From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Reflections on a week
PCUSA NEWS <PCUSA.NEWS@ecunet.org>
18 Sep 2001 16:52:20 -0400
Note #6849 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:
Reflections on a week
by Libba Bray
Editor's note: Libba Bray, a rising star in the literary world as an author
of novels for young readers, lives in Brooklyn, just across the East River
from lower Manhattan, site of the Sept. 11 suicide terrorist attack on the
World Trade Center. Libba, a lifelong Presbyterian, has agreed to tell her
story for the Presbyterian News Service. We are extremely grateful to her
for her willingness to do so under difficult circumstances. - Jerry L. Van
BROOKLYN, N.Y., Sept. 18 - I cleaned soot off my windowsills today.
I thought I'd gotten all of it yesterday and the day before, but somehow,
splotches of black dust keep making it through the windows of my Brooklyn
apartment, reminders of a grief that also cannot be contained. This week is
being hailed by our mayor as "the worst week in New York City's history." It
is a week that has also brought out the best in New York, a city of 8
million strangers who came together as one family for many horrible days and
Here, then, is one account of the week that was.
Tuesday, September 11th
The morning starts as most mornings do in my house, which is to say, in a
There is the mad scramble to get my son off to preschool complete with
lunchbox, stuffed bunny, water cup. At 8:45am, just about the time the first
plane hits the North Tower of the World Trade Center, I hug my son goodbye
and stroll out into a perfect, blue-skied day. It is 70 degrees and breezy.
I'm anxious to get to my computer and begin work on a new book. First, I
step into my local corner grocery store-bodegas, as we call them here in the
melting pot. It's now 9:10. The radio is on. I put my milk on the counter as
the DJ breaks in, sounding confused and breathless. There is a report about
a second plane hitting the World Trade Center. The words "second" and
"plane" barely register. My first thought is that a small Cessna with an
inexperienced pilot has had some very unfortunate accident. Three more words
try to make their way in: "deliberate terrorist attacks." The girl behind
the counter stops, her hands dangling in the cash drawer. For a moment, we
are frozen. And then she hands me my change, the store comes alive again,
and I'm hurrying the two blocks to my apartment building.
A dark, angry plume of smoke streaks up into the blue sky. And now I am
running up four flights of stairs and into my apartment where my husband has
the TV on. We see the horrible footage of the towers on fire. It does not
seem real. A neighbor rings my doorbell and asks if we have heard the news.
Together, we go up one more flight to the roof of our building where we can
see the two towers burning and smoking. Many of my neighbors are there.
Someone passes around binoculars. I take a closer look. The fire is massive,
engulfing a good 20 stories or so. It leaps out the broken windows. More
unsettling are the millions of pieces of paper falling from office windows
and blanketing the city like confetti. Someone gasps. A body has fallen from
the windows. I can't look at this, and I pass the binoculars on.
Thirty minutes later, the unthinkable happens. There is a whooshing sound
that becomes a roar as the South Tower, Tower 2, collapses in on itself.
It's hard to tell exactly what's happening. Our minds won't accept what we
see. The smoke rushes over lower Manhattan like an avalanche, enveloping the
city. If I didn't know better, I'd think it was a special effect, a disaster
film about a blinding snowstorm. But I do know better. The smoke pushes out
into the Hudson River where the Statue of Liberty watches it all. It's fast,
this cloud of dust and ash, and we run downstairs and into the safety of our
living room where we huddle around the TV, blinking, unbelieving.
When Tower 1 falls, we are numb. Images of rubble, screaming people, and
burned-out fire trucks assault us. My husband and I call our son's school.
The children are all fine. They're napping, in fact. I resist the urge to
run the seven blocks to the Methodist church that houses the school and
scoop up my child. Where would we run?
The call goes out: blood donors are needed. My husband and I head to our
local hospital, six blocks away. Out on the street, people are wandering,
dazed. A businessman covered in gray ash stands on a corner talking to
another man who keeps his hand on the guy's shoulder, as if anchoring him
there. Our favorite coffee shop is closed. A hastily penned sign implores us
to give blood. A neighbor is home safe from his office only two blocks from
"Ground Zero" as it will come to be called. As Manhattan's Assistant D.A.,
he has put drug dealers behind bars and been blasi about it. Today, he
shakes when he tells me about seeing the building nearly come down on his
head, turning and running hard and fast, all the way across the Manhattan
Bridge. He was halfway through the streets of Brooklyn before he realized he
There is a two-hour wait at the hospital. People spill out onto the lawn.
