Let It Begin With Me: Reflections On The Events Of May 2nd, 2011

I grew up in New York City, although I didn’t live there until I was 30. I moved from childhood to adulthood during the year and a half living in my stepsister’s apartment in Brooklyn, sleeping on a futon on the floor.

During the first part of my time in New York I worked as a travelling speech therapist doing home visits for children receiving Early Intervention. While doing home visits, New York was curiously kind to me. One set of clients, twin girls, lived in Harlem, north of the somewhat gentrified 125th Street. Tania and Lania lived on the third floor, and I was always alarmed when I stepped off the elevator by the slant of the hall. The slope was marked enough to give me the sensation of being on a large sailboat in a stiff breeze. When I knocked on the door, someone would call out, “Who?” very loudly.

“It’s me, Beth, the speech therapist? I’ve come to see Tania and Lania.”

“Who?”

“Beth, here to see the twins.”

“Oh, teacher. Teacher!” the person would shout loudly to the other occupants of the apartment. The door would open, and one of several possible people- the twins’ mom, their aunt, or one of a few different men whose relationship to the twins I was never quite sure of- would direct me to the room where the twins were playing. After working with Tania and Lania, I would walk past two funeral parlors, a pawn shop, a couple of hair salons, and some residential blocks before often stopping at A Slice of Harlem for a dinner of pizza and a salad.

One late afternoon, after leaving the twins, I heard a cat crying when walking past some brownstones. When I got closer, I saw that the cat had become trapped outside a basement window. There was no way the cat would be able to get back to street level without assistance as there were concrete walls on all sides with a small wrought iron fence at the top. For reasons I can’t explain I decided that I would be well-suited to rescue the cat. I judged getting back up the wall as perhaps difficult, but no match for someone with a certain amount of rock-climbing ability. I climbed the fence and jumped into the hole in front of the building. I lifted the cat to safety and then began to try to get out of the hole. I soon realized that climbing out would be more difficult than I had anticipated. I stood on the backpack full of toys I had brought for the twins’ session. No luck. A few people began to gather on the sidewalk.

“Do you need a hand?” asked one man.

“No, no, I’ll be fine.” I said.

I attempted a small running start, thinking I could then grab the fence and haul myself up. It didn’t work.

“Really, let me give you a hand. Toss up your backpack first.”

“Umm, well, OK.” I handed the man my backpack, which also contained my wallet and Metrocard. He reached through the fence and I took his hand. He must have pulled hard, because somehow I was able to scale the wall and climb over the fence back to the sidewalk. “Thank you, thank you so much. I just wanted to help that cat, I didn’t think it would be so hard to get back out.”

“No problem. Just don’t go jumping into any more holes, now. You take care.”

“Thanks, you too,” I said, trying to recover my composure. The onlookers quickly dispersed. I was able to buy my slice of pizza and take the subway home using my wallet and my Metrocard.

Another one of my clients, Lucy, lived in a tall apartment building very close to Wall Street in Lower Manhattan. Lucy had been adopted from China. Her mom worked on Wall Street and her dad was a musician with a home office. When I first met Lucy, she didn’t speak. Lucy was intelligent and motivated, and after several months, her language had exploded. During the time I worked in New York, I was exploring my own feelings about possible motherhood. Lucy gave me many reasons to feel that motherhood, while undoubtedly difficult, would be a worthwhile and rewarding undertaking. When I left home-based therapy to work at a school for children with disabilities, Lucy’s dad gave me a picture of Lucy to keep.

I had other connections to Lower Manhattan, where the Twin Towers stood. One glorious spring day, my stepsister spontaneously suggested walking over the Brooklyn Bridge. We took the F train to Jay Street, alighted, and crossed the Hudson, suspended on that breathtaking work of engineering. The sun sparkled on the deep water and the World Trade Towers grew closer and closer. We reached Manhattan and continued walking past the Towers, all the way to Soho, where we sat outside and drank the most delicious and refreshing lemonade I have tasted.

My stepsister is a skilled shopper, and would go to Century 21, a large department store similar to TJ Maxx, a couple times a month. Century 21 was less than a block from the World Trade Center. Nerissa would also change trains underneath the Center frequently when going in to Manhattan. I had been to the top of the World Trade Center myself once, for a company party at Windows on the World. The view was astounding, although at the time I had been more concerned with the fact that I had unsurprisingly misjudged the appropriate attire for the party. I spent much of my time that evening wondering if I could somehow just nip down to the underground shopping level to pick out a more suitable outfit (growing up in Vermont has left a serious mark on my sense of fashion).

