Friday, September 11, 2009
My day started with donuts. Dorothy Lockhart, definitely among the Mazerati's of God's creation, one of the most genuinely spiritual and irreverent people I've ever met, was scheduled for heart surgery at 6:30 a.m. at Porter Hospital. I arrived at 5:45 to find the family waiting room empty, no coffee anywhere, and Dorothy being treated to a few ugly pre-surgical procedures. I ran over to the King Sooper's at Colorado and Yale and bought a chocolate-frosted donut and a very large cup of coffee. Okay, I bought two donuts. Dorothy and her husband, Bruce, were ready to visit with me and pray together when I returned, and then the anesthetic started its work and Dorothy faded away from the demands of consciousness for the next five hours. She awoke to a world changed and to find one of her favorite people in the world now overwhelmed by grief. Pastors never have one day like another. Hospitals, hospices, courtrooms, and classrooms were as familiar as my office and the church sanctuary as venues for my work. Crazy hours were normal. I didn't have a regular work day, never had, in twenty years. Pre-dawn surgeries and late night crises in emergency rooms were routine. I got emotional whiplash on occasion, moving directly from a pre-divorce counseling session to story time with the pre-school to lunch with the architect the church was engaging for a renovation project. Over time, and by inclination to begin with, I got so comfortable with this dizzying pace and variety that I rarely noticed how much it demanded. The early morning pastoral visit on this day gave me a window I coveted, time to head back home briefly to see the girls before school. The soft classical music I listened to in the car gave me time to settle into the day. As it turned out, I missed seeing my older daughter but opened the door from the garage into the house to find my husband and younger daughter standing, transfixed, in front of the television. A plane flew into a building. It was 7:03 a.m. mountain time. Like all of you, we watched in disbelief. It only got worse. We heard the catch in Pentagon reporter Jim Mikleszewski's voice as he first felt and heard a crash there. Eventually, Dave and I left together to take our younger daughter to school. I went on to the church and spent time consoling parents of our pre-schoolers, some of whom were fire fighters. I spoke on the phone to a church member whose son worked in the White House and went over to their home amid reports of several planes unaccounted for and, reportedly headed for Washington. As you remember, it was a beautiful, sky blue day. I drove past the football fields at my daughter's high school. At 8:47 a.m. Denver time came the first AP report of a plane crashed in a field north of Pittsburgh. I shivered. I was directly opposite the high school athletic field on Windermere at the moment. I will never forget that. It is as vivid as anything in my life, ever. It was an inconclusive report and no details were known, including whether or not it had anything to do with the attacks on New York and Washington. I pulled over to the side of the road and just sat a few moments. It was the last time for several days that I would take time to do that. We all have our 9/11 stories and all of them are important. Up to this point, mine was not all that different from most of yours, those of us, anyway, who were not in NYC or Manhattan. To you, David, Ann, Barbara, Reji, Mike, and others, my heart is with you this day, too. I'd been with the family of the young person working at the White House for, perhaps, half an hour when their phone rang. She gasped. After a moment, she indicated the call was for me. I will never forget what followed. Ground zero had come home to Littleton. The directions I was given were wrong. That just added to the disorientation of the day. The door was opened by a woman I knew but had never seen distraught. She was in shock. Now, today, September 11, 2009, I am watching the MSNBC re-broadcast of that first morning, in 'real time.' It is the first time I've ever seen the rest of that day's larger story unfold. And this is the first time I've ever written about or told my larger group of friends here about it. On 9/11 I was cocooned within a home in Littleton with a family for whom ground zero was a field in Pennsylvania and their home on a quiet street. A TV was on but muted. The house was visited by official personnel from an airline. Sheriff's officers set up a perimeter to keep news crews away. Friends drifed in and out. It was surreal. The family's story belongs to them to tell. I will tell you that it was a day of terrible grief and sadness. Confusion and disbelief. Public confirmation of flight numbers. Official visits and details. One very small shred of hope. That was gone by early afternoon. Terrible ironies. Crushing grief. Shock. I close my eyes now and am back there. See the faces. See the sofa, the table with fresh flowers. Open the front door to more friends. At one point, let the sheriff in to use the restroom. Feel cut off from the rest of the world. Utterly absorbed in one tragedy, one family's terrible loss. Stunned. By the end of the day, another church family called to report the death of a loved one in Tower Two. Another pastor went to care for them. A prayer service was arranged for the evening in the church sanctuary. I stayed where I was. This national tragedy had become for one family, and another, and another and another, all over America, a very personal one. And so it was for the next weeks. Out there, on the television, on the hearts and minds of everyone else, a terrorist attack the magnitude of which we'd never imagined. In here, it was personal. It was not until this morning, as I listened in 'real time' as of that day, that I've been able to imagine what it was like for the rest of the country, watching the ongoing coverage with its panic and chaos from Lower Manhattan, reports of more bombs, nuclear-winter-like conditions near Ground Zero, people jumping, debris filling the streets. I heard about these reports but did not experience them then. The sense of fear you all felt as rumors swirled around, of more attacks, I didn't feel then. I was utterly consumed, feeling and responding to the tragedy at a very different level. The next days and weeks were filled with one family, and another's specific plans for memorial and other details, and with caring for persons whose lives were ripped apart. And with caring for a church community also grieving with its members. The next time I remember having time -- being able to disengage from the intensity --came in the early evening after the memorial service, a week later. I got in the car and drove up and down the highway that fronts the foothills, again and again, and burned off some of the adrenalin that had spiked and surged nonstop for seven days. I hadn't slept. I hadn't cried. I pulled over in the parking lot at the Red Rocks and breathed. Again, again. For the first time. Poor Dorothy woke up late in the afternoon of September 11. Another pastoral minister was there for her and Bruce. She didn't learn for a day or two that her dear friend had suffered the ultimate loss. I've never been back to that King Sooper's on Yale. Two weeks later I was preaching when we all heard the first plane fly over on its way to Centennial Airport. The congregation told me afterward that I gasped. Life is never the same.