They ask us to come back later that night. By 1:00, the wind blows the smoke
across the Hudson, directly into our neighborhood. The air is a solid,
living thing with a distinctive, charred plastic odor. You can actually
taste the air, and the sky has turned a jaundiced color. Breathing is
difficult. Some people wear masks. Others breathe through t-shirts or
We collect our son from preschool and try to act "normal," though we know
there will have to be a new kind of normal for all of us. We're worried
about the air, so we arrange a play date at the home of friends. They are
waiting to hear from a sister who works blocks from the World Trade Center.
The phone lines are all down, as is cellular and Internet service. She
arrives, dusty and exhausted, an hour later, part of a mass exodus that made
its way by foot across the closed Brooklyn Bridge. By 5:00, we know that we
can't bear to leave the comfort of each other. We order pizza and stay till
7:30. My son is asleep by 8:00. My husband and I can't stop watching the
news. The city that never sleeps has come to a dead stop. There are no
subways, no ferries, no buses, no planes. Everything is closed. In just
twelve hours, everything has changed.
Wednesday, September 12th
Sleep proved impossible. I am used to the ceaseless noise of urban life. The
comfort of planes, cars, chatter and yelling and music on the streets. There
is something deeply disturbing about the silence. It is broken only by
emergency sirens and the deafening rumble of low-flying fighter jets that
shake my building when they pass overhead.
7:00am. I turn on the Today show. My three-year-old son looks up from his
train set to see the horrifying images of planes bursting into flames.
"Mommy, what happened?" he asks, clearly disturbed.
I take a deep breath and explain that there was an accident and a fire, but
that the fire is out now. I hope this will suffice for a curious
preschooler. It doesn't. "Mommy," he says, "that scares me."
"It scared us all, honey." It is the truest thing I will say all day. We
turn off the TV.
The whole neighborhood is at the 3rd Street playground in Prospect Park.
Blank-faced parents, home from work, hover over their children. It's a
madhouse. A child playing in the leaves brings a manila file folder to her
mom. Its edges are singed. In a collective horrible moment, we know where
that folder has been. We can imagine it sitting on a desk under fluorescent
lighting 100 stories in the air. No one says a word.
Ferries move silently across the Hudson River. They could be tourist boats,
taking travelers to Ellis Island or on a scenic cruise. Instead, they are
traveling morgues, ferrying bodies to the shores of Brooklyn, Staten Island
and New Jersey.
It's five o'clock in the afternoon, the time when the kids in our building
usually turn our common courtyard into a free-for-all zone. This is "normal"
activity on any day, even today. A neighbor comes out yelling about all the
noise the kids are making. She's trying to sleep, and they shouldn't be
using our common courtyard as a playground, she argues. She's yelling at my
husband and other parents and then the truth pours out: she is a medical
examiner. She has spent untold hours wading through hell's back acre,
cataloging body parts. We see her, six months' pregnant, glassy-eyed, barely
standing. We promise to keep the kids quiet.
"Mommy, play with me," my son giggles. He and his buddies have concocted a
game about runaway coal cars on trains.
"We're pretending," he says joyfully.
I envy him.
Thursday, September 13th
Schools are open. The hospitals can take no more blood. They're asking for
supplies and clothes. We learn that our local firehouse, Squad 1, was one of
the first rescue teams on the scene the day of the attacks. The entire
company has been lost. The empty firehouse on Union Street has become a
shrine filled with flowers and candles.
People look less numb, more determined. They fly into action. Outside the
YMCA, they collect supplies for the rescue workers and offer housing to the
displaced. It has become common to pass acquaintances on the streets with
"Everyone on your end okay?"
In line at the grocery store, a man behind me tells of being "there." At
8:40, he stepped out of the World Trade Center to get coffee and a donut,
narrowly escaping the plane that crashed into what had been his floor. He
can't stop talking to me, and I listen, even though my frozen foods are
completely inedible by the time I reach home.
Friday, September 14th
Rain comes down hard and cold. It turns the rescue site into a slippery,
My Southern Woman Defense System kicks in and I find myself in the kitchen,
doubling the recipe for everything. Finally, in the middle of baking
approximately ten dozen chocolate chip cookies, I break down. I grip the
counter and sob, not caring how loud I am. It feels good to howl.
I take the cookies to the other firehouse in my neighborhood, but they've
posted a sign imploring us to stop feeding them. I take the cookies to my
son's school where the kids think Christmas has just come early.
For the first time in days, I'm smiling and laughing, taking in their
chocolate-smeared faces and ingenious excuses for needing a second and third
Saturday, September 15th
My husband is scheduled to work at the New York Public Library in Chinatown,
adjacent to lower Manhattan. We don't know if he should report to work-we've
had no word since the phone lines are still out. We decide to go in together
as a family. There is a wonderful playground only blocks from the library.
