the jetliner. Dark plumes of smoke billowed up into the sky and reams of office paper fluttered downward like falling leaves.
I called my parents and we were just trying to make sense of what was happening when the South Tower was hit. By then, my dad was watching on TV, but I couldn’t see the plane. I thought a fireball had exploded from the first building to the second. My father was six foot four, but his voice sounded small when he begged me to find safety.
But daddy, I don’t know where to go. So I stayed, bearing witness. I was still at my post close to an hour later. No, no, no, no, no, no. Fucking God. Fucking God! Fucking God.
There was a low rumbling, and then the South Tower collapsed under its own weight, pancaking to the street below. A huge cloud of dust and debris engulfed the pedestrians who scattered like ants. The, the cloud overtook them one by one, and then slammed in my window and shook our building. And then everything went dark.
I turned to run and nearly tripped over a Latina woman who was watching over my shoulder. She was now crumpled on the ground, being consoled by a friend. Her boyfriend worked in that tower. We all thought we just watched him and thousands of people die.
A garbled voice over the PA system evacuated us to the basement. We were down there for several hours in shock. I was so rattled, I actually asked if we were going to have our staff meeting.
There were no windows, but that’s where we learned that the North Tower had collapsed. We also heard that the Washington Monument in Las Vegas had been destroyed. I guess imaginations run wild when they’ve seen the unimaginable.
An African American woman burst in through the door from the street. She was covered in dust, her hair, her face, every inch of her clothing. And she was absolutely hysterical. I remember thinking, Jen, you’re a psychologist, do something. So I walked her to a quiet corner and helped her lie down and try to slow her panicked breathing.
Her eyes were wide, but sometimes she’d clench them shut. The images that must have been seared there. She grabbed my hand as she told me about being evacuated from her building and then having to run when the second tower collapsed. And then she collapsed into sobbing.
An older woman knelt beside us. She stroked the traumatized woman’s hair. She whispered as she cleaned the dust from her face. It’s okay, baby. Everything’s gonna be okay.
Eventually, they told us we could leave. But the dust covered woman was too afraid. I was desperate to get out of there. The phones were down and I wanted to go and find my partner. But we stayed until we could convince her it would be safe. And then a police officer escorted the woman back out to the street, where it now looked like several inches of dirty snow had fallen.
Um, the older woman and I. We were complete strangers, but we kissed on the lips and we hugged for several seconds before going outside. We were the last ones to leave and I never saw either of those women again.
Back outside, it was chaos. The air was acrid and smoky and the sirens were relentless. The police, uh, sent us toward the Brooklyn Bridge. I changed into volleyball sneakers and ran. I was terrified that another plane would come at any second to take out the bridge or the thousands of people who were streaming across it with me.
Some of them were walking, slowly. They stared straight ahead toward Brooklyn, where the sky was still that gorgeous blue. But others stopped, like I did, and looked back over their shoulders. Where the towers used to be, there was nothing but dust and smoke and debris.
If there is a hell, I know what it looks like. It’s been over
20 years now. I’m getting old.
What I remember most vividly about that fall morning are small gestures of kindness and courage. The man who carried my co worker down the stairs to the basement because she was too grief stricken to walk. My companion who comforted the dust covered woman lying in tears on the floor. The teenagers who sheepishly offered us water on the far side of the Brooklyn Bridge.
And neighbors who lined up late into the night to donate blood, none of which was needed. My first responders were ordinary people. No special training or equipment, just the impulse to do something, anything to make a shitty day just a little bit better for someone else.
After 9 11, I couldn’t cry for days. Not until our sonogram on the 14th made me weep with conflicted joy. We were gonna have a son. I love you, Jack.
It was several weeks before we could return to our office building, and many months before the piles stopped burning and the subways were restored. It was well over a year before we weren’t evacuated constantly due to bomb threats and anthrax scares. And maybe two years before I could hear a low flying airplane without flinching.
Whenever I’d leave New York City, I was surprised to discover that everyone else had moved on. I guess because it was no longer happening to them.
But New Yorkers continued to be kinder to each other. We hugged more. We made more eye contact. We gave up our seats on the train. And when we asked other people how they were doing, we actually slowed down to hear the answer. Honestly, those are some of my fondest memories of the city.
