In the days following 9/11, there was story after story about heroes.
Here’s mine of my failure.
“Are you watching TV? Go turn on your TV.”
It was an hour into our school day and 4 weeks since my knee injury which rendered me somewhat limited in certain activities, climbing stairs being one of them.
But climb the stairs I did because the urgency in my friend’s voice compelled me to go, go now. I pushed the button and saw the World Trade Center tower with smoke billowing out of its side. All immediate sensations went numb; I blinked and looked more closely at the screen, sure I was watching some morbid daytime advertising mistake, and through the confusion in my brain I heard the footsteps of the 3- and 5-year olds hit the landing two-thirds of the way up the stairs.
Somehow I managed to fumble in all the right ways and got the TV off before they made it into the room.
I wonder where my husband is?
He was in law enforcement at the time, at the federal level. I had seen him off at 7 that morning, expecting to welcome him home again at the end of his typically long day, around 6:30 p.m.. But, now, knowing the unlikely had come into our lives, I wasn’t so sure that would happen. It didn’t matter that it was happening right now hours east of us; clearly this was going to affect our little lives, at the very least because of his job.
Where is he? Is he safe?
Finally, later that morning, after continuously whispered, quiet prayers and swept-away tears while I wondered to the Lord what was going on, we talked for just a few minutes; it was an immediate balm to my nerves, a mercy from God. My husband had just as many questions as I did about the implications of the day, but there was no doubt that terrorism was involved. And he couldn’t promise when he’d be able to call me next or when he’d be home.
He showed up late that night for a couple of hours, just long enough to prepare to head to Shanksville. He came home again a few hours every night, working non-stop in the office, answering calls and following up leads, some with good information, some bogus, many borne out of panic. The calls went on for days, weeks. And he was there for most hours of those weeks. Tired, determined, soberminded, focused. His former assignment was in New York City, and he had known some of those who had gone back in to the towers.
I hobbled around in my knee brace, limited in my mobility, limited in many things, wondering how best to answer questions from my inquiring children, friends, neighbors.
“I might as well be a single parent,” I muttered once in exasperation late in the evening as I was doing the dinner dishes and he was just coming in.
“I’m sorry,” he said wearily, “I’ll start coming home more often.”
A flood of images washed over me: of wives whose husbands would never come home again. Firefighters, police officers, emergency crews, medical technicians, and many brave, good men who weren’t trained to be heroes but who stepped up to the job. There were mothers who would give anything to have their sons or daughters arrive late or infrequently, just to have them walk through their doors again, and daughters and sons who wondered why daddy hadn’t come home, who would miss out on memories that my children were able to make.
How foolish and selfish; how narrow and short-sighted! How thankless and ungrateful for the living, warm body I have to love and hug even for a few hours each day! Because he was able to come home to us. Oh, Lord, forgive me. And I urged him to forget what I’d said, to do whatever he needed for however long he needed to do it.
So, every September 11, I make myself recall those faces, the women and children who waited and were rewarded only with silence, or a somber visit from some authority or official. Faces of all colors and ages and ethnicities and economic strata. For some reason, I was spared. Not because I was anything or did anything to deserve being overlooked by the horror — clearly I was selfish and shallow and very thankful the circumstances weren’t based on just desserts. But I won’t forget. And I bow my head to God’s mysterious ways of providence.
Whether amid the gloom of night I stray,
Or my glad eyes enjoy revolving day,
Still Nature’s various face informs my sense,
Of an all-wise, all pow’rful Providence.
writes John Gay, the 17th c. poet and dramatist, in his “A Contemplation on Night”.
Sometimes in God’s providence, light comes, but is short-lived:
When the gay sun first breaks the shades of night,
And strikes the distant eastern hills with light,
Colour returns, the plains their liv’ry wear,
And a bright verdure cloaths the smiling year;
The blooming flow’rs with op’ning beauties glow,
And grazing flocks their milky fleeces show,
The barren cliffs with chalky fronts arise,
And a pure azure arches o’er the skies.
But when the gloomy reign of night returns,
Stript of her fading pride all nature mourns:
The trees no more their wonted verdure boast,
But weep in dewy tears their beauty lost;
No distant landskips draw our curious eyes,
Wrapt in night’s robe the whole creation lies.
Yet still, ev’n now, while darkness cloaths the land,
We view the traces of th’ almighty hand;
Millions of stars in heav’n’s wide vault appear,
And with new glories hang the boundless sphere:
The silver moon her western couch forsakes,
And o’er the skies her nightly circle makes,
Her solid globe beats back the sunny rays,
And to the world her borrow’d light repays.
Whether those stars that twinkling lustre send,
Are suns, and rolling worlds those suns attend,
Man may conjecture, and new schemes declare,
Yet all his systems but conjectures are;
But this we know, that heav’n’s eternal King,
Who bid this universe from nothing spring,
Can at his Word bid num’rous worlds appear,
And rising worlds th’ all-pow’rful Word shall hear.
The reality is, at any one time, to some there is darkness, and to others there is light.
When to the western main the sun descends,
To other lands a rising day he lends,
The spreading dawn another shepherd spies,
The wakeful flocks from their warm folds arise,
Refresh’d, the peasant seeks his early toil,
And bids the plough correct the fallow soil.
While we in sleep’s embraces waste the night,
The climes oppos’d enjoy meridian light;
And when those lands the busie sun forsakes,
With us again the rosie morning wakes;
In lazy sleep the night rolls swift away,
And neither clime laments his absent ray.
But in the end, it is not an arbitrary or frivolous God who dispenses darkness and light without regard, but a Savior who calls his own from amidst and out of the circumstances He’s allotted to each:
When the pure soul is from the body flown,
No more shall night’s alternate reign be known:
The sun no more shall rolling light bestow,
But from th’ Almighty streams of glory flow.
Oh, may some nobler thought my soul employ,
Than empty, transient, sublunary joy!
The stars shall drop, the sun shall lose his flame,
But Thou, O God, for ever shine the same.
Oh, indeed, may some nobler thought my soul employ! May today I begin to forget the immediacy of my comfort and cast my thoughts to the eternal intentions of the Almighty.