Like the day JFK and John Lennon were killed, most people can tell you where they were when they heard the news that terrorists had devastated the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and crash-landed a plane in Shanksville, PA. I was working as a social worker in a nursing home called Golden Slipper Uptown Home in Northeast Philadelphia. The Residents were just finishing their breakfast as I walked into the day room. When I entered, I thought, “What kind of crazy movie are they watching?” Within moments, I came to understand, if not to accept that it was indeed an actual unthinkable series of events that were playing out in real-time.
I had two immediate thoughts…the first was that I was grateful that some of these folks had dementia and had no clue about what was occurring on the screen before them and the second was that I wasn’t going to give the terrorists my fear. I know that emotions such as fear and anger feed the common soup pot that I didn’t want to stir. I held strong in the face of tragedy and was of support to staff and those Residents who did have the mental capacity to comprehend. Some of them had survived WWII and the Holocaust, so this may have been re-traumatizing for them. I don’t recall what we were advised to tell those we were charged with caring for. Many of my co-workers were in tears and needed to compose themselves so as not to further upset the Residents. One of my superpowers is the ability to remain calm in the face of trauma and upheaval. If not for that talent, I too would have succumbed to panic and immobility which would have served nobody. Once I arrived home, I was able to surrender to the emotions of grief and bewilderment that bubbled to the surface.
I remember calling my son’s school, saying I would be picking him up early, as were many parents. How do you explain what occurred, to a teenager whose experience of anything remotely like what happened on American soil was akin to his video game exploits? He seemed to take it in stride as well.
I also had concerns for my sister-in-law and brother-in-law who lived in Hoboken, NJ but worked in the financial district on Wall Street. I couldn’t reach her for most of the day and when at last I did, I was relieved to know that both of them were safe and sound. Chris had been running late and never made it across the river. Lisa got on the ferry and arrived when the first plane hit. Fortunately, she was able to re-board the boat and return home.
I had another friend whose son was initially among the missing, and whose photo was plastered on a wall in case someone should happen upon him. My friend scoured the hospitals looking for him amidst the wounded. As it turned out, a police officer recognized his face as someone he had seen in a hospital and he and his father; cosmically coincidentally, also a (retired) police officer, were reunited. I heard numerous miracle stories, including people over-sleeping, missing rides, calling out sick, and the like, so that they were elsewhere when the towers fell, or the Pentagon was under siege or a field in PA was bombarded.
Conspiracy theories abound, indicating that it was an inside job. Some make sense. All are acts of terrorism, regardless of who the perpetrators were. Both are horrific.
I am a therapist and minister and my first instinct was to travel to NYC to be of comfort and support to survivors, family members, and first responders and then thought better of it since I have asthma. Instead, I volunteered for a local hotline. All these years later, I’m grateful that I made that choice since so many who did serve now are suffering the health consequences.
We have two choices about the way we view this dark day…through the eyes of fear and anger, or love and coexistence. While I mourn the loss of life, I celebrate the drawing together of people from all around the globe in the cause of healing the fracture in our lives. Philadelphia area singer-songwriter, John Flynn wrote a song not long afterward that so perfectly echoes my sentiments of that day and those that still resound 18 years later. It is called I Will Not Fear. I was in the audience when John performed this song, at the Philadelphia Folk Festival.
Shortly afterward, I saw a bumper sticker that read: “God bless the whole world. No exceptions.” It is, in my opinion, an antidote to the festering wounds people carry that ooze out and cause death and destruction.
In 2014, I founded a group called Hugmobsters Armed With Love which offers FREE HUGS world-wide on a planned and spontaneous basis. Although it is not a direct line from the events of 911, it does provide a healing balm for the wounds of the world.
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