Mornings after an autumn rain have their own special beauty. Skies are scrubbed a unique blue, air seems to hold a visible sparkle. A violent thunderstorm the night before made the morning of September 11th one of those new days—full of promise and adventure.
In celebration of my 20 year old daughter’s graduation from culinary school we planned a trip East from our Seattle area home. I contacted family in New York City; my nephew kindly invited us to stay at his Brooklyn apartment and off we went.
After a few days’ sight-seeing my daughter and I were looking forward to the real reason for our visit: an appointment in the city to meet her favorite food author, Ruth Reichl. An email exchange several months before (as a surprise to Leah) had yielded an unexpected kindness via the writer’s assistant, “We’ll see you at eleven on the 11th,” her voicemail said.
The morning was filled with anticipation and excitement. Leah was busy fixing her hair, I stood at a window applying mascara and make up, early daylight providing the perfect illumination.
Suddenly the ground shook—a quick, rolling jolt—like thunder beneath my feet.
My nephew’s hand was on the doorknob as he headed out to catch a subway to work in Manhattan.
“What was that?!” I hollered.
“Oh, probably just a dumptruck. See you tonight!” Throwing the remark over his shoulder, he walked out the door and was gone.
As the next minutes unfolded that bright September day, we learned along with the rest of the world that was no dumptruck. A mile and a half away the sky was raining death.
We immediately abandoned our plans and began frantically searching for answers to what had just happened. D. owned no television so we sat transfixed in front of his small radio, straining to hear as we sat in disbelief. Soon we could stand it no longer and flew down three flights of stairs to the landlord’s apartment, timidly asking if we might sit with her to watch as the horror unfolded on television.
When the walls of the apartment became too close we ventured outside with the rest of Carroll Gardens residents. People were wandering, dazed and silent. Hours pulled slow as taffy, transforming the separate ingredients of the neighborhood, the city and the rest of the world into a cohesive substance that united us in the days that followed.
Strangers gathered on street corners, television sets anchored atop kitchen chairs dotted the sidewalks as viewers stopped to listen and talk, grasping for information and answers.
Two hours later the bars in the neighborhood threw their doors open to any and all comers, regardless of age. Television became another altar where we waited for word from on high—what was happening a half mile away? Were there other planes? How many died? What about survivors? Rumors flew thick as gnats. We stood stunned, speculating with newfound friends about the outcomes. When the camaraderie of the bars proved too much—the noise, the humanity, the questions—we wandered outside again.
Ash and dust rained down on the street like dry, glittery snow. We looked up in bewilderment where fluttering gray blurred the sight of the morning’s lapis sky. Shock settled into our souls and bones as loss and uncertainty seeped in. Adrenaline carried us through the first night of air silence while we feigned sleep, radio droning between alternating news cycles and patriotic songs. I had never been happier to hear Ray Charles sing “God Bless America.”
Broadcasters ran out of descriptors as unfathomable tragedy unfolded, spilling into days and weeks that followed. Words were inadequate to carry the weight of the deep pain, the horrendous destruction, the unspeakable loss.
Fifteen years have passed since that watershed moment became a flood that forever changed the landscape of America. Memories and details wash over me from time to time and I’m overcome with emotion.
My daughter and I often ponder the possibility of traveling back to New York City to see the September 11th memorial—gaping granite hole, names etched in surrounding panels, the reflecting pool.
Friends visited the site last summer and recounted walking through the underground exhibit—walls lined with photographs and letters, mounted artifacts illustrating the devastation.
“Thank God for the Early Exit Door,” my girlfriend said. “I only lasted about 15 minutes then had to leave.” Wisely provided for those overcome with emotion, the designers had thoughtfully included a way out. If visitors were overwhelmed with what they saw and their accompanying reactions, there was a way to escape.
I pondered my friend’s comments later on, connecting them to not just the overpowering emotions of that September day but to any story that is too hard to tell. Sometimes we need a way out when feelings threaten to bury us, a way of escape when we might drown in our pain. Facing tragedy and dealing with pain can only come when people are ready. Healing doesn’t have a schedule; there is no timetable.
How gracious is our God. How gracious our friends who allow us the mental and emotional space we need to face our losses, to confront our grief when we are able. Sometimes healing takes years and comes in pieces, not all at once. We cannot demand of ourselves (nor expect from others) that we deal with wounds we are not ready to expose.
One day we’ll go back to that scene where our lives stopped cold, where life as we know it was buried beneath the rubble of that indescribable day. But I won’t rush our return. Like a slow Lazarus unwrapping, bandages peeling off one layer at a time, Jesus will tell me when I’m ready. He’ll be there.
Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next year. He will be there.