The library is closed "due to emergency," the sign reads.
We walk under the huge shadow of the Manhattan Bridge, afraid to look up and
see the blank spot where the Twin Towers used to be. Instead, I spot the
same flyer stuck to every light pole: Missing, Jennifer Y. Wong, age 22.
Jennifer Y. Wong is young, beautiful, shining. She could be running for
office or selling us long-distance service. She is not. She never will.
But I will always remember her name.
Sunday, September 16th
I take my son to church today. I don't want to go alone, and so attend a
Catholic mass with my friends who also have young children. I have come
seeking comfort, guidance, and answers, though I know there are none. But it
is my son who has all the questions: "Who is God?" "What is pray?" "Why you
pray?" Through that Tourette's stream of consciousness unique to
three-year-olds, he has hit on the essential nature of faith. I can only
offer three lame replies, "God is the Mommy and Daddy of us all," "Praying
is talking to and listening to God," and "Because."
There is more black soot on my windowsills. I let it stand.
Monday, September 17th
I have a meeting in the city. It's tempting to cancel, but I find my desire
to be with other people outweighs my fear. Still, taking the F train through
darkened subway tunnels by myself makes my heart beat hard against my chest.
When the train rounds a piece of elevated track, I have a clear view of
lower Manhattan. The smoke still rises through the remaining buildings. The
skyline seems bare. The city is missing its gateposts. I could be looking at
any city. For a few seconds, my brain doesn't register this new horizon. It
isn't until I find the Empire State Building and follow the line down to the
now unfamiliar view that I realize they are truly gone. And then we are
moving, the F train dipping back down into blackness.
In the city, I see the flyers. Every flat surface has become a paper
memorial. Handmade posters are taped to bus stops, kiosks, drugstores,
apartment buildings, restaurants. Faces smile out at me. A young father
holds his baby daughter. A businessman stands in a group of beaming
employees. A laughing college grad loops an arm around her best friends.
They are tan and happy. Facts stay with me. 5'11". 180 lbs. Wears glasses.
Gall bladder scar. Celtic tattoo on left shoulder. Might be wearing a silver
ball on a chain. Blood type 0+. Worked for Cantor-Fitzgerald, 104th floor.
Windows on the World, 106th floor. 81st floor. 95th floor. 101st. 74th. Last
seen... last seen... last seen...
I can't read anymore. I can't carry any more lives with me on this trip. At
Sixth Avenue, the Avenue of the Americas, I cross against the light, a New
Yorker's game of chicken. I try not to look at anything else, but something
catches my eye. It's a small yellow sticker, smaller than a postcard, stuck
to a rusted out dumpster. It reads simply, I WILL NOT BE TERRORIZED.
People pass by, their voices and scents linger and trail off, but the yellow
sticker remains, small, bold, undeniable.
For a minute, I forget to be afraid.
Tuesday, September 18th
The digital clock confirms the ungodly hour. I am awake. At 5:30, I'm still
awake and no longer delusional that I'm going to get any more sleep, so I
make coffee. The coffee is strong and good.
The rooftops of Brooklyn pinken and glisten in the early morning light. It's
going to be another gorgeous day in New York, except for the persistent
burning ash smell.
Today heralds the Jewish New Year, 5762. We are an interfaith family, a
Jewish-Presbyterian-Russian-Irish-Texas-California-Kansas mix. We're much
like the city itself, not so much one thing as a blend of flavors, colors,
accents, creeds. Later, my husband will most likely attend services. He
might take our son and take his turn answering the questions about God and
prayer and what makes the water come up through the water fountain and why
can't we eat M&M's for breakfast.
I wish my husband luck.
In one week, I have had so many questions of my own. I have seen devastation
and destruction and fear. And I have seen people race into burning buildings
to save others. I have seen neighbors embrace each other at mailboxes and in
the dry cleaners. I have seen strangers give everything of themselves, even
I have seen that children will look to you for answers, that they will ask
you why you pray and the answer, beyond all ideology, is this: We pray
because we are human and we need each other. We pray because when something
of such a magnitude happens, we must turn to something greater than
ourselves and greater than tragedy to sustain us.
We pray because life goes on, and we must always go toward the
life-affirming, and, in fact, we have just proved that we do. We pray
because we can't seem to stop ourselves. We pray because.
Children's questions, like soot, like grief, like catastrophe, cannot all be
measured and contained.
They cannot be answered to satisfaction. This is the best that I can do.
I'm still thinking that it is a new year, and maybe that thought is enough
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