One Boy’s Difficult New Life is Symbol of Many in Bombing’s Aftermath
BROKEN ARROW, Okla. (AP) _ The headlights that seemed to turn the highways into endless funeral processions are fewer now. The fliers announcing memorials are coming down. The bouquets heaped on fresh graves, like Trudy Rigney’s grave here, are beginning to wilt.
Life moves on for those left behind by the Oklahoma City bombing _ those healing from injuries and those in mourning whose wounds are deep inside.
Among the latter is Jonmichael Rigney, the shiny-eyed son Trudy raised alone. At 11, his life is beginning anew: a new home 100 miles from his old one, new school, new friends and a new family doing their best to make life possible now that his ``best buddy″ is gone.
The boy does not express his sorrow yet. Asked how he’s doing, he says only, ``Fine.″ Distractedly, he moves from one activity to the next: watching a few minutes of television, playing with a cousin’s ``G.I. Joe,″ strumming an uncle’s guitar.
His aunt, Paula Rigney, who moved the pictures from the wall of his old bedroom to his new one in his grandmother’s house here, stays close by this Thursday afternoon, one day past the funeral. She lights up when Jonmichael smiles at something on TV.
They talk about it for a moment, then she gently prods, ``Did your mom like that show?″
``Yeah,″ he says.
``Are you thinking about her?″
``Want to talk about it?″
``We miss her, too,″ she says. ``But there’s going to be lots of people to take care of you.″
``I just don’t want to talk about it,″ the boy replies.
Jonmichael may ``lack the language of pain,″ as an expert in child grieving explains, but not the feelings.
``This is his survival instinct,″ said Elaine Weiche, a friend of Trudy’s. She noted that, while collecting donations for the family the other day, it crossed her mind that her vivacious pal might just walk up, smiling. Perhaps her son visualizes that, too, she said.
``I don’t think he believes she’s gone from him.″
``No leaf of sedge nor cattail blade shall push
Up from the dark mud toward the open sky
But I shall be there, in the tender tip ...″
These lines by an Oklahoma poet, George Sutton, were read at a memorial where friends tossed handfuls of dirt around a tree planted for Trudy Rigney. The poem about love and loss echoes in the words of those forming a circle now around her son.
The two were inseparable.
``Jonmichael was right at her heels. They were mother and son, but it was best buddies, too,″ said Rick Rigney, Trudy’s brother. The boy’s father left before he was born, Rigney explained.
As a toddler, Jonmichael rode on the back of the bike that was her only transportation. She took him to meetings, to work, on trips. They ``were silly together,″ someone remembers. A photo shows her sticking out her tongue, mimicking him.
Together, they struggled to make a better life, fell back, and started again. After a traffic injury cost her her job, they lived in a homeless shelter. They had been on welfare.
Still, when she died Trudy Rigney was closing in on a degree from the University of Oklahoma. And she dreamed of buying the little white bungalow they rented, where azaleas she planted are flowering now in the front yard.
She had parlayed a student internship at the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, across the street from the Alfred P. Murrah federal building, into a 30-hour-a-week job and the prospect of full-time employment. She was at work when the bomb exploded.
The honors she won, in spite of all, at the university and at Tulsa Junior College made her son proud and helped form his own determined spirit, friends say.
``Living in a homeless shelter _ how many people would have the courage to say, `I’m not going to stop here. I’m going to go on,‴ said Barbara Slagle, the college’s director of student activities who presented Trudy a top academic award. ``Trudy’s story was more remarkable because she was a human being. She wasn’t perfect.″
Jonmichael’s father may be ``out East somewhere,″ said Rick Rigney, adding that the family is concerned he could resurface as Jonmichael’s grandmother, Haroldene, seeks custody.
Haroldene Rigney, who declined to be interviewed, drove to her daughter’s home in the Oklahoma City suburb of Midwest City as soon as she learned about the explosion, to care for Jonmichael. When Trudy’s death was confirmed April 23, the family returned to Broken Arrow, outside Tulsa.
``We had all decided before we came back, we just decided we’d raise him just like he was one of our kids,″ said Rick Rigney, whose two children from a first marriage visit him and Paula on weekends. They’ll play and that will help, he hopes.
``Right now we just want to try to show him as much love as possible, hug him as much as we can,″ he said.
Looking at his nephew, he saw his sister. He noted Jonmichael’s sense of humor and playfulness, traits they had in common.
``He has a lot of Trudy in him. She was tough and so is he,″ he said. ``He knows what it’s like to come out of hardship.″
``No bird of passage shall fly north or south
Breasting the stiff wind or pushing through the fog,
But I shall be there, feeling the deep urge
That drives it otherwhere at summer’s ending ...″
Jonmichael’s books are still stacked on his school desk back in Midwest City. His teacher, Paula Farber, can’t bring herself to put them away.
At the funeral, the one time his family says he really cried, she thought she could read his thoughts on his tortured face: ```That was Mom. We can’t have an open casket. I’m in Broken Arrow now, not Midwest City. I don’t have a mom. I don’t have a home that’s my home’ _ but he DOES!″ she said, tears running down her cheeks.
She showed a wall of heart-shaped notes classmates had written. ``We all care, Jonmichael,″ said one with a crayoned Band-Aid.
Soon he’ll travel with his old class on an all-day mountain-climbing trip, said Scott Roper, a learning disabilities teacher who taught Jonmichael.
Just a few weeks ago Trudy, who once established a tutoring program for her son and other students, had written to ask that he be allowed to go along, even though the family could not pay the price: $7.50.
Of course, the school said, allowing him to pay his way by selling candy bars, so that it wouldn’t be ``a handout. She didn’t accept things from people.″
Now the trip he earned means more than ever, Roper said. ``It brings everybody together when you’re climbing that mountain.″
His mother would like that. She was a geography major at Oklahoma, became president of the geography club and always took Jonmichael on trips. One freezing weekend it was to the tall-grass prairie of Osage County, Okla., another time to the bleak beauty of Palo Duro Canyon’s mesas, near Amarillo, Texas.
``He was always asking me about all the animals we saw out there, and the trees,″ said Bob Rundstrom, a geography professor who led the group and who has now helped organize a trust fund for Jonmichael.
A more private memorial for Trudy is something else he has in mind, when he goes back to the mesas. ``I’ll make a small monument somewhere. Maybe just a pile of stones. Something like that needs to be done.
``She was trying to make a different kind of life for herself than she had had,″ Rundstrom said. ``Through Trudy, he was exposed to a lot of things. Now, I wonder if he’ll have the same opportunities.″
The club hasn’t planned another trip yet, but he added, ``When we do, I think I’ll make a phone call up to Broken Arrow. ... We could swing by and pick him up.″
``No creature in the world shall experience love _
Drying its wings impatiently while clinging to the old cocoon,
Leaping the swollen waterfall, yapping to the desert moon ...
But I shall be there in each sound and move ...″
(EDITOR’S NOTE _ The address of the Jonmichael Rigney Trust Fund at the University of Oklahoma Geography Department is: 100 E. Boyd, Suite 684, Norman, Okla. 73019.)