Leo Ryan Memorial Park

Is anyone out there old enough to remember Leo Ryan, the Congressman who was shot and killed as he tried to leave Jonestown, Guyana 32 years ago? I heard his daughter Erin’s voice on NPR the other morning, and her voice and message brought the whole, sad story back to mind. Her father and others had flown to Guyana to investigate Jim Jones’ and the People’s Temple, and the congressman never returned.

Erin told of her love and admiration for her father…and of her “gut wrenching” heartache when she heard the news. Evidently, he had been involved in somewhat dangerous situations before, and neither of them perceived this trip as ominous. In fact, they had shared dinner in her Georgetown apartment on the eve of his departure and had talked about topics such as her classes and her cooking skills.

A few days later, Erin heard a flash news report on television reporting that a United States congressman had been shot while attempting to leave the airfield in Guyana. Was it her father? Had he been killed, or was he merely injured? Since this was back in the day prior to instantaneous news, she had to endure some painful hours waiting, waiting, waiting.

As the days went by, reports from Guyana became even more horrific.  Jim Jones, the leader of the cult, had persuaded over 900 people, about 1/3 of whom were children, to commit suicide by drinking a kool-aid type of drink. He was found with a gunshot wound in his head, reportedly self-inflicted.

Erin Ryan says she can still think about the death of her father and be moved to tears. Still, she says to the families of the victims of the recent Arizona shootings, “You can’t make that a defining moment of your life, or of the person who died.” She’s always reminded herself of how lucky she was to have Congressman Ryan as her dad to have had him as long as she did.  “That’s what you have to hold onto.”

When I heard Erin Ryan’s words, I was traveling to see one of daughters and her family, and a couple of thoughts struck me. Love and appreciate those you love.  Look at them, listen to them, read books to them (grandchildren), hug them, and savor each moment of your time together. When and if separation comes, count yourself fortunate to have known the person. Remember those special times, but don’t get stuck in the past like Lot’s wife.  Move forward.

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