It was always a peculiar sensation to return to New York during my time living there. I would often be coming from the east. First there would be the huge apartment complexes of Co-op City. Then the car density would increase and traffic would slow down. There would be more graffiti, and the smell of the city would start to fill my nostrils. I would feel slightly fearful and uncomfortable, unsure of why anyone would choose to live in such a grey and formidable city. Then, at a certain point in the journey, the skyline would appear. There was the Empire State Building, and there were the Twin Towers, soaring above the rest of the skyscrapers . At that point I would catch my breath, and my heart would expand with love for the amazing city.

In June 2000, I left New York City. My bottom lip quivered when I hugged Nerissa goodbye, but I saved the real tears for the car journey back to Boston. In August 2000, I moved with my husband to London, where Håkan had taken a job with an internet advertising agency.

Sometime shortly after 1:46PM GMT on September 11, 2001, my husband called me from the office. We had just moved from our short-term corporate apartment to a small one-bedroom in Wimbledon. “Turn on the TV,” he said. “They’ve just bombed the World Trade Center.”

“What?”

“Turn on the TV.”

I did, and then I grabbed the phone. I dialled Nerissa’s number. “We’re sorry, all lines are busy. Please try again later.” I hit redial. Same message. I continued to hit redial while I watched the North Tower burn, and I was still dialling when the second plane hit the South Tower. I became panicked with the thought that Nerissa would have been on her way into Manhattan. What if she were at Century 21? The image of people jumping and falling out of the Towers seared itself into my memory. I continued to dial. After what seemed an eternity, I finally got through.

“Hello?”

“Nerissa! Oh my god, I’m so glad I reached you. Are you OK?”

“Yeah, I’m totally fine, I’m just sitting here watching it all on TV. I can see the smoke outside though. It’s crazy.”

We didn’t talk long as we both knew other people would be trying desperately to reach Nerissa as well. I continued to watch the coverage, and I began thinking about all the other people I knew who could be in the area. Was Lucy safe? Were her parents? I sent her dad an email, and asked him to please let me know when he had time.

For the rest of that week I read compulsively about the attacks. I read about the firefighters, the policemen and women, the rescue workers, and the ordinary citizens who had shown astounding bravery. I learned that my stepbrother had lost two friends on one of the hijacked planes. Sometime during that week I joined thousands of other people outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in central London where a memorial service took place. By the time the service started, the street that ends in St. Paul’s looked like the start of the London Marathon, but lined with mourners rather than runners.

Early the next week I received an email from Lucy’s father. Lucy was fine. Their family was safe.

*

My great-great-grandfather on my mom’s side was a Moravian minister, and I grew up hearing my mom play from her Moravian hymnal on the series of pianos she owned. Between the ages of nine and fourteen I attended the local Congregational church, called Bethany, in my hometown in Vermont regularly with my family. The ministers were what I would call symbolic Christians. They believed fervently in Christian ideas, and less fervently in a literal reading of the Bible. I was a member of the church choir, where we once sang “Day by Day” while also using American Sign Language. One year the Sunday groups performed a play based on Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednago’s experience with the fiery furnace. I found the music extremely catchy and went around singing it for months. My favourite Bethany service was the Easter service that was held high atop a hillside in the very early morning. To watch the sun rise over the rolling Vermont mountains while listening to the story of the Resurrection was a powerful combination.

Our ministers, though not Bible-heavy, did have favourite lessons that they returned to again and again: “love thy neighbour as thyself” and “turn the other cheek” were verses that they preached on many times. They spoke often about the example that Jesus set, and they encouraged the congregation to attempt to follow that example in whatever small way we could. Both ministers emphasized God’s love for all people. I took these lessons to heart, and an opposition to violence became a fundamental part of my character.

A little less than a year after 9/11, in 2002, I gave birth to our first child, a son we named Samuel. In 2005, we welcomed our daughter Nina into our family. Although I have shouted at my children more often than I would like, I have never raised my hand against them. As soon as they were old enough to even vaguely understand what I was saying, I began to tell them that the right approach to violence of any sort is to walk away, and if that doesn’t work, to tell an adult. Our son was diagnosed at 3 with autism and then at 6 with Asperger’s. His early days at school were marked by aggression both to him by others and by him to others. I continued to tell him over and over, “You do not hit. It is not OK to hit. You walk away. Gentle hands.” He was given a social story called “Gentle Hands” that staff read to him at school and we read to him at home.

We were lucky. As soon as Sam received a statement of special needs, we transferred him to a different primary school where he received one-to-one assistance. His behaviour improved markedly, to the point that people who meet Sam now find it hard to believe that he was ever violent. But I still have reason to tell both children to walk away on a regular basis. It seems to be an incontrovertible fact of childhood that children will fight.

