PHOENIX (Arizona's Family) -- Where were you on 9/11? It's hard to fathom we have a whole generation of young adults who don't have a firsthand perspective of the day that changed our world.
There was only one victim from Arizona -- Gary Bird. For the first time in years, his widow and son are opening up to share some perspective on their healing.
Donna Killoughey Bird had asked for privacy for her family for years. Now she believes it's crucial to talk about her husband, their loss, and honoring the significance of that historic day. Donna said her change of heart came after she went back to school and saw how many college students didn't connect with 9/11.
"Gary was my No. 1 on this earth," she said. She's had 20 years of adjusting to life without her greatest love. "I'm the luckiest woman in the world that he chose me."
That September morning in 2001 and "a shutdown moment"
"On the morning of 9/11, I'm getting ready in the bathroom, and I hear, 'We have breaking news,'" Donna recalled. "I went in and looked at the visual, and my heart stopped."
Her husband was training for a new job as senior vice president at Marsh & McLennan in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. "I knew he had a meeting at the World Trade Center," Donna said. She immediately called Gary's boss here in Phoenix, "I said, 'Turn on the TV. Please let me know if that's your building."
Her son, Andrew, was only 13 at the time. "I remember waking up, seeing that," he said. He watched the news unfolding on the television in his older sister's room. "For me, it was a shutdown moment," Andrew said.
Donna remembers taking the kids to school. She was on autopilot, relying on routine when reason failed. "As time's going on, it's getting worse, not better," she said.
Gary was in the second tower, which was the first to fall. Another hijacked plane hit the Pentagon. A fourth, which passengers tried to take back, went down in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
"Something gave me the ability to just turn it over to a higher power, and soon thereafter, my heart felt ... peaceful," Donna said. Through faith, she found the strength to share her story two days later at a news conference at her church.
"I ran to the phone and called his cell number and said, 'Just call me and let me know that you're OK.' But he never called," she said through tears before the cameras.
"I was, you know, angry and resentful and bitter and distant," Andrew said. It would be about a decade before he could snap out of that spiral.
"I didn't want my kids to lose two parents," Donna said, explaining that her instinct as a trial attorney kicked in. It forced her to find strength for their children. "I was blessed to have the mind of a lawyer and the heart of a lover. ... My duty was to be a parent that did not get lost in grief."
The Tempe Healing Field at Tempe Beach Park, a now-iconic annual display, was started to honor Gary, who dedicated decades of service to philanthropic causes in the East Valley with the Tempe Jaycees and Tempe Boys & Girls Club.
Strangers wrote letters to Donna, sharing stories of how Gary's life impacted theirs.
"My dad was the guy that I was always aspiring to be," Andrew said.
Donna said her daughter Amanda sharing that was what she was most thankful for on their first Thanksgiving without Gary, really resonated with all of them, "He was always present."
A life well-lived
The family albums are full of pictures of a life well-lived -- camping, hiking, skiing, scuba diving, quality time together.
Gary grew up on a farm in Camp Verde. As he rose to success, he always stayed humble and utterly devoted to his family. "He was home for dinner every night," Andrew said. "Every night, same time, yeah, even though he worked downtown for a Fortune 500 company," Donna added.
Donna's memoir, "Nothing Will Separate Us," was published on the 10-year anniversary of the attacks. It helps fund a scholarship for young adults carrying on the same commitment to service and education in our community. "His whole life of love and service and kindness and caring, that was Gary," Donna said.
"Arizona's native son"
You'll find the story of 'Arizona's native son,' at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in Manhattan. Donna and Andrew finally went to see ii together for the first time in the fall, right before the pandemic. "It's intense. It's pretty intense," Bird said.
Donna said one of the most moving exhibits was the blue tile wall, a tapestry of different shades of the same color, one square for each victim. "It just forces you to see that after all that chaos, there is a message for all of humanity," she said. The symbolism offers a perspective to reflect. Despite our differences -- especially in today's climate -- we remain connected, even harmonious, if you're able to see the bigger picture.
They ended the tour with something unexpectedly special after finding Gary's name on the stone around the memorial reflecting pool.
"His was just one name among many," Andrew said. "The same font as everybody else on that wall." Then you look up. "There's that white subway station thing that looks like bird wings," Donna said. "I'm not kidding," she said, pointing down to her husband's name, "Bird," then up to the white wings of the subway station, "bird!"
Now that Gary has been gone almost as long as he was in her life, Donna says sharing his story now should remind us to live each day with honor and no regrets.
"We frequently would say to each other, 'Wow, we could be dead tomorrow,'" Donna said. "I don't have regrets. I told him I loved him. He told me he loved me. He went off to work like a kid going off to kindergarten; he was so excited. I know we said, 'Goodbye, I love you.' He said to me, 'I'll be home for dinner Tuesday night.' "What I ultimately knew is that I was loved by Gary, the entire time that he was with us, and I had no doubt that he knew that I loved him."