Can a single memento define the life of a 9/11 victim?

Karina Bland, The Arizona Republic

Donna Bird has a decision to make, one she has been putting off for close to 13 years.

Her husband, Gary Bird, was in New York on business on September 11, 2001, when first one plane and then another struck the World Trade Center. Gary was on the 99th floor of the north tower that morning, high enough to see beyond the skyline, even in New York, high enough to see the horizon.

Of almost 3,000 people killed that day, there and in Washington and in Pennsylvania, he was the only one who lived in Arizona.

In the years since, Donna has been asked, along with other families of 9/11 victims, to donate something that belonged to her husband to be housed and displayed in the National September 11 Memorial Museum.

Something of significance. Something that would capture the sense of who he was.

At first, Donna would open and then close the e-mails. “I would read them and think, ‘No, I can’t deal with this,’ ” she says. Not yet.

Over the years, there were more requests, not pushy or intrusive, just reminders. Donna would fold a pair of Gary’s Wrangler jeans or pick up his Leatherman off the dresser and think, maybe this, or maybe that. But then, no.

“I didn’t even know where to start,” she says. “How do you curate somebody’s life?”

Much of what Gary collected over the years was in the drawer of the nightstand on his side of the bed. Donna packed it away in a cardboard box after he died.

Was there something in there she should donate?

Several pairs of reading glasses. A U.S. Army sewing kit. The University of Arizona license plate.

His Jaycees membership card. Gary had also volunteered with the Kiwanis Club and city Planning and Zoning Commission; he was a founding member of the Tempe Boys and Girls Club.

A diver’s watch. Souvenirs from two Super Bowls. A small plastic Yoda from “Star Wars” that had been chewed on by one of the dogs. At Halloween, Gary would pull on a rubber Yoda mask and hand out candy to trick-or-treaters.

Whatever Donna chooses, she doesn’t want it to be something that highlights the horror of how Gary died but something that shows how he lived. She thought, “When it’s the right thing, I’ll know it’s the right thing.”

Her house is full of choices, dating back to Gary’s childhood.

Should she donate his wooden Little League bat? The black-and-white framed portrait of Gary, the baby, with his brother and sister? “Look at that face,” Donna says.

Gary was born in Cottonwood and raised in Camp Verde, a real cowboy from the start. His mother rode horses until she was eight months pregnant with him. By age 3, Gary would shimmy up a horse’s front leg, grab two fistfuls of mane, and pull himself up on the horse’s back.

He graduated from high school in Kingman and attended college in Tucson.

Donna met him on June 13, 1981, at a party in Tempe that she hadn’t even wanted to attend; she had just broken up with someone and thought she’d prefer the company of her dog. Please, her friend begged, just for an hour.

Donna was leaving the party when Gary Bird said hello. They talked for three hours, until 1 in the morning.

Maybe she could donate a picture from their wedding album to the museum? One shows them kissing at their reception, she in a dress sewn by her mother and a borrowed veil. It was held in the gymnasium at the Tempe Boys and Girls Club, amid the basketball hoops and drinking fountains, which Gary had helped raise the money to build.

There’s the visor his daughter Amanda had made for him in grade school with “I love Dad” spelled out in gold glitter. Amanda was 15, Andrew 13, in 2001 when he was killed.

If Andrew, now 26, had to choose, he’d probably pick a toy sheriff’s badge from a trip he made to Rawhide with his dad as a boy. “Your first time at Rawhide, with guys shooting each other and falling off rooftops?” he says. “It’s frickin’ rad.”

Gary kept everything his children made for him, every crayoned card, and every clay pinch pot. They’re now in blue, cloud-covered boxes.

Of course, Donna couldn’t bear to part with those.

Honestly, Gary didn’t set much store in material possessions. The things he did cherish were simple.

Like his saddle. It’s sitting, now, atop a wooden horse in the entryway of their house. The horn is shiny from where his forearm rested, the reins held loosely in his right hand, the leather tooled with a floral design. She wonders: Would that be too big, or too ostentatious to put in a museum?

The museum, below street level where the World Trade Center stood, has become a national depository of items recovered from the towers. It includes the twisted remains of police and fire trucks. And then there are personal items donated by families.

The “missing poster” for Richard Caproni and a ball cap from his family. Andrea Haberman’s purse, glasses, keys and a checkbook. Robert Gschaar’s World Trade Center building security pass and his wallet, which held a $2 bill. He and his wife each always carried one.

