I think about it alone, mostly…those events of September 11th…but this year was different and I don’t know why. There are obvious reasons every year of course, but what was making this one so palpable and visceral?
I rarely write, but periodically I post things on Facebook from a unique perspective of what happened September 12th and afterward. Some people get it. Some people don’t. I wrote “16 Acres” 9 years ago not only for me, but for other volunteers who helped in the recovery as well as for those interested in hearing about it. I’ve said before: We just don’t realize the most significant moments of our lives while they’re happening… that was surely a significant moment.
I never knew St Paul’s Chapel even existed prior to September 11th, but it’s history is incredible…the people who’ve visited it, the events the building has endured, as well as how I know it: As a survivor of the September 11th terrorist attacks. It lives in the footprints of the World Trade Center, and became a respite center for the crews working on the pit for 9 months.
Ten years in the life of this Chapel is but a blink of its eye given it’s longevity, but something compels me and draws me to it. Extraordinary and amazing things happened there for me and I’m not alone. I have a health discipline that was welcomed there in those months afterward, yet my profession didn’t exist in the Chapel’s first 200 years. After all, I was supposed to go thru my life never knowing this Chapel existed.
I went there on the one year anniversary of the attacks in 2002. I got that familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach again while driving down there – having not been there for 3 months. We (the volunteers) were there for the same reasons everyone else was, but also to see how the Chapel looked in its natural state, as well as to see each other in OUR OWN natural states…checking on each other…making sure everyone is “doing OK.” We all witnessed similar things while we were there, but when someone who helped out asked, “How ya doin’?”, you knew HOW they meant it and WHY they were asking. Usually the replies were a bit different from all the others who similarly or superficially inquired.
After the volunteers, police and firemen saw each other at the Chapel that year, our group went to an Irish bar a few blocks away. There were two British police officers in full dress and we became instant friends that night. As the beers came, their appreciation was returned by offering up pieces of their garb: pins, collar brass, whistles, badges, “bobby” hats and batons. You name it and they freely gave it up. They left the bar drunk and virtually naked – but with an awesome memory of spending time with people who were REALLY here, as well as pins, pictures and reciprocated police and firefighter paraphernalia from our own New York compliment. Later, we came to find out that those London police officers were there to deliver the “Bell of Hope” to St. Paul’s Chapel. We didn’t expect to meet them, but St. Paul’s has a natural tendency for extraordinary things.
Over the years, life went on… things changed and other life events prohibited making that annual trip. I saw the gang on the 5 year anniversary in 2006, but I never went to the pit or the Chapel that year. We just met up for dinner in SOHO and caught up. It dawned on me this year that I hadn’t been to Ground Zero or the Chapel since 2002. But this year, I knew I was going to go, and on the 10 year anniversary I still got that same unexplainable feeling in the pit of my stomach just like I did then. It’s like anxiety, but I knew I wasn’t going down there this time to work or volunteer…so what keeps making these trips so viscerally palpable?
I coordinated with one massage therapist with whom I worked with every Tuesday night. Davy lived on the West side. He and I share a unique bond, a respect, a concern and an understanding few could fathom. For 8 months we were working partners, he the massage therapist and me the chiropractor. We held high respect for each others work yet I don’t recall either of us saying so, we just knew it. The working relationship we shared was complimented later with a friendship of equal caliber, and it was when we were in that Chapel that extraordinary things happened. From walking the pit, the Venetian blind story, to being taken onto the observation deck a week before it opened to the public (read “16 Acres”). From meeting the friends we currently know there to the closing ceremony of the Chapel as a respite center in May 2002 with it’s mysterious and cloudless rain, that Chapel holds a mystique and it simply impacts your life…forever!
Walking thru the Chapel’s gates and up the stairs on September 10, 2011 happened in slow motion for me. I felt as if I was visiting myself…the part of me that I left there over 9 years ago. There was a familiarity, but in structures only. What I’d remembered seeing and what was there now flashed back and forth thru my mind, past to present and back again – similar to the time sequences in the movie “Titanic”. I saw Davy there. He was asked to do a reading for the 2:30 service. After it ended, we went outside to the “volunteers barbeque” in the cemetery area. We stayed and talked, meeting up with others we knew and had seen there years before. We seemlessly talked for hours, shared stories and an occasional tear, and before we knew it they were closing up. A man (name intentionally withheld) in a Search and Rescue uniform from Maryland approached us. He read my blue collared “St Paul’s Ground Zero Volunteer” shirt and asked, “So, you volunteered here?” Davy was engaged in a conversation with another LMT, so I replied “Yes, we worked in the Chapel for 9- and 8- months, respectively.” He smiled and said, “Thank you for your service here. You’re both worthy..!” He reached into his dufflebag and pulled out a roughed-up and sun-bleached American flag, folded in the familiar triangular shape typically reserved for presentation to military families. He then unraveled it and slung it over my neck like an aerobics instructor would do with a gym towel. He caught my eye said, “I raised this flag on the top of Osama Bin Laden’s home after we killed him in May, and I feel it’s important for you to share in that.”
I was speechless to say the least. I looked down at it and then over to Davy. I interrupted his conversation and told him about the flag. He saw it, and without a hesitation said, “It’s closure…it’s come full circle.” I looked quizzically for a few seconds as if I’m missing something. He added, “Bin Laden was the reason we’re here in the first place.”
Feelings about the events of September 11th changed for me that instant. I felt a more personal closeness with how things have turned out with that flag on me. It took 10 years…give or take a day, but it changed…and it changed for the better.
Albert Shweitzer once said “The only ones among you who will find true happiness in life are those who will find a way to serve others.” I didn’t go down to GZ for badges, pride, glory, fanfare or fame. But if such a badge were to ever be awarded, or if glory were ever a material object, I felt it in the draping of that flag over my shoulders. I could think of nothing better or more symbolic in all the world at the time. It felt as comforting as when we closed the Chapel as a respite center in May, 2002 – knowing we’d fulfilled our obligation as volunteers and we had done all we could. There was nothing else to do…there was no one left to treat…
Previously I’d not found a place or thing that gives me the feeling St. Paul’s Chapel does, but it has never failed to deliver something…an awareness, an enlightenment or even a richness of comfort and emotion. However, this time, it delivered something and someone: a symbol of gratitude, accomplishment and recognition. A simple gesture that said “Thank You and Farewell” in the form of a veteran and a very special American flag.
And I realized something else down there yesterday. That feeling in my stomach while driving down to St. Paul’s each time…? Well, it wasn’t ‘anxiety’. That Chapel is a place of human selflessness, caring, compassion, courage, determination, freedom, loyalty, concern, light and love in it’s purest forms. That was what I was feeling. I knew I was driving to a place where those human qualities thrived. It took 10 years to figure out that those weren’t “butterflies” or chills of nervousness. It was knowing I was approaching absolute humanity in all it’s wonderful forms and allowing it to course through my veins – as if the heavens opened up, reached out it’s arms, swept me in and allowed me to touch the face of God.
Dr. Russell D. Caram
September 11, 2011