After many years away, I have returned to church. We have been members of a local Anglican church for several years. Our church is more literal and less symbolic than the church I went to in my youth, but our vicar shares with my childhood ministers a spirit of tolerance and an unwavering belief in God’s love and forgiveness for all people. Our current vicar differs most notably from the Bethany ministers by speaking frequently about God’s authority. I continue to be more of a symbolic than a literal Christian, but I feel comfortable at All Soul’s, and I am happy that our children have the opportunity to learn Christian history and ideas. What they do with that experience as adults will be up to them.

*

On the morning of May 2, 2011, my husband called me into the living room. “Look at this,” he said, holding up his iPad. It was the image from the New York Times showing the backs of a line of New York firefighters sitting in Times Square reading the enormous news ticker announcing the killing by American military of Osama Bin Laden. One of the firefighters was raising his arms, cheering.

“Don’t show the kids that picture,” was my immediate response. When I came down from my shower, while Sam and Nina were still playing upstairs, I saw pictures of the jubilant crowds outside the White House. I performed parental censorship and ensured that no such images remained on any screen before calling the kids down to breakfast.

How would I explain to my children that people were celebrating the killing of a man? I could tell them, truthfully, that the man was a man who had done very bad things, a man who had already killed thousands of innocent people and who undoubtedly was hoping and planning to kill thousands more. I could say that killing this one man meant that many innocent people would live. But to justify the killing of Bin Laden would go against everything I have told my children, day in and day out, for years. It would go against what they are learning at church, most particularly with regards to God’s authority. To kill Bin Laden when he was unarmed and capture could have been attempted, was to mete out justice that, in my particular interpretation of Christianity, is reserved for God alone. Humans should deal in human justice, and try criminals, no matter how heinous their crimes, in a court of law.

I find it deeply disturbing that the raid may have been watched live. We have all seen the picture now of members of the National Security Council watching at the White House. Only Hillary Clinton, a staunch opponent of the death penalty, seems appropriately shocked by what she is witnessing. To watch an operation as cinematic as the Abbottabad raid removes it one step further from reality.

I will not deny that there is a part of me that feels relief that Bin Laden is dead. “Maybe,” that part says, “maybe his death means that something like 9/11 is less likely to happen anytime soon. Maybe it will be a deterrent to would-be terrorists.” I think this is a simplistic reaction on my part. There are others, I’m sure, who are even now attempting to plan terrorist attacks similar to 9/11. I fear that the way Bin Laden was killed, and the way that his remains were handled, will lead to a certain degree of martyrdom.

Although I lost no one close to me on 9/11, I was horrified by what took place on that bright September day. I still am. I mourn the loss of those 2,977 innocent lives. I grieve for their families and friends. I pray for all those whose lives were changed by that violence, for all who were left with scars that will never fully heal, including the great and beautiful city that taught me so much. To recognize, again, that we live in a world where a man and his organization can plan and execute the murder of thousands of innocent civilians makes me heartsick. Yet to think of any man, unarmed and in the dark, being shot in the head by other men specially trained to fight, fills me with sadness. I find myself, more than anything, longing for peace.

It was easy for us to shield our daughter from the news and the images of Bin Laden’s death. But on Tuesday, our son came across headlines about the killing while doing a Google search at school. I gave him a brief synopsis of Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, 9/11, and the operation at Abbottabad. I ended by telling him about the statement the Vatican had issued:

Osama Bin Laden – as everyone knows – has had the gravest responsibility for spreading hatred and division among people, causing the deaths of countless people, and exploiting religion for this purpose.

Faced with the death of a man, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibility of everyone before God and man, and hopes and pledges that every event is not an opportunity for a further growth of hatred, but of peace.

We are not children, and peace is possible. The man that helped me out of the concrete hole in Harlem knew that. Martin Luther King knew that. An altered MLK quote has circulated on Facebook during the past several days; the real quote, from a 1957 sermon Martin Luther King delivered, reads like this: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

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One Response to Let It Begin With Me: Reflections On The Events Of May 2nd, 2011

  1. LP says:

    Shadrach, Meschach, Abednagooooo lived in Judah a long time agooooo! They had funny names but it worked out ok, 'cause they knew what was right and they knew what to say. Shadrach! What kind of name is that? Meschach! Who's got a name like that? Shadrach! Meschach! A-bed-na-gooooo-oh-oh-oh oh! (I probably mutilated the lyrics, but what fun to be reminded of that music.) xo

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