When I was five and planting marigolds in the garden, my dad told me that if I kept shoveling, I’d dig all of the way to China. A long explanation followed; a combination of fatherly wisdom, geography and magic. I remember dad showing me the globe and telling me about people across the oceans and in far off lands. Some people I’d meet someday and others never. I understood enough to learn that even if we never saw the other people, they were important to the world. That lesson served me well throughout my life.
Those memories came flooding back on March 11, 2002, the six month anniversary of the NYC tragedy of 9-11. My son, a friend and I visited ground zero and watched the crews of workers digging in the rubble. It seemed an endless project to clean up the fallen twin towers and bury those who died. Surely they could have dug through to China by now, I thought, as childhood memories mingled with the horror of the moment and gave me escape- for a minute.
The horror returned as we heard the sounds of endless digging machines.
When they paused, we imagined they were looking through the rubble for human remains. Far from finished, the workers found more bodies that week. And still families waited, displaying photos and writing messages to the deceased. Many lingered at the spot where their loved ones gasped their last breaths or made their last cell phone calls.
There at the fateful site, family members and friends created a mini museum of sorts; display boards, teddy bears, flowers, photos and notes; a growing memory collection of lives cut short.
One large board displayed firefighter badges and logos. Every fire department from California through the Rockies to the east coast sent greetings and prayers, their symbols an eerie reminder of their many NYFD brothers who trudged confidently into the twin towers, willingly offering their lives, all of them well-trained and prepared for anything…or so they thought.
Now the heroes were pictures on a board and lesions on the hearts and minds of loved ones who waited. And waited. They waited for answers and bodies and they waited for DNA results on bits of human remains. They waited for funds to piece their lives back together and they waited for closure and peace. They waited for the monstrous shovels to dig through the Earth… all the way to China.
As they waited, some read the greetings from well-wishers who sent their love.
A little girl held her mom’s hand as she looked at the many pictures of lives lost. She held out a finger and touched one. “Is that someone’s daddy?” she asked.
“Yes, that’s someone’s daddy,” answered the choked- up voice of her mom. “And so is that one and that one and that one,” she responded, gesturing to other men’s photos on the board. “And here are some mommies.”
“Are the mommies and daddies at work?” asked the girl.
“Maybe,” said the mom.
“Are some in the big hole?”
The mom paused. “Their bodies might still be in there, but the mommies and daddies went to heaven.”
“Did the big fire send them right up to heaven? Did they ride the flames and smoke?”
“Could be,” said the mom. “What made you think of that?”
“ My daddy told me that smoke goes up and up and then it’s all around us. Remember? when we were camping?”
The mom looked at her daughter in awe. “I imagine they could have been in the smoke.”
The girl looked up in the sky. “I think I see one now,” she said, looking at the sky. “It looks like he has his firefighter hat on.”
“Sure enough,” said the mom, gazing up to the clouds.
“Do you think that’s my daddy?”
“I’m not sure- what do you think,” asked the mom.
“I think that when he went in the building to save the other people, the smoke picked him up and he rode the smoke up and up and up and now he’s all around us.”
“It sometimes feels like he’s all around us.”
“I feel him right her,” said the girl, putting her hand over her heart. “He’s telling me my heart is good so I will help people.”
“That’s right, honey. And you just helped mommy.”
As I watched them hug, I prayed silently…and you both helped me. Thank you God.
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