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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Nine Eleven

Today was much more difficult than I imagined.

I thought it would get better with time.

It hasn’t.

I kept the church open today – rang the church bells twice, at the time each tower was hit. I hooked up the CD player to the sound system in the church and played meditative music all day, leaving books of prayers from various faiths – Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, etc., on the shelf by the baptismal font.

I hung up the “9/11 Stations of the Cross” I had made four years ago in the church bays where we normally hang the Stations of the Cross each Lent.

These are nine simple white poster boards with a cross in red and blue. Each poster has two pages of names of the almost 3,000 people who died and two obituaries, with pictures, from the NY Times – including the thirteen people from Chatham, one of whom, Robin Larkey, was a member of my congregation.

The Stations of the Cross of Jesus lead us into the story of the life and death of an innocent man. The 9/11 Stations of the Cross lead us into the stories of the lives and deaths of innocent men and women. It’s a powerful witness.

All day long, people came into the church to pray, but mostly they walked around reading the obituaries on the 9/11 Stations of the Cross. I spoke personally with most of them who mostly wanted to tell their story – where they had been when the Towers were hit, what they were doing, who they lost, what it has been like ever since.

It is still so very emotionally raw.

There were two couples who came at different times with a similar story. This was the first time, they said, that they had been to church in five years. They had lived in Chelsea or lower Manhattan, and were home that day. They saw the whole thing. They lived with the aftermath until June of 2002 when they moved to Chatham.

“I couldn’t stand it anymore,” one woman said to me. “The living room in my 17th story apartment had looked out on the Twin Towers. For the first few days, all I could see was smoke. Now, all I looked out on was an ugly, gaping hole.”

“I was born in New York City, grew up and went to school in New York City. I attended Columbia University from which my husband and I graduated. Our first two kids were born in New York City, but I couldn’t live there any more," she said, her blue eyes brimming with tears.

“I couldn’t go running by the Pier because that’s where the morgue had been. I couldn’t pass by some of the houses in my neighborhood because that’s where my friends lived who died in the Tower. I couldn’t look out my window and see that gaping hole every day. So, we had to leave. I couldn’t stand it anymore.” Her husband nodded in silent agreement.

As we talked, it all came back so clearly. One of our daughters, who lives on the Upper East Side and worked, at the time, at NYU, was on the train bound for the World Trade Center where she had a 10 AM appointment. That’s all I knew. I didn’t know anything about her until 2 PM when she finally got her cell phone to work. Those were the most frantic four hours of my entire life. Not knowing where she was. If she had gotten out. If she was safe. If she was alive.

In grateful thanksgiving, I resolved to go into the City to help in anyway I could. I intended to go to St. Vincent’s Hospital and put my nursing experience to good use. I thought I might be able to give some of the nurses a break from their shift – even if it was just to help tend the dying.

I put my collar on, packed some identification and took the subway in to the 23rd Street Station (that’s as far as they were running that night) and walked the rest of the way to Chelsea and St. Vincent’s Hospital. When I arrived, I couldn’t believe what I saw. Or, rather, what I didn’t see.

There was no crush of people. No ambulances lined up bringing in the wounded. No bustle of medical personnel treating people on the sidewalk and in the hallways. An EMT who was drinking coffee on the back of his ambulance saw me walking around, looking confused and dazed and said, “You came to help, Sister? Well, there’s nothing to do. There aren’t even any dead bodies. No patients to pray with. No dead bodies to bless. Nobody. Nothing. Just ashes.”

And then, almost to amuse himself from the boredom, or in a feeble attempt to protect his aching heart, he sang a little line from that macabre children’s song, “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”

He told me that I could probably help out over at Seaman’s Church Institute where they were setting up a respite site for the rescue workers, so I headed there to offer my services. I stayed there for the next two nights.

What I saw there left indelible pictures in my mind. I wrote about them five years ago. I can barely stand to read what I wrote in my journal, much less repeat any of it here.

All of the visitors to the church with whom I spoke today, all agreed on one thing. There was one moment –one horrifying moment – that we all remembered with absolute clarity. It was the moment when we, with some annoyance, realized that we were covered in soot and ash, and began to shake the dust from our clothing and hair – only to suddenly comprehend that this wasn’t just the remains of crushed and pulverized concrete and marble – these were also the ashes of human bodies.

The awfulness of that realization was too much to take in. We simply stopped – frozen in motion – and no longer shook the dust from our clothes. We tried not to think about it anymore until we could get home and take them off.

I don’t know if any of us will ever get over the events of that day. Oh, we’ve moved and started new lives in new homes. Babies have been born – new life, more love and rediscovered joy.

We smile and go about our daily lives – groceries, laundry, kids, relatives, work. But, I think, we hug our kids a bit tighter now. In fact, we hug each other a lot more than we used to. We call and check in on each other more. Many of us have tried to simplify our lives – cut down on an activity or two. Plan more family nights. Take longer vacations together.

Once you’ve been covered in the ashes of another person, it seems, your life changes inalterably.


RFSJ said...

Thanks for this. I was moved deeply.

Fr. John said...

Beautifully said. Thank you Elizabeth.

JimB said...

Thanks! I guess I do not want it to be less intense. Not because of some stupid idea of vengance, but because evil should never be allowed to fade into the background. I feel the same way about the Shoah.


Suzer said...

Thank you for this, Rev. Kaeton. My cousin lived through 9/11 and was covered head to toe with the same ash. Your remembrance of this was so powerful and moving. And in some way, though it's not directly relevant, it will give a new meaning to Ash Wednesday for me (maybe that seems weird, but that's what popped into my head, along with the Holocaust and Pompeii).

Chip Johnson+, SF, CoJ said...

Powerful, Elizabeth! Powerful indeed.
One of my favorite books as a child, was one on a famous old photographer for the NYFD, Weegee; and one of my favorite shots in the whole book was one of a NYFD Chaplain, walking down an alley after a huge '40's fire, with his head bowed down...he had been there all night, and had lost three firefighters.
I served for a few years, as staff Chaplain for the Chattanooga Fire Department, and the worst I had to deal with was the death of a firefighter's family in an automobile accident. I spent 9/11 and 9/12 in the chancel of St. Paul's, Chattanooga, and can only imagine what you went through at the Seaman's Institute.
May He richly bless your work and faith.