I wrote this piece ten years ago, in the weeks following 9/11. Nothing has changed for me.
I have been a committed atheist for forty-eight years, never wavering in my firm belief that God makes a wonderful crutch, a way to avoid responsibility for our part in life’s suffering. At first, when the towers fell along with everyone in them, my anger and pain sang of a Godless heap where the southern tip of Manhattan meets the river. Over the next few weeks, as the anger has been replaced with stories from the survivors, I find myself dusting off the empty shelves of my soul to make room for the images and moments that are now part of me—and to make room for a new spirituality.
New York’s finest, surging through life-threatening rubble, strong and sure and ready to die for the right reasons, are now a part of me.
A friend who was there describes passing an elevator on the 70th floor, heading toward the stairs in Tower Two. The elevator doors open and a calm man tells him to get in. He doesn’t know why, but he does. My friend gets in that elevator, and when it arrives in the lobby, he searches for the man who’d ushered him in. He’s not there. My friend runs into the street, seconds before the building collapses. This atheist swears he has a guardian angel.
An acquaintance’s son calls her from his cell phone after the first tower collapses. He tells her he knows he isn’t going to make it. Rather than run, he wants to take his last minutes to say he is not afraid, and he can see a better place before him. He tells her he can actually see it.
Walking with my fifteen-year-old to school the next rainy Friday, I lament the rain holding up the rescue. The consummate teenager I think I know so well turns to me and says, “You know Mom, maybe God just needs to cry. Let’s just let him.”
Believers or not, these days we are all searching for the soul within. The stories from that day and the days following are the foundation of what I want to become. I am grateful for these gifts from those who are gone. I’m sad it took so very much to make me dust off these inner shelves, but my hope and my commitment in the New Year is to continue to search for meaningful moments. It’s Christmas, and what better time to send a thank-you for the gifts of this year.
To all those gone, my humble, hopeful thanks.
That was ten years ago. I stand today still grateful for the gifts given to me over those days, weeks, and months. My friend Cathryn, who was with me in New York that horrible week, came to the Cape yesterday to spend the weekend. We needed to be together again for this anniversary. We found a service at a firehouse tomorrow morning, and we will go with sad hearts, in grateful recognition of the strength of so many on that day so long ago.
God Bless my country, my family, friends, and those strangers who perished.