I had expected the world to stop, the continents to fall into the sea, or something.
I was waiting tables at the country club the day the World Trade Towers burned and fell. New York was blowing up, and I was stuck in Ohio serving hamburgers and club sandwiches. “We have four sides to choose from,” I said to my table, “Sweet potato fries, regular fries, fruit, or slaw.” The woman asked her three grandchildren, who were crawling and bouncing on the booths, what they wanted.
Whenever I found a break between tables I’d watch CNN between the bothered heads at the bar. The towers smoked like chimney stacks. TV reporters broadcasted with unrehearsed emotion. A woman leaning in against the bar holding grass-stained golf gloves gasped, “Oh, my!” when they flashed the bodies falling.
After the Towers had finally collapsed, filling up everything with ash - the streets, the stopped cars, the fleeing people - I gazed hopelessly past the lattice of the dining room windows out over the golf course rolled out beneath the pale sky. Through the reflection of my ghostly figure, I watched the sunlit pond on the 18th hole wink and shimmer, like distorted stars of a submerged American flag.
In the kitchen the chefs had the radio blaring because there was no television. With astonished faces soaked in sweat from the heat of the grill, they cursed in unbelief. Later on, when my tables slowed down, I sat on an overturned milk crate outside on the back dock where the staff would smoke and tell jokes. Some joked to shake off the weight of the event, but I sat there quietly on that milk crate looking up into the bottomless air, imagining black space beyond that, and hoping for something even greater beyond that, maybe Heaven, maybe God, I don’t know.
That night I lay in bed with the lights on, staring at the ceiling. I tried to cry. Nothing was there, just a lonely numbness coiled around me. Everything was messed up. Every morning when I woke up, I had expected to live the whole day through. This reassurance died inside of me, opening up a new fear of instability, like I couldn’t trust life.
After 9/11 it was like the whole nation got friendlier. Strangers said “Hello” more, drivers laid off their horn more, and church attendance rose to a record high. In New York City, some city workers had uncovered two steel beams reaching out from the wreckage that made an interesting thing - a cross. It stood boldly over the smoking debris.
A few days later I decided to visit a small Catholic Church at the end of my street. It looked old and European, and reminded me of something I had seen on the History Channel. Wiry vines stuck to the dull bricks of its outside walls. The front doors were made of heavy wood with black iron handles. In front, there was a small garden with yellow flowers and a statue of one of the saints. His eyes were hollow and holy, his hands pressed together in prayer.
The heavy doors made a whoosh when I entered inside. There was no mass that day. The church was dim and empty, but reverent and spectacular. As if approaching Heaven, I moved cautiously up the aisle splashed with stained glass light. Pass the wooden pews, stood a marble alter, bleached, holy, unapproachable, like the throne of God, demanding awestruck reverence. Fig leaves were engraved in its hard stone.
I turned to a corner that had a kneeler for prayer with candles flickering in red glass. The old wood gave an ancient creak as I knelt and lit a prayer candle. Smoke twisted as if trying to break away from the world and rose up through a blade of light, and I prayed awkwardly but passionately to the one God I somehow understood had the only power to give hope to the world.
There in the quiet dimness, where I felt the eyes of heaven watching me, I thought of the steel cross that stood like a shining promise amidst New York’s burning city. Yes, I would follow this God - the God of hope, the God who saved us by dying. And who rose again.
Before I left I drew near the marble alter that stood holy and white. With a new born confidence I approached it.
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