Friday, September 09, 2011
9/11 Cheeseburgers of Hope
Sounds good to me.
It's been pretty overwhelming to watch the media race to have the first, the most profound, the most visually graphic images of 9/11.
I've seen several really good videos produced by various organizations, some of which are reflections by people who were there. Others are about the 9/11 Memorial which opens this Sunday and the Museum which is scheduled to open next year.
And, I've read some powerful essays about the presence of Evil and how some have learned to confront it as well as reflections on what we have or haven't or still need to learn, 10 years later.
I think I'm done.
Don't get me wrong. I think it's important to mark events in time such as these. It's important to reflect and learn from history. It's very important to move on to hope and change which is hard to do unless you mark and reflect and learn.
I get that.
It's just that I have a few images of my own about those events and that place which is alternately called "The Pit" or "Ground Zero".
Things I saw with my own two eyes.
Things I heard with my own two ears.
Moments I experienced which are so profound they continue to pull at the corners of my heart all these many years later.
It's the dust that gets to me. It always is.
I remember the moment when one of the Fire Chiefs came into the Seamen's Church Institute where I had gone to volunteer after discovering that there were no bodies to tend to at St. Vincent's Hospital where I had originally gone.
He came into the front door asking where the boots were. It was the fourth pair he had changed that day. I looked down at his boots and saw that most of the rubber had melted right on his feet. One can only wonder how hot the ground was at "The Pit".
"C'mon in," I said, "We'll get you fixed right up. Have you had anything to eat? There's a 70 pound meatloaf upstairs and some killer mashed potatoes. Hungry?"
"Oh, hi, sister," he said, obviously thinking that I was a nun. A gentleman, he took off his helmut as a sign of respect. The nuns of his Irish Roman Catholic youth had taught him well.
When he moved his helmet, ashes flew everywhere. He looked at himself and started to slap the arms and legs of his fireman's suit, muttering apologetically, "There are ashes everywhere . . ."
And then, it hit him. He stopped mid-slap and sucked in his breath. "Ashes....," he said. "Everywhere....." He looked at me, his eyes filling with tears and said, "Ashes. . . .".
It took me a few seconds for my brain to register what he was saying, but I saw it in his tears.
Not just pulverized concrete and cinder and metal. These were also the ashes of people - perhaps some of the very people he was searching to find.
I put my arm around him, getting ashes all over me and said, "C'mon. Let's get you some new boots and something to eat."
We walked silently in the two downstairs rooms, one which had socks piled according to size and then, into the next room which had the same arrangement for boots and sorted through them, finding the right pair for him.
Silence accompanied us up the stairs to what had been the Recreation Room where pool tables were now covered with pieces of plywood and turned into buffet tables. The "centerpiece" of the buffet offering was that 70 pound meatloaf, now joined by freshly grilled hotdogs and hamburgers which had been cooked out on the patio on four charcoal grills and a few hibachis brought in by neighbors.
Ms. Conroy stood behind a great mound of hamburgers, ready to serve. "Make mine a cheeseburger," he said to her.
"I'm sorry," she said, "but all I have are hamburgers."
"No cheeseburgers?" he said, his shoulders slumping in disappointment.
"I know, right?" said Ms. Conroy lightly, trying to make the best of the situation. "What were they thinking? But, there's plenty of ketchup, mustard, relish and mayo right over there," she said, pointing to the end of the table.
"Aw," he said, "I really wanted a cheeseburger." Here was this grown 40-something year old man, sounding as brokenhearted as a six year old who had just had his bike stolen.
Ms. Conroy took a hamburger from the pile and held it in both her hands. She then closed her eyes and seemed to pray over it. She opened her eyes, looked at him and said, "One cheeseburger, coming right up, sir."
The fire chief looked at her, smiled broadly, took the burger from her hands and said, "I'll bet I never had a cheeseburger without cheese that tasted so good."
Sometimes, miracles are where you find them.
He took some potato chips and a pickle while I fixed him a hot cuppa joe and joined him at the table. I was delighted with our small talk which he also seemed to enjoy. Then, he told me about his family, how they had worked for the fire or police department "for generations".
He said, "That's why we're out there, crawling through the rubble and ashes, looking for our brothers and cousins and uncles and.... fathers. All we find, though, are body parts. We treat them like they were holy relics, bringing them over to the EMTs so they can be identified. Hoping that we'll find the rest of the body but . . . ." and then, he stared at the ashes on the arm of his jacket.
When he returned his gaze to me I said, "I keep hearing the men repeating a phrase. I wonder if you can help me understand." He nodded his head.
