“If there is a load
You have to bear
That you can’t carry
I’m right up the road
I’ll share your load
If you just call me”
“Lean on Me”
Many frame South Dakota living as an idyllic life, and there are some very good things about it. I’ve lived a few places in my life, and beyond being close to family, there are definitely other reasons I returned.
The Bible says that you will not be tested beyond what you can bear, but those of us in South Dakota have learned that when a neighbor’s fence is torn out by a flash flood, you stop to help put it back together.
If a death occurs in the family, food shows up on the doorstep, in the mailbox, at the office from people that you may not have spoken to in months. We often help neighbors “bear” the tests of life.
One thing I did realize after moving away to school, however, is that help was seldom asked for. Asking for needed assistance is something that seems to tear at pride.
I was in my senior year of college when 9/11 happened. I was a community advisor in one of the freshman residence halls on campus. After being on lockdown for the entirety of that Tuesday, classes were cancelled the rest of the week.
Some of the freshmen and fellow community advisors took it as a chance to relax from school, just a couple weeks into the term.
However, my dorm room was busy nearly all hours of the day with those who needed to talk about the world and what was going on. There were tears, there was anger, and there was plenty of anxiety of what sort of world would emerge from this day.
I took in all of this and absorbed the weight of it for days. Weeks. Then months. Until it got to the point that my graduation came into question due to lack of attendance in class.
Mental health services were free on campus, but I guess going back to my upbringing, admitting I needed the help was incredibly hard to do. I still don’t know if I would have gone if my father had not brought me back from a visit home to South Dakota in order to attend my first appointment with me, encouraging me to seek the help I desperately needed.
On 9/11, I was locked in Williams Arena on the University of Minnesota campus for the day due to my marketing internship with the women’s athletics department.
While the football team held the first home game for the school since the tragedy on Sept. 29, that was at the Metrodome off-campus.
I had the honor of singing the national anthem for the first on-campus sporting event, held nearly a month after 9/11 on Oct. 5 as the volleyball team hosted Indiana.
When I had my first major eye surgery, the director of the ROTC programs on campus talked with me about my options and we laid out a plan for military life after football. Then more surgeries followed, and it became clear that serving my country would not be an option for me.
That night at the volleyball game, I sang the anthem as I always do, straight through without any extra trills or fancy notes — jeez, the song is tough enough as it is. The reaction was different, though.
The Gophers team each shook my hand as I walked off the court. The Gophers coach hugged me. The Indiana coach shook my hand and patted my back. As I handed the microphone back to our courtside announcer, he took my hand and mouthed “Thank you” before heading into his pregame dialogue.
Then I picked up my gear to begin working the game as an intern, not knowing I had one more greeting left.
The University of Minnesota typically employed retirees to provide “security” at women’s athletics events. They kept the mood jovial and were easily spotted in their neon vests that they put over their clothes.
As I headed up the ramp to begin preparing for the first in-game giveaway I had to lead, my pathway was blocked by one of those security men, his eyes red with tears. I walked toward him, not sure what was wrong, and I was taken in by the largest hug I could have imagined.
I cannot recall all the words spoken to me as we embraced, but he told me that he was glad it was me that sang that night to sing the song “how it needed to be done.” He also mentioned that hearing it done well was “what this old soldier needed.”
We are now nearly 20 years beyond that moment, and I will say that part of my depression following 9/11 included a hopelessness in my lack of ability to serve in the military as a few of my college classmates were doing at the time, a feeling that I couldn’t do something, ANYTHING to help respond to the tragedy.
That night, I provided the service one “soldier” needed, and it took months of time and working with a therapist afterward for me to understand that I could serve in that way, but there is a role for each of us in strengthening our country through service to one another, if we can only humble ourselves to be willing to do it.