Kelly: From horror and pain, something wonderful - Omaha.com
Published Sunday, July 15, 2012 at 12:45 am / Updated at 5:11 pm
Kelly: From horror and pain, something wonderful

As daughters do on wedding days, mine took my breath away.

Last weekend, at the joyous reception following Bridget's marriage to ABC News producer Eric M. Strauss, it came time for the bride and her father to dance. Though everyone said she looked stunning, I inevitably recalled seeing her 10 years earlier — not in boundless joy but in utter heartbreak.

Tubes protruded from her mouth and her nose. A machine helped her breathe. At 24, she had very nearly lost her life to three 9 mm gunshots from a stranger.

As I entered her hospital room, just the two of us present, our eyes met in piercing sorrow and grief.

Now, on her wedding day, we looked at each other in happiness. As our dance began, about 150 relatives and friends looked on. An eight-piece band with a singer performed a song that Bridget herself had selected.

“I can see clearly now, the rain is gone ...”

* * *

The interfaith wedding — Catholic and Jewish — took place the evening of July 7 at the W Hotel at Union Square in New York City, with a priest and a cantor presiding.

The groom noted during the exchange of vows that he had met his future bride “during some unusual circumstances.”

He is a journalist who worked on her ABC “Primetime” story. It told of her unlikely survival, and of her decision to speak out on behalf of survivors of sexual violence.

“You revealed yourself to be a beautiful warrior the second I met you,” Eric said in front of the wedding congregation. “With your regal elegance, insightfulness and compassion, you inspire me to be better.”

Said Bridget: “I knew from our first times spent together that you were smart and funny and caring. ... You listen. You accept me for who I am and make me feel safe and happy — because I have someone great to share good times, to survive hard times and to keep me company all the time.”

The couple married under a chuppah, the canopy symbolizing in the Jewish tradition that the couple will build a life together.

The bride's and groom's mothers, Barb and Karen, each lit a candle. The couple used them to light a unity candle, and they drank wine from the kiddish cup that had been used at his bar mitzvah.

Eric stomped his right foot onto cloth-covered glass, breaking it into many pieces. As Cantor Janine Schwarz of Congregation Chavurah Beth Shalom explained, the tradition symbolizes the hope that the couple's life together lasts longer than it could ever take to put all the tiny shards back together.

The Rev. Joseph Costantino, a Jesuit and pastor of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Manhattan, spoke about the unlikely scenario that had brought Bridget and Eric together. From unimaginable horror and pain, something wonderful had resulted.

* * *

Eric grew up on Long Island and graduated from Tulane University in New Orleans. Bridget grew up in Omaha and graduated from St. Louis University.

She started her teaching career at Fort Hood, the Army post next to Killeen, Texas. On June 21, 2002, after she picked up a friend on a late flight and dropped her off, Bridget returned to her apartment.

A man who had lurked in the parking lot kicked down her door, abducted her and robbed her, and drove her to a secluded field. She recited the “Hail Mary” aloud. ... “Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”

The hour of her death seemed at hand. He raped her, shot her in the back three times and drove off.

She had suffered terrible internal wounds and would need a colostomy all summer, but her legs worked. She somehow made it 200 yards to the home of an Army veteran, Frank James, who called 911, covered her with a blanket and stayed with her.

Rescuers arrived and her life was saved in six hours of surgery at the Army hospital at Fort Hood. A Killeen police detective reached me at midmorning in Omaha.

From around the country, family and friends converged on the hospital. A long summer of recovery followed.

Bridget's story, reported in The World-Herald and in Texas, soon drew wider interest. At the request of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, she returned to the field where she was attacked and made a survivors' video, which aired statewide as part of a public awareness campaign. (Her attacker was sentenced to life plus 40 years.)

Her message — that she had done nothing wrong and bore no stigma — resonated with many. She was invited to speak at anti-violence rallies and to 900 people at a sexual-assault conference in San Francisco. Calls came from magazines, networks, even BBC radio in London.

ABC eventually flew her to New York to be interviewed by news anchor Charles Gibson. Eric Strauss, whom we met that day, was assigned to fly to Texas to shoot video of Bridget in her home and classroom, and to interview others.

The “Primetime” program aired in 2004. She later left Texas and earned a master's degree in literacy education at New York University.

Bridget and Eric met for lunch, just as friends.

* * *

The friendship blossomed, and we got to know Eric's kind family. His mother is a harpist, and his dad, Elton, is an orthopedic surgeon at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan.

Bridget is a reading specialist at a public school in New York, and Eric continues to work for ABC magazine programs. Last August, he called me in Omaha one morning; he popped the question to Bridget that night.

I write of their wedding in gratitude for the many readers who provided great moral support to Bridget and our family a decade ago and who have continued to ask about her.

Among those sending good wishes was Charlie Gibson, now retired from ABC. He said he was “smiling from ear to ear” about the wedding and remembered Bridget's story well as an example of “how resilient is the human spirit.”

Wedding week in New York was spirited indeed. We enjoyed an “Ericpalooza” party in a suite at a Mets baseball game, and a barbecue dinner for out-of-towners the night before the wedding at the Texas-themed Hill Country restaurant in Manhattan.

Bridget and Eric met eight years ago and have been a couple for about five years. She turns 35 this week, and he is 39. It's a first marriage for both.

Their wedding reception became joyfully raucous. The newlyweds were carried aloft in chairs during the Hora as the band played “Hava Nagila” faster and faster.

Elton grabbed me during that song and we jumped crazily around the floor. I was glad to know that if I threw out a hip or broke a leg, an accomplished bone doctor was right there.

Our wedding reception tradition is the “Chicken Dance,” with a member of the extended family dressed in a chicken suit. As an homage to the Hora, our chicken was carried in on a raised chair. The band played fast and furious, over and over.

Whew! Fun. I looked on in awe, thinking that no one could have predicted this happy outcome.

* * *

Ten years ago, bleeding and alone in the field where she had been left to die, 24-year-old Bridget Ann Kelly got up and stumbled to a house in the dead of night.

She said later that she felt as though she'd been “lifted up by God.” I asked somewhat bitterly where God had been 10 minutes earlier.

In the greatest testament of faith I've ever heard, she calmly replied: “He was there holding my hand.”

Now Eric has taken her hand in marriage, a union that is surely blessed by God.

The past 10 years went fast, and there were many good days in spite of the dark ones. For any guy, dancing with his daughter at her wedding makes for a very good day indeed.

To us, the song's lyrics were poignant.

“I can see clearly now, the rain is gone. ... Gone are the dark clouds that had me down. ... Oh, yes, I can make it now, the pain is gone. ... Here is the rainbow I've been praying for ...

“It's gonna be a bright, bright, bright sun-shiny day.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1132, michael.kelly@owh.com

Contact the writer: Michael Kelly

mike.kelly@owh.com    |   402-444-1000

Mike writes three columns a week on a variety of topics.

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