Echoes from the past
For 9/11 survivor, sounds and other triggers bring back memories of that traumatic day and taking music lessons through the Community Music Conservatory is one way she continues to cope.
9/11 survivor Valecia “Chee-Chee ” Parker shows the custom-made guitar she uses for her lessons through the Ocala Symphony Orchestra’s Community Music Conservatory at the Reilly Arts Center. [Photo courtesy Reilly Arts Center]
Even after 22 years, the piercing wail of a siren is all it takes for Valecia “Chee-Chee” Parker to want to crumble within herself.
“If I’m in the car with my grandkids and we hear a siren, they’ll turn up the music on the radio to drown it out,” said Parker, who lives in rural Marion County to lessen the chances of hearing one. “The sound brings back too many memories.”
Other nightmare-inducing triggers exist as well, including news reports, movies and television programs mentioning the Twin Towers, the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and 9-11, among others.
The month of August is particularly difficult for Parker, and she has trouble staying focused.
“I start getting more depressed when it rolls around each year and the closer it gets to that date, that anniversary, the harder it is for me,” she said. “But I try to take better care of myself and do things to cheer myself up.”
The now-70-year-old was a civilian employee of the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001 when Islamic terrorists hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 soon after takeoff from Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C., and slammed it into the federal building around 9:37 a.m., near where Parker was working.
The plane’s 59 passengers, including six crew members, and the five jihadists, along with 125 people in the Pentagon were killed, with dozens more injured, including Parker who was in the U.S. Army section on the second floor when the plane hit.
Three other airliners were also commandeered by hijackers that day: two slammed into the Twin Towers in New York City, while another crashed into the ground in Shanksville, Pa., its mission to hit another Washington. D.C area target thwarted by heroic passengers who stormed the cockpit after hearing about the other attacks via cell phone calls from loved ones.
In all, 2,977 victims died during the four meticulously coordinated attacks, the majority of whom died at the Twin Towers.
“I don’t remember the plane crashing into the Pentagon,” said Parker, who was buried underneath a massive pile of desks and other rubble following the impact and fiery explosion. “I do know what people have told me about it—it was like an earthquake.”
Parker does, however, recall crying out soon afterward.
“I kept yelling, ‘Jesus save me, Jesus save me,'” she said. A co-worker heard Parker’s pleas for help and followed her voice—down to the first floor— where she lay trapped and severely hurt under the debris.
“It took 45 minutes for them to get me out,” said Parker, who suffered smoke inhalation and injuries to her back, neck, shoulders, and arms, but an even more serious brain injury.“I was like a 2-year-old, I had to learn how to walk, talk, and eat all over again. I couldn’t do anything for myself,” said the military veteran who spent 13 years in the Army, including five in the reserves, before working at the Pentagon.
“I was in brain rehabilitation for four years in Virginia,” said Parker, who moved to Ocklawaha in 2005, soon after she was released from care. “As soon as I could get away from the city and sirens and move to the country, I did.”
But the former bodybuilder was far from healed, and even now two, decades-plus later, Parker is still mending from not only her physical injuries but also the mental and emotional anguish from the terrorist attacks as well.
Three days a week, Parker receives vital therapy at The Villages VA Clinic, including art and gardening, as well as music therapy, the latter of which is especially crucial to her mindset and well-being.
“For me to go anywhere, I have to have music,” she said. “I have it going all the time; it helps with my healing.”
Last year, Parker’s VA doctor recommended that she take guitar lessons to help stimulate her brain, and soon after she received a scholarship to the Community Music Conservatory, a professionally run music school that’s part of the Ocala Symphony Orchestra at the Reilly Arts Center.
Arts in Health Ocala Metro, a nonprofit organization that connects art and healing, provided the funds for the weekly lessons.
“It’s been challenging, but it not only helps with my brain injury it also provides emotional therapy,” said Parker, who has an adult daughter and four grandchildren. Her parents, Joseph and Helen Parker, both 91, live in Ocala. “But figuring out how to move my fingers, read the notes, and use my right and left hands to play has been hard.”
“It’s definitely giving my brain a workout,” she said. “But I love it.”
Her guitar teacher Jack Covell, a professional musician and music educator with more than 50 years of experience, said it is not easy learning to play the guitar. Parker already knew how to play the clarinet, he said, but the stringed instrument is far different than a horn.
“It’s a fretted instrument so it’s laid out much differently than other instruments, especially a clarinet,” he said. “There’s a lot of dynamics going on when you’re playing the guitar.”
Covell said Parker’s mental approach to learning guitar differs from someone who does not have a brain injury.
“It’s interesting to see her navigate that,’’ he said. “It is a challenge for her, she sees the guitar differently than you or I see it, especially the guitar strings. I’m constantly trying to find ways for her to make the connection so that when she looks down, she sees the strings in the right order.”
Parker said Covell exudes patience during her weekly lessons, even when she forgets something she just learned.
“Jack is very patient and kind, and works miracles for me,” said Parker. “He may show me something and I may or may not remember it, but he writes everything down for me so that I can see it.”
Covell said teaching Parker guitar has been gratifying, especially given that she is a 9/11 survivor.
“There’s so much there that goes above and beyond the music part of it,” he said. “It’s the human connection and the way we are using music to get her back on track. I think it’s helped. Her demeanor has changed over the past year.”Soon after she began taking lessons, Parker was gifted a custom-made guitar by a local artisan Timothy Broot. The instrument is carved with flames at the top, which cascades down into the shape of the Pentagon.
“I was so surprised and touched by the gesture; it’s a beautiful instrument,” said Parker, who was divorced at the time of the terrorist attacks. “When it was given to me, I was learning ’Amazing Grace,’ so I named my guitar Grace.”
As the nation somberly prepares to observe the 22nd anniversary of the attacks, Parker will also reflect on that September day, when she not only lost her way of life but multiple co-workers and friends as well.
“I worked for a three-star general and my supervisor was a one-star general, they were both killed,” said Parker. “There was some sort of meeting about to happen and I asked some co-workers to go out front and handle phone calls. Those people didn’t make it, either.”
Some of the co-workers who died were also Parker’s friends, a few even attended the same church as she did.
“It’s been hard, but I’ve tried to move on and travel and see everything that God has created,” said Parker. “When I do hear a siren, I just keep telling myself they are not coming for me.”