About two weeks ago I was driving along the Cross County Parkway on my way into the City. I looked up and saw a commercial airplane flying at what seemed to be a lower altitude than usual. I immediately wondered if it was going to crash into a building nearby. Looking at that plane also reminded me of another plane that I saw about a year after 9/11. I was sitting watching the Brooklyn Cyclones baseball team play a game at the stadium on Coney Island. I looked up then too and saw a plane that looked like it was coming right at us in the stadium. I watched that plane as it came closer and closer and noticed that my heart was beating faster and faster. The plane eventually went over our heads and landed at JFK airport several miles from Coney Island.
I wonder if I will ever be able to look at a plane that seems to be doing something unusual and not think back to 9/11. I think this has become my new "normal."
This awareness of a new "normal" goes back to shortly after 9/11 when I was working at Respite Center 1 as an American Red Cross Chaplain. I lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and would walk to the 1 train with my ID, helmet and vest in an unmarked bag. I would get on a train and look at the people around me. They were dressed for work in "normal clothing." Anyone looking at me would not know where I was going because I was wearing "normal clothing" as well -- but in that bag on my lap was attire that was not normal, not usual for a morning commute. I would look around and wonder if any of the people were as aware as I was of how different our lives had become since that fateful day. I did notice that there was not as much chatter on the train as there used to be and that people seemed to be more aware of what and who was around them, but other than that, most people read a newspaper or a book or listened to music through earphones.
At the Chambers Street Station I would get off the train and make my way to the gate where I could gain admittance to what felt like a war zone. The streets were covered in dirt and the guards had guns and seemed to be dressed for war. My ID was looked at and I smiled at the guys, trying to make that human connection with them. Some smiled back; others simply nodded and let me in. I would make my way to the respite center and spend the day with police, fire and recovery/construction workers, helping them to be able to continue to do their work, listening to their stories of pain and anger, confusion and grief. It was a time of deep listening because I could not take away their pain or their anger or their grief. I could not make them "feel better" -- but I could acknowledge their feelings and let them know that what they were feeling was "normal." One night I played poker with a group of police officers. We joked and I listened to their stories as they played cards -- doing something "normal" that was not in a "normal" place. When we finished playing, they all said that they felt better and thanked me for playing with them. I wonder if they remember that game and how we created a new "normal" around that table.
I am so thankful for the opportunity to serve those who were there to protect us and recover the remains of those who died. It was not something I ever envisioned when I answered a call to serve God. And yet, it was the right thing to do. And it changed my practice as a chaplain and as a human being. And it established for me a new "normal" in my life and in my work.
This post is part of a collection of 9/11 reflections from chaplains who were there.
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