“Courage” – It Doesn’t Have An Expiration Date

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I wrote the following Op-Ed piece in the aftermath of a terrible Tuesday morning eight years ago.  I am grateful that so many newspapers across the country published this piece in the two-week window after that devastating day.

“COURAGE”

“Do you go into the city often?”

I snapped my head up from my newspaper and looked into the wrinkled face of the elderly woman seated next to me. Her chubby cheeks and protruding chin made her look like a turtle. Her hair was a stark shade of white, so white that I could not figure out what color it had originally been. She was wearing a green warm-up suit made of some crinkled material. I thought, “This is what the Ninja Turtles will look like at 70.” I am at my most sarcastic and unkind when I am tired. And today had been a particularly tiring day.

The train was nearly full when I got on. I took the first available seat to avoid standing for the 25-minute ride home. I was exhausted and cranky. I had been volunteering at a restaurant on Canal Street in Manhattan, serving food to the firefighters, police officers and emergency workers involved in the recovery efforts at the World Trade Center site. I was feeling noble and full of myself for my volunteer efforts, wearing my grease-stained clothing as a badge of honor. All I wanted to do was change my pace, catch up on the news and get into a bath.

The train had just started to move when the turtle sitting next to me tried a different approach.

“Do you spend a lot of time in downtown Manhattan?”

She was handing me a piece of paper containing a picture of a young man, a list of vital statistics and a phone number to be called if anyone had any news to report. The page was limp from repeated foldings and unfoldings.

“Have you ever met my son?”

I wanted to kick myself.

Here I was, feeling so smug about my compassionate efforts and this woman’s life had been completely and irrevocably destroyed by this tragedy. And all she wanted was someone to listen to her.

In that instant the whole world became a pinprick of time and space. Nothing existed except the two of us on that brown naugahyde train seat. I reached for her hand and met her blazing, red-rimmed blue eyes. I wondered if she had earned this wrinkled, wearied face over a lifetime or in just the past week.

“He’s a broker in the World Trade Center,” she said, using the present tense. When she mentioned the name of a particularly devastated company, I realized that she had not accepted the inevitable. She told me how he was supposed to be on a business trip to London and Paris that day, but the trip was canceled at the last minute. “If he had been on that trip,” she continued, “he’d probably still be over there since so many people have been inconvenienced by this terrible thing,” completely missing the irony in her own statement.

Tears streamed down my face as she proudly listed his accomplishments. Track star in high school. Four years in the US Navy. College. Dean’s List. Graduate School. Marriage in February to a wonderful daughter-in-law. I listened and smiled through my tears. But she didn’t cry. Not even a sniffle. I figured that she had cried enough as she told this tale many times in the past week, wandering from police station to hospital to news vehicles to the Armory where the missing and dead were cataloged. She needed to keep repeating the story hoping that someone would tell her what she wanted to hear.

I would have traveled to the end of the train line with her if necessary, but we both got off at the Maplewood station. I held her hand for a moment and then I hugged her. As she slowly made her way to the waiting commuter minibus, the driver got out to help her up the stairs. This frail little woman turned to the man and asked, “Do you go into the city often?”

“Please listen to her,” I silently begged the stranger, “Dear God, please listen.”

Sep 11th, 2009

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