A Firsthand Account of “Healing and Understanding”
by Maggie McQuaid
I left Bisbee (in Southern Arizona) at 9:30am and made it to Tucson about 2 hours later where I met up with Susan, a coworker, and her partner Veira. We hopped a city bus and got to the University of Arizona campus around noon where we joined a rapidly growing throng outside the McKale Basketball Arena. Campus police, Secret Service, the Tucson Police Department, and the US Marshals were very much in evidence. Despite having a huge crowd on hand, they were all decent and courteous.
We were pretty much sequestered in an open area outside the arena, where we could leave if we wished, but could not come back. By 1:00 that afternoon, the announcement was made that the crowd was already at stadium capacity, and that anyone arriving on campus past that point would not be able to get in. We were closely packed in amongst thousands of others, with no room to sit down. I had expected porta-johns and food vendors, but there were none to be had.
Despite this and the afternoon sun, it was a remarkably good-natured crowd. The people immediately around us all shared whatever food we’d all brought in, and I saw nothing but patience, kindness, and forbearance amongst the many people there. Veira was born and raised in Beirut, and if I’m ever banished to a desert island, she’s the person I’d want as my companion. She was fearless in approaching and talking to anyone in uniform and ferreting out information. Without really seeming to, she had us and a small group of people around us positioned so that when the gates finally opened at 4pm, we were all amongst the first twenty or so to get in.
Although things had seemed somewhat unorganized and unstructured before, the entry and security procedures were very well-organized and thorough. The procedure was almost identical to going through security at an airport, minus the x-ray scans. Once in, Veira unerringly found us seats in the stands that we agreed were the best in the house. We were seated in the first row of the first section above the reserved seats for Arizona political figures, and we had an unrestricted view of the podium and were right above the entry where the dignitaries came through.
Members of the Arizona House and Senate and various political luminaries were right in front of us and I got to greet and shake hands with one of my heroes, former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard. Before the event started I made my way to the top of the arena to wait in line for the bathroom, which I hadn’t used since 11am that morning. But when I heard a huge roar of applause, I went back to my seat, to find that the crowd had been cheering the arrival of the two surgeons who treated the shooting victims. That was such a great reflection of the whole evening — we needed heroes and we had them right at hand.
The thousands of people there were very, very grateful to these two doctors, and not afraid to let it show. It was that way every time various luminaries showed up. County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik got a standing ovation as he entered. Homeland Security head (and former Arizona Governor) Janet Napolitano was greeted by cheers, cries of “Welcome home” and one solitary shout of “Please stay here with us!” We were moved and overjoyed to see former Supreme Court Justice (and old-time Arizona gal) Sandra Day O’Connor, Eric Holder, FBI head Robert Meuller, and Nancy Pelosi, who made a very subtle entrance. Jon Kyl, John McCain, and Jan Brewer were also greeted, and if the applause was somewhat more subdued and less exuberant, at least they got it.
As we waited, the huge crowd was uniformly pleasant, respectful, and happy. There was a bit of a rock concert air as we cheered the arriving guests, but at the same time, it felt totally fitting. When the Obamas entered the stadium, along with Gifford’s husband Mark Kelly and the young intern, Dan Hernandez, whose initial actions right after the shooting probably saved Gifford’s life, the applause and cheering was deafening.
Both Napolitano and Holder started out by reading scripture. Napolitano read the gorgeous words from Isaiah about justice: how every valley shall be exalted and the crooked made straight. Holder read from Corinthians, about how mercy and help shall come and the world will be changed. It was a dignified and reverent start to the proceedings.
Daniel Hernandez made a brief speech in which he emphatically denied being a hero, and the big hug he received afterward from Michelle Obama was incredibly touching. Throughout the event, Mark Kelly sat between Janet Napolitano and Michelle. Janet kept her arm around him, and Michelle held his hand. That old NASA astronaut seemed to have no trouble being amongst strong women!
Most of you probably heard or watched President Obama’s speech, so I won’t try to repeat it here. He is an incredible orator. It was like he struck a personal note with everyone there — very direct and to-the-point — while at the same time, being moving and inspiring on a very large scale. We were all on our feet for most of it, cheering so hard that it probably prolonged his time at the lectern by many minutes.
He spoke movingly, eloquently about each person who was killed. He or his aides did a wonderful job in researching, because it was though he knew each of the victims. He spoke especially at length about the 9-year-old girl, how she wanted to be the first woman to play major-league baseball, and for an instant, every person there could directly feel her loss. I took away two of his points; one was that we couldn’t banish evil from the world, but that we could live our personal lives with kindness, valor, and love.
The second point was that from here on out, whenever we engage in political rhetoric or discussion, we must do so in a way that honors the lives of the people we lost. Something profound was going on in that place: it felt like healing and understanding were just flowing amongst everyone there. I think we not only witnessed a major speech from an oratorical master, but that in some way, we were all acknowledged and healed in our hearts just by being there.
The two-hour drive in; the four-hour wait on my feet in the hot sun and among a big crowd; the going without food, water, or a bathroom — all were worth it the moment the President opened his mouth. I am awed, overwhelmed, and deeply moved, and am going to reflect on this for a long time.
Maggie McQuaid is a native Arizonan. She attended Prescott College, worked as a social worker and legal investigator in Alaska for 26 years, and is now retired and living in Bisbee, Arizona.