It was the 12th of September 2001, and insomnia had only just begun to run rampant worldwide. Thousands of miles away from where my terrified heart was screaming to be, New York City knelt low in shock, it's two front teeth harshly knocked out. I could only imagine the pain my friends and loved ones were experiencing.
All I could do was try and keep the candles lit. I wasn't alone. Many of my fellow students studying abroad in Prague had come to the vigil in the center of Wenceslas square. We were a solid group nonetheless dwarfed by seemingly hundreds more who flocked to take our pictures. Snap a shot of the crying Americans as they walk the red carpet of soul-bearing sadness! Three flashes for each tear, a dozen clicks echoing every sob.
The sharp strain of contempt burned behind my reddened eyes. Had these onlookers no shame, no sense of the loss we were deeply experiencing? Thousands of New Yorkers -- innocent, hardworking people -- had died in a matter of minutes. My knuckles whitened as I overheard one local tell another under a passing breath, "Those Americans are always overreacting."
There was no way this could be happening. There was absolutely no way this could be happening at all.
We all shone bright fits of anger, rage, and disbelief in the shadow of news trucks and military transport vehicles. Similar pockets of private hell were surely torn open worldwide. The longest day drew on with clouds of rainy wind bleeding through a random crowd. With each spurt, a hundred candles would flicker and jump.
The only job we knew was to keep a flame for those that died.
Grey day blackened to night. Crowds thinned and cameras subsided. Our numbers had severely diminished. Many students had simply left to carve out some sort of comfort, to begin the process of processing. Numb fingers did little to treat the pain in our hearts and certainly challenged the ability to strike matches or flick lighters.
We managed to carry on, dutifully ensuring wax had reason to melt into ancient and weathered cobblestone cracks.
Drawing near midnight, I counted only two who were familiar of the faces that still remained. There was one more set of hands and eyes keeping watch, a quiet man in a red jacket. Nobody knew his name. Short questioning quickly revealed he was Czech and mute. Any attempt to communicate was met with a solemn smile, bowed head, and a gesture towards another dying candle. He was there with us, bringing quiet light to the dark, hollow roar without question or fail.
Hours passed. The rain picked up. Muscle rebelled against bone. We needed to go, and red jacket knew it. The surprising warmth of his hand on mine was an instant reminder to my body of exhaustion. With quick kindness and eyes alive, he motioned respectfully with an upturned palm before going back to work. We left, and never crossed paths again.
The next morning, I returned to the square to find the hardened pool of wax had spread much farther than our efforts had yielded. Red jacket must have gone on through the night.
I still remember the depth of that soft touch, the fire in his hands and heart. Without a sound, this man spoke to the strength of integrity and character more than any story could ever describe. We all speak the same language until we open our mouths. Avoid confusion, seek clarity. More than words, let your actions speak louder.