Within months of the tragedy, efforts to preserve memories and artifacts from the time began. The museum officially began collecting donations in early 2006.

Some families give remnants of a life’s work: A scorched I.D. badge, business cards, a travel itinerary.

Some give the memories from life outside of work: a Little League coach’s jersey, running shoes, golf clubs.

Some represent a legacy: Scholarship brochures, awards given in their names.

Some are waiting still.

Donna runs her hands along the seat of Gary’s saddle and holds on to the cinch. The horses are gone now.

Her husband rode every chance he got. “Gary rode a horse like his dad did,” Donna says. “He and the horse were one. They’d get going, and you couldn’t tell where the horse stopped and the man started; they were all just one motion.”

So should she donate the saddle? Or his bridle? It has a circle of silver on the side, where the straps intersect, that holds everything together, snugly. Gary was like that.

One thing Gary loved can’t be put in a museum.

Donna remembers the day Gary came home, so excited about the horse property he had found nearby. A full acre in south Tempe with a tack room and paddock out back.

She couldn’t say no. And when they moved in on a 118-degree day in 1995, Gary had sighed, “I just love this place. I feel like I’m in heaven.”

Donna, sprawled spread-eagle on the cold tile floor, had retorted, “I’m glad you’rehappy,” and then smiled up at him. In truth, she never cared much for the place. But she was glad that he got six years there to love it.

At 5:20 every morning, Gary would get up, start the coffee and go out back to feed the three horses, a mother and her two fillies. He liked that he could talk to them — and they didn’t talk back.

By the time he came back into the house, the coffee would be ready. He would pour a cup for Donna, carry it into the bedroom where she was just waking, and sit on her side of the bed to say, “Good morning.”

Gary always left early for work, so he could be home in time for dinner. In the closet in the back bedroom, there are items from Gary’s jobs.

Should she donate his old Phelps Dodge business cards? Or the hard hat and air sniffer he wore when he went into the mines? He had loved that job, making sure employees were safe while they worked, for 11 years until June 2001, when he was laid off by new management.

He spent his days that summer with the kids while Donna, a lawyer, was at work. He trained the new filly, riding her with a saddle for the first time on September 7.

Two days later, he started the job he had found that summer, as senior vice president at Marsh & McLennan Companies, a New York-based global insurance brokerage firm.

Gary had never liked New York. He and Donna had gone there in 1984 for a Risk and Insurance Management Society meeting. By the third day, Gary told Donna, “I’ve got to get out of here. I can’t see the horizon. It’s driving me nuts to be here and not see the horizon.”

There he was, almost 20 years later, working for a New York firm — but he would work from the Phoenix office, keep the horses, keep the open spaces.

He just needed to fly out for orientation, for two days in New York, at the Marsh offices in the World Trade Center. His last meeting would start at 8:15 a.m. on Tuesday, and then he’d fly home.

Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

As he left the house in Tempe, he promised Donna, “I’ll be home for dinner Tuesday night.” And then, “I love you.”

Donna is ready to sell that house now, the one he loved but she never really cared for. The kids are grown now and on their own, Amanda in California, Andrew in Tempe. She’ll move to a smaller place.

So, for the last 14 months, she has been sorting through furniture, closets and boxes, deciding what to keep, what to save for her children.

Should she donate the saddle? There’s no room for it in the new place.

She has thought about it so many times. “I’ve been ignoring this for too long,” she says.

Only now, on the 13th anniversary, is she ready.

“9/11 used to pull me back into the event every year,” Donna says. “Last year, it pulled me so much, I had to go there physically.”

She returned to New York for the first time since she had been there to pick up her husband’s remains. At the National September 11 Memorial, built where the twin towers once stood, she wandered along the twin reflecting pools, reading the names of those who died etched in bronze panels.

“It was cleansing,” Donna says.

Still, she struggles with the idea. How do you curate somebody’s life? “You really can’t,” she says, “so why do you bother?” In the same breath, she answers her own question.

It’s for herself, and her children and grandchildren to come. For people from all over the world who will wander through the museum and feel something.

And for Arizona.

“He will always belong to Arizona, as my children do, as a native son who loved the horizon,” she says.

Nothing Will Separate Us

Proceeds from Donna Bird’s book about her life with husband Gary Bird, Nothing Will Separate Us, fund the Gary Bird Christian Service Award at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School in Tempe. The award provides an eighth-grader with $8,000 over four years to attend a Catholic high school.

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