"They keep saying 'No absolution'. What do they mean? No absolution for the terrorists? No absolution . . . .?. . . . for whom?..... for what?"
He dabbed the napkin across his mouth and said, "One of the first things you learn as a firefighter is that before you go into a burning building, you've got to secure the perimeter. Make sure the building isn't going to collapse before you go into it. Most of those guys didn't do that. They just rushed in. They broke the rule. And, thousands of people died because of that. It was suicide."
He took a deep breath. "So, they broke the rule. People died. No absolution."
"Do you really believe that?" I asked.
"That's what the church says," he responded flatly.
I sighed and shook my head.
"Me neither, sister, " he said. I was so glad to hear that I didn't bother to disabuse him of his idea that I was a nun.
"Have you seen 'The Pit'?" he asked.
"No, no I haven't. I've delivered some sandwiches there, and made a coffee run, but I haven't gotten close enough to see it yet."
"So, walk back with me. Okay?"
"Sure," I said, suddenly not sure at all that I wanted to see it. I just really wanted to be with him, although I felt utterly useless. I mean, what could I say to this man that might possibly be comforting? That might bring some solace to his aching heart and soul that might be enough to help him find the strength and courage to continue his work?
I listened to him as we walked but my mind was racing. Should I offer to say the rosary with him? If he asked me to pray, what would I say? I didn't have my BCP with me. What words could I use? Would I make things worse for him?
And then, suddenly, it was there. The Pit. And, it was. A great, yawning open hole in the ground which belched smoke and fire. It was as if a corner of Hell had opened up and we were staring into the abyss.
"The mayor says that crying only makes you stronger," he said as we tried to avert our eyes from the glaring lights that illumined the darkness so the men could continue their work.
"Do you believe that?" he asked.
"Well," I said, "I suppose the mayor is probably right. Why do you ask?"
He moved his eyes from The Pit and stared into my eyes to a place deep in my soul and said, "Well, if crying makes you stronger, then I must be a fuckin' 3,000 pound gorilla by now - 'scuse my French, sister."
And then, I started to laugh. Which made him laugh. Which made me laugh even harder. Pretty soon, we were both standing there, in front of The Pit at Ground Zero, laughing our selves silly.
And then, his laughter suddenly turned into tears and then great sobs shook his body.
And then I held him as he cried and sobbed and wailed in my arms and his grief shook my body and his as the ashes flew all around us.
And then, he took out his handkerchief and wiped his eyes and blew his nose and said, "Thanks, sister. I guess I really needed that more than the non-cheese burger"
And then he kissed my hand and said, "Take care. God Bless," and returned to his work.
I don't know what we, as a nation, have learned in the past 10 years. Sometimes I think things are worse. We've spent trillions of dollars on Homeland Security and two wars and - honestly? - I don't know if we're any safer or more secure.
Meanwhile two immoral wars continue and 'GitMo' remains open.
Meanwhile, the economy is still fragile, and unemployment soars.
Meanwhile, our politicians can barely be civil with one another, our freedom and some of our civil rights have been compromised by The Patriot Act, air travel can hardly be described as enjoyable, and racial profiling is now expanded to include anyone with dark skin who might look like a Muslim.
I've seen the draft copies of some wonderful Interfaith Services of Remembrance / Hope / Reconciliation which marks, for the first time in many communities, that Priests, Ministers, Rabbis, and Imams have prayed publicly together.
That's a good start. Has it really taken 10 years for us to come to this place of new beginning in interfaith public worship? Really?
I think I'm going to have to sit in some silence on Sunday. I'm going to think about some of the things I learned that night in lower Manhattan ten years ago.
I'm going to think about those moments of revelation and miracles and epiphanies that happened in the midst of ashes and melted boots and piles of shoes and socks, and cheeseburgers without cheese and wondering about atonement and absolution and feeling completely incompetent and being present anyway and laughter and tears as the purest and perhaps only form of prayer in front of a burning, smoking pit and how God was in the midst of it all, even if we didn't know it at the time.
I don't need images of burning towers to help me remember. I don't need smartly worded essays or beautifully done videos.
I think what I need more than anything is some quiet and some candles and some music I don't need a hymnal for and a community of folks who just want to pray.
I'll go to the Interfaith Service at 4 PM on Sunday afternoon at the grandstand in front of the ocean at Rehoboth Beach.
But you know, now, more than ever - even more than on 9/11 - I just need some time with Jesus.
I'm not even 100% certain what I mean when I say that or how to explain it to you.
I just know that there's something about the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and reconciliation of Jesus that brings me inexplicable solace and hope.
I think it may have something to do with no-cheese cheeseburgers.
Because sometimes, miracles are where you find them.