On this the 10th anniversary of 9/11, we wanted to share with you the beautiful story of one of our friends and former employee, Donna Killoughey Bird and honor the memory of Gary, her husband.
Gary was the only person from Arizona to die in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Gary had gone to New York City for a couple days to train for his new “dream job.” As he left the house Sunday afternoon he told his wife Donna he’d be home for dinner Tuesday night and Donna never heard from him again. The first person to let her know that something unthinkable might have happened to her husband was Katie Couric on the Tuesday morning news.
After 10 days of not hearing anything, Donna and her two teenage children realized they had to accept that Gary wasn’t coming home. She tells their beautiful story and all the ways God has blessed them in her new book, “Nothing Will Separate Us.”
I sat down with Donna this week to ask her about the book and her story. I was so moved by her witness of the grace in her life and the healing she’s received. Her story is one of deep pain, but also of profound joy in the celebration of Gary’s life. I was touched by her willingness to share with me, and with all of you.
What does the title of the book “Nothing Will Separate Us” mean?
The title eventually came to mean nothing would separate me from God primarily, and then me from Gary and all of us from each other. Like the root system of an aspen tree or other trees, we’re all rooted together under the soil – we’re all connected.
Does the title also refer to Romans 8 that talks about nothing being able to separate us from the love of God?
Yes, actually! On the night of September 11th, my friend Maureen came to the house and said “Donna, go get your Bible, I want to share something with you that we read at a prayer service tonight, it’s Romans 8:38.” So I went to get my Bible, it was brand new that I had purchased a year before for a Bible study, so the only thing I had gone through were the books of Genesis and Matthew. We opened the bible and Roman’s 8:38 was underlined. It was all squiggly underlined and I just looked at it and went, “wow, I didn’t do this. And there’s nothing else in this bible that’s been underlined.”
The next day on September 12th I went to my doctor, who’s Christian, and I asked him for a prescription for a sleeping pill to help me sleep. I told him Gary was probably at the World Trade Center. He gave me the prescription and then he wrote something called a “treatment plan.” He always had a pad of paper and when you went in to see him he would write or draw on it to illustrate what the problem was and instructions for the medication. He turned around and gave me the treatment plan and it said “Romans 8:28 – to the end of the chapter.” I looked at him and said, “why are you giving me this?” We had never really had a spiritual connection before. It was the same set of verses as the one that we had found underlined in my Bible.
How did your faith play a role in this?
On the morning of 9/11, I was kind of like a robot, dazed and not knowing what to do. I took the kids to school and then automatic pilot kicked in and all those things I had heard during 51 years of being Catholic took hold and just sort of propelled me to go to church, go to Mass and say the rosary. To try to get some assistance from God as to what I’m supposed to do. So initially it just sort of kicked in and carried me through.
In the midst of my prayers, I felt my connection to Gary, and to God, with more certainty and strength than ever before. Sometime during those hours at church I clearly remember saying to God: “I do not know how to get through this, handle this or fix this. I give it all to you. It is in your hands.” For the first time in my life, I let go of all my fears and uncertainty, looked beyond my pride and ego, and surrendered fully to the infinite wisdom and power of God. The peace I felt in that moment not only remained with me, but grew within me throughout the days that followed. God was still with me. And so was Gary.
You mention miracles in your subtitle, can you talk about that?
After hearing Gary may have been near the World Trade Center at the time of the attacks, my friend Maureen went to the Adoration chapel to pray before going to an evening prayer service in the church. And she sat there and prayed, “God, where’s my friend Gray” … “Jesus, where’s my friend Gary.” She didn’t get an answer. So she left the chapel and walked into the church. She looked up at the altar and stopped suddenly because she saw Gary there. She said he was dressed in jeans and a red shirt, his right thumb hooked in his pocket, and he was smiling. Next to Gary, Maureen saw an image of Jesus, his arm wrapped around Gary’s shoulders. It was staggering to hear her describe in detail the shirt Gary was wearing. She knew Gary from church and Gary always dressed up for Church. She had no way of knowing the shirt she “saw” in the church that night was Gary’s favorite and still hanging in our closet – not until I pulled it out for her to see. Her experience brought me great comfort. Gary had never suffered beneath a mountain of steel and concrete. He was safe. He was loved. He was smiling.
What kind of forgiveness and healing have you experienced over the past 10 years?
The prayer of St. Francis says, “It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.” If my experience both before and after 9/11 has taught me anything, it is that nothing is served by holding on to anger, resentment or any thoughts of retribution. Unless and until I am willing to strip myself of such negative feelings, unless and until I am willing to make the choice to forgive, I cannot be open and ready for the next gift God has for me.
I’ve come to believe that forgiveness, healing and the ability to live a peaceful, joy-filled life is all about maintaining a relationship with God. It is not my job to seek punishment for others. What is mine to do is to maintain my connection with God. That was the message contained in the first line of my doctor’s “treatment plan”: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who had been called according to His purpose.”
Donna Killoughey Bird can be contacted at [email protected]