When I was a younger man attending Manhattan College in Riverdale New York (feels like 1,000,000 years ago!), my maternal grandmother – a petite and beautiful woman, with model-strait posture who very much resembled Katherine Hepburn who was born and raise on a farm in rural Western Ireland before World War I – lived with us. Because of proximity, she had a tremendous impact – though indirect – on my up-bring and on me becoming the person I am. That impact extended out from me and my family to our circle of friends and acquaintances – particularly the group of friends that I had at college. I can’t begin to tell you how many times my grandmother’s little snippets of Irish country wisdom – from things like “Self praise is no recommendation” directed at those whose view from the heights of their own pedestal had become a little too clouded, to “wish in one hand, wee in the other and see which one weighs the most” some toilet-training humor directed at me when I was a little too busy dreaming and not quite busy enough studying – brought delight to my friends, not only for their wry humor but also because of the underlying truth that gave these sayings their foundation in a knowledge earned through a life well lived. Even today when I get together with my college friends we still reminisce about these sayings and how true over time many of her lessons have proven.
My grandmother had other saying of course, one of which was “time heals all wounds” – not her’s really as I’ve heard it repeated often by others in many context. She would always try to sooth someone’s pain away by gently assuring them that – no matter the hurt – the passage of time was the salve that would close their wound forever and take all the hurt way. As with her other sayings, I never doubted the veracity of my Nan-Nan’s statement – but now, to be honest, I am not so sure. It’s not that I think that my grandmother intentionally told me something that was untrue – I can honestly say that I know for a fact that this women NEVER lied to me about anything in all our time together – its just that now perhaps my perspective has changed; all the more-so as I write this blog post from my Office in Manhattan in the days approaching the tenth anniversary of the terrible events of September 11, 2001.
As anniversary’s go of course this is one that many of us – particularly those of us who were in Manhattan on that day – wish that we did not need to remember; so changed did our world become – both by the events in Manhattan and Washington and Pennsylvania on that particular day, and the consequences felt around the world because of those events to this very day – that it is with trepidation that we approach September’s coming around on the calendar. In many ways for a lot of us, such reactions are not intellectual but quite literally visceral: this was brought home to me in an all too real way only two weeks ago, on Tuesday, August 23rd. On that day as many may remember – at 2 O’clock p.m. – the Mid-Atlantic region experienced an earthquake that measure 5.8 on the Richter Scale, an unusual occurrence for sure, that interrupted cell-phone service, disrupted train travel, and caused tens of thousands to evacuate from their office buildings in some of the country’s largest population centers. So unexpected and nerve-rattling was this event that news of it spread quickly on the news-wires from coast to coast and across the globe. Thankfully no lives were lost in the event, but many structures were sadly damaged including the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. and several buildings in Catholic University of America.
Ordinarily at the time that the quake hit I would be sitting where I am right now – at my desk at the Chancery Building in Mid-town Manhattan – and probably would’ve joined the many other New Yorkers who quickly evacuated their office buildings for the street; but on that day I was fortunate enough to have had off, and was sitting in my apartment reading. I had been out earlier in the day enjoying the beauty of summer in late August: it was -I remember – a beautiful cloud free day, clear blue sky, low humidity, warm but with a cool breeze blowing. At the time of the quake I was sitting on my bed (as a studio dweller, there honestly are not many other places in my apartment to sit and read) and as such, did not experience the shaking sensation caused by the quake – most probably because the springs absorbed the shock. As a result, I was unaware that anything had indeed occurred. The first clue that I had that something was amiss was that in the span of about five minutes I received several phone calls in succession on my cell phone – from my family in Westchester, and several friends; oddly as I attempted to pick up the calls they were dropped, and when I attempted to return the calls the service was dead. At first I was perplexed, but as I sat and contemplated the coincidence of receiving these multiple calls – coupled with the lack of cell phone service, and the beautiful cloudless weather outside – my confusion turned to anxiety: I remembered this feeling….I had been in this place before. Quickly, I turned on the radio to find out what was going on, and was frankly – oddly – relieved to discover that the proximate cause of these coincidences was a minor earthquake and nothing more sinister.
Later on that evening and in the intervening weeks, I have gone back to this seemingly simple occurrence and have been surprised at my reaction: I’m usually not a person that jumps to conclusions or immediately assumes the worst in a situation…but given my experiences that afternoon – the inability to communicate with others, the feeling of helplessness in not knowing what was going on, and, oddly enough, the magnificent weather on that day – it was not my mind but something much deeper inside me that took me back to that place that I did not want to be in – a place that perhaps I sought to forget, but that my body remember all too well. It took this seemingly innocuous event – an earthquake where thankfully no one was seriously hurt – to get me to understand that no matter how much we think we have “moved on” there are some things that we cannot help but remember, and that perhaps- just perhaps – this is not such a bad thing. After all, much of what we do religiously as Catholics are acts of sacred “remembering” – everything from our participation at the Mass, where the words of the consecration of the Blessed Sacrament literally implore us to remember in our hearts and in our heads the great sacrifice that Our Lord Jesus made on our behalf, to the recitation of the Holy Rosary, where every Decade asks us to contemplate the events of the life of Our Blessed Mother: the Joyful, and the Glorious, but the Sorrowful as well. In Her ancient wisdom, perhaps the Church understands all too well not just the importance but the necessity of such remembering for we human beings, and offers in Her actions of sacred remembrance a path for us to follow approach the Tenth Anniversary of September 11, 2001.
As we remember this day, our feeling will of course return naturally to a place of tragedy, of loss, of tears, of pain that our wounds still cause us, but in remembering perhaps we should try equally to also remember – and especially honor – the place of the selfless acts of bravery, of honor, of devotion, of love, of condolence and of generosity that that day, and its aftermath, also represent. In remembering the events of 9/11, we have not only much to honor – the memory of all those we lost that day who will live forever in our hearts – but also much to be grateful for: the heroic example of our First Responders, the simple acts of compassion between strangers so evident on that day, and the generosity from those around the nation and the world who reached out to our wounded city at the time of our greatest need and offered help and prayers and love as we struggled to recover.
Perhaps the words that my grandmother spoke to me all those years ago – that “time heals all wounds” – was not literally true; time may not literally heal all wounds. What time does definitely do however is change things. So much has changed in the decade since 9/11 – in both my personal life and the world. For me, this decade has seen me leave the suburbs and – perhaps counter-intuitively – move into the city, this has in turn opened up my world tremendously, and allowed me to meet people from around our nation and across the globe. In the decade since September 11, 2001, I have developed many new wonderful friendships, and conversely have lost some of the people who were closest to me on that day. I miss them of course still – but my new friendships have given me a strength and support system that has sustained me over the intervening years. Change is always hard, but without change growth is not possible. As time inexorably changes things, as Christians, perhaps it is our role to be the balm my grandmother spoke of in her saying – to be the ones who “heal the wounds” that time creates; to work to see to it that change is for the better. In ways great and small this has always been the Christian story, and continues to be in the 21st Century. That is my prayer this Anniversary, and one for which I have hope. So much has changed in the decade since September 2001- some for the good, much for the ill – but in looking back over this decade, as obscure as it can sometimes appear going forward in time, I trust that God’s hand is at work….in fact, I know that it is…I have got the proof…for you see two weeks ago – when after the earthquake I was alone and confused and fearful in my apartment in New York City and returned to that place I did not wish to go, the frantic phone calls that I received to check on my well being came not only from family and friends here, but from Saudi Arabia as well.