They say, never forget. I wear a subway token around my neck to remind me. I think about that day every September, of course. But I also thought about it a lot during the pandemic, and I think about it now when I despair about climate change and war and the existential threats we’re facing. I can’t help but wonder which version of us is going to show up.
If you’re looking for hope, maybe I can offer you this. On 9 11, we leaned into each other, recognizing our shared humanity. We worked together despite our differences because we needed each other to survive. We understood that looking out for ourselves meant looking out for other people. And we rose to the occasion, even when really hard things were happening.
In my darkest moments, that’s what I choose to remember. About that horrible, and yet beautiful, Tuesday morning. Thank you.
Jennifer Robohm moved to Montana from the East Coast to be closer to her twin sister and to have an adventure. That adventure turned into a life! Jen is a clinical psychologist who’s been teaching at the University of Montana for close to 20 years. She lives in Missoula with her partner, Nadia; her son, Jack, is a UM senior. Jen loves the Missoula community and the Montana outdoors.
Closing out this episode of the Tell Us Something, podcast, Linds Sanders recounts a series of encounters in which strangers share their deep grief with her, painting profound connections amid loss, teaching empathy, and illuminating the beauty in life’s small, poignant details.
Linds calls her story “Peanut Butter & Peonies”
Thanks for listening.
Linds Sanders: Okay.
Eat the mic. That was from our storyteller workshop.
When I was 18, I worked at the KOA call center. People would call in asking for directions to campsites, change their campsite reservation, But most often, they call to get their password changed for their online account. Back then, you couldn’t get a password reset email, you had to call the 1 800 number, and that was me.
I took dozens of these calls a day, and I assured people, I will not remember your password. One afternoon, a man called in, he must have been in his 70s or 80s, to change his password. Took about two minutes, I don’t remember his password. I asked him, is there anything else I can help you with? And almost in response to that question, he let me know this was the first time he was traveling since his wife died.
They started traveling when they had kids. But then their kids grew up and became adults and had families of their own, but they just kept traveling because they loved it so much. She would make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for their road trips, and she’d kiss him on the cheek when they crossed state lines.
He’s trying to make those peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It should be pretty simple, he says, but they just don’t taste the same. And that’s everything since she’s been gone. Maybe it should be straightforward, but he just can’t seem to do it. He laments that he should probably let me go now, and he hangs up the phone.
There’s this flat screen television above my head, listing my name and my co workers names, tracking the duration of our phone calls. My name is in red, highlighting inefficiency. The 38 minutes.
Fast forward a couple years and I’m a student at the University of Montana. I’m doing an art assignment drawing outside under the shade of a cedar tree. And, uh, there’s a football game apparently. It has concluded. Someone won. And now there’s this ocean of people dressed in maroon and gray leeching out of the stadium in all directions.
I am feeling so grateful that I chose this, like, meandering path that is off of the main arterial sidewalks that leads to the parking lots. Still, a woman straggles from the crowd, comes down my pathway. I don’t look up from my drawing, I figure she’ll just keep walking by. But then I feel her presence next to me.
She says to me, do you know what this building is? Now, there are a lot of beautiful buildings on campus. This is not one of them. It is this anonymous brick rectangle. I tell her, I don’t. She says, this is where my husband worked for 18 years. He was a botanist studying ferns and he died recently. I’m paying attention now.
This building is important. She says to me, my whole garden is ferns now. I tore up all the flowers, it’s all ferns. And when they erupt from the ground and spring and unfurl their leaves, I think of him and I miss him every day. And she’s starting to cry now. And just as abruptly as she’s come into my life, she turns and she leaves, walking down the path, rejoining that ocean of maroon and gray.
Now, maybe this would be strange if it weren’t for this reoccurring phenomenon in my life of strangers telling me their grief stories. Sometimes they last for 38 minutes, sometimes for 2 minutes, sometimes for 2 hours, like it did last summer. I just finished hiking Mount Sentinel, the mountain behind our campus.
