O you lovers that are so gentle, step occasionally in the breath of sufferers not meant for you…. Do not be afraid to suffer, give the heaviness back to the weight of the earth; mountains are heavy, seas are heavy.”
Rainer Marie Rilke, German poet
Surrounded by a sea of candles, a young black woman wearing a veil of white gauze carefully tended the votive lamps, lighting those that had gone out and adding fresh ones. The impromptu shrine at New York’s Union Square had been ablaze with candles for a week now, and the cobblestones were coated with an inch of wax. Overhead was a bronze equestrian statue of George Washington covered with American flags and a placard that read “globalize justice and you will globalize peace.” On the horse’s belly someone had written in chalk, “My friends, all will be fine” — pale reassurance to the thousands of those who padded quietly through the square that evening.
For some time Alice and I had planned to be in New York in mid-September to visit a daughter. We had not expected to arrive in the midst of a national tragedy. Seven days earlier, the lives of thousands individuals had been suddenly snuffed out at the World Trade Center, whose ruins two miles to the south of where we now stood still emitted black smoke into the clear autumnal sky. From time to time, loud electronic beeps interrupted the somber scene, as vehicles with flashing lights sped south relaying fresh workers to the scene of devastation. The crowd hardly noticed.
Emerging into the city from the subway earlier that evening, we had found life on the streets going on as normal. But even in the quiet neighborhoods of Greenwich village there were unexpected signs of the tragedy and brave attempts to cope with it. The entryway to a fire station, scarcely more than garage-door width, was banked with bouquets of flowers. A sign on the door read: “Please say a prayer for our missing brothers: Lt. Billy McGinn; Ff. Eric Allen; Ff. Manny Majica; Ff. Andy Fredericks; Ff. Dave Aldeman; Ff. Larry Virgilio; Ff. Timmy Haskell. God be with you. We love you.” We passed Salvation Army headquarters on Fourteenth Avenue and observed college-age volunteers unloading huge quantities of bottled water, milk, clothing and pink lemonade from large trucks.
Posted along the streets were notices of commemorative events: prayer circles, dropping of roses into the river, and counseling services. At Union Square we found individuals from every strata of Manhattan life gathered not for an event, but to be closer in sorrow. On every wall or fence of the square were home-made flyers seeking information about the missing. Pictures of service workers, young clerks, and executives of all ages and nationalities, were matched with pleas to contact a family member or friend at such and such a phone number, FAX or e-mail. A week had gone by, but the poignancy of the flyers remained. Typical was a wedding picture of a young man that bore beneath it the words “John Katsimatides. 104th floor, North Tower. A friend to everyone he meets. John, please find your way home.” The expression of return was echoed by a nearby hand-written placard: “Squad No. 1, Brooklyn: one dead, eleven missing, bring our boys home.” One of the hundreds of flyers showed a bright eyed young secretary and read “Mary Lou Hague. Missing WTC 2, 89th floor. Please call Sandy.”
Intermingled with the flyers, were prayers, poems, statements of patriotism, and pleas for non-violence. New Yorkers, not prone to treat one another with delicacy, moved in silence from one display to the next, while in the background the sounds of young men in saffron robes ringing bells, Christian guitar players, young women chanting, and a trombone quartet blended together.
If you listened, stories of survivors could be heard. A young man at his first day of work who had run from the scene covered with dust and vomiting, unable to notify his wife that he had survived until eight hours after the towers had collapsed. There were accounts of Individuals who had stayed home that day, or gone to work but then decided to take a ferry ride instead of the subway. Thousands of stories, however, would never be told. Standing before a weather-streaked photograph, a red-haired woman, her face contorted in grief and tears streaming down her face, tightly embraced a friend. Passersby reverently threaded their way past the grieving pair.
The mind when confronted with such events, seeks to frame them into categories and tuck them away in the cupboards of memory. But as darkness descended upon the city, and the girl tending the hundreds of candles continued to carefully step amidst the flickering flames, no ideas came that could encapsulate what Alice and I were experiencing. Scripture tells us that there are those who are blessed because they mourn. We walked quietly back into the night, praying that God in his silent and mysterious ways would provide comfort to those who grieved but could not comprehend.