Um, I live nearby, so the trailhead is walking distance from home. When I was on the top, there had been a summer thunderstorm that rolled in, and I had to bolt down and gain cover under trees. But now, the thunder had moved on, the rain had subsided, the clouds were still hanging in the air. I came down the trailhead, trekking poles in hand, my headphones in, I’m listening to my audio book, I pass by a man chatting, and he’s talking to me.
I, uh, put on my headphones, what? He asked me, have you seen the peony garden? The man, he’s in his 60s, dark wash, denim jeans. buttoned shirt. Baseball cap on. And the peony garden he’s referring to is the memorial peony garden, with over a hundred varieties of peonies. And they are in bloom and their flowers are the size of ice cream scoops, and they are white, and pink, and yellow, and, I tell him, in fact I have, and it’s one of my favorite places of Missoula.
He says to me, Peony are my wife’s favorite flower, and today is our 40th wedding anniversary. She died two years ago. And this is always how the conversations start, with this blunt admission of death. And that’s death. It’s final, it’s in your face, it’s unforgiving. And he’s seeing how I’m going to respond.
Am I going to ignore what he said? Oh, yeah, you know, there’s a western peony in this garden? Am I gonna put up a wall of sympathy? Oh, I am so sorry for your loss, that’s terrible. Or will I lean in? Which is what I try to always do. I learn not only were peony her favorite flower, but turtles were her favorite animal, and he would call her my little turtle.
I learned about the life that they built together, that she was a teacher, that she fought cancer, and I learned of how she died when the cancer returned, and that their back porch was her favorite place to watch sunsets, and how his friends and family rallied behind him when the grief first happened, but now that it’s been a couple of years, he feels embarrassed and like he can’t really lean into their support anymore.
Now, I want to keep talking, but my legs are really tired. I just hiked that mountain. But these transitions are tricky. We can transition deeper, and it’s also a chance to transition out. So I kind of edge towards a bench, and I invite him to sit down, and he does. And there’s this mutual trust between us that we both are enjoying this conversation, and we both want to continue.
And so we do, we keep talking as the clouds turn yellow and orange and underline in pink, leading us to another transition. It will be dark soon. So I offer to walk him back to his hotel. He’s just passing through. This area of town, everything is nearby, and it’s cleaved in half at the Clark Fork River, along which is the bike path.
And so we walk along it together, and we’re talking about poetry and travel and the West Coast, and it might sound like we’re not talking about grief anymore, but that’s the thing about grief. It’s like the central nervous system of a body. If you take away the skin, the bones, the muscle, and leave behind just the nervous system, you will still see a perfect outline of the human body down to the intricacies of a fingertip.
That’s grief. It holds us all together, and some days it threatens to tear us apart. But tonight, I like to believe it held us together and bound us to one another. I say goodbye to him in the parking lot of his hotel and begin my walk home alone, trekking poles in hand, headphones around my neck. And it might sound like I’m the kind stranger in these stories, but I disagree.
It is them who have taught me the importance of buildings that some people just walk on by. How complicated a peanut butter and jelly sandwich can be. And the real beauty of a peony flower. They have taken the time to introduce me to the most beloved people in their life. This world could not afford to lose, but lost anyways.
The thing is, I have my own grief. A grief that has me with one foot firmly planted on this stage and another foot in the land of what if. A grief that has me looking for something I lost and I just can’t seem to find it. A grief that has me against all odds wishing that there was one person in this audience sitting next to one of you.
And I know that she’s not.
That grief can be pretty isolating sometimes.
But as I walk home in the dark, streetlights coming on, I feel a glow. I feel gratitude. And thanks to the kindness of these strangers, I don’t feel so alone.
Linds Sanders is a Montanan who has a habit of saying “yes” to experiences that scare her such as saving house spiders, learning to rock climb, working with preteens, and–most recently–sharing a story at Tell Us Something. It’s much easier for her to pursue the passions she loves such as poetry, art, traveling, and spending time with friends and strangers alike. Currently, she is in graduate school pursuing a degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling with an interest in grief work. She works as a counseling intern at Tamarack Grief Resource Center where she has the honor of holding close the stories of others. Learn more about Linds at tellussomething.org.
Remember that the next Tell Us Something event is March 266th. You can learn about how to pitch your story and get tickets at tellussomething.org.