Category Archives: Loss

And She Kept Dancing

Several years ago I worked with a client who was dying of stage 4 colon cancer. Cynthia** came to me because she was afraid of dying, and as a Christian, she felt that she shouldn’t have to be afraid of death. I promised to help her the best that I could and agreed to meet with her weekly.

To begin our work, we examined our inner images of death, because the mental images we have for death provide a vivid picture of how we conceptualize death and how we feel about death. Images of skulls and coffins came to mind for Cynthia, which both of us thought was kind of hackneyed and meaningless—and therefore not very helpful. I on the other hand, found myself immediately flooded with images of skeletons holding guitars, dressed in mariachi clothing.  I get it: I live in the Phoenix area, and Halloween is closely followed by Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations; there are sugar skulls everywhere. Still…when did Death go all Mexican on me? When I told Cynthia how I couldn’t shake the image of a guitar-playing skeleton in mariachi clothing, she and I laughed for a good five minutes.

Counseling is much like a winding road, and Cynthia and I ended up spending a lot of sessions talking about the clinical trials she had joined in hopes of extending her life. We talked about her family’s fear that she would die before she got a chance to live a full life, as Cynthia had never married or had children. At this point, Cynthia had given up on those dreams and was just trying to live long enough to help her family accept her impending death.

One of the tricky things about counseling is that the longer you work together, the closer the friendship becomes. A client once described me as “a paid friend who helps me cut through my own BS and get real” and this is actually a very good description of the counseling relationship. But sometimes there is no BS to cut through, and then your counselor is the paid friend who encourages you to say out loud all the stuff the rest of your friends are afraid to hear. I did my best to be that kind of friend for Cynthia, and we spent many of our sessions saying a lot of very scary things about life and death and terminal illness.  We did a lot of good work in the first few months that we met, but we struggled to achieve the goal she set when she came to counseling: to stop fearing death.

Cynthia and I had been working together almost six months when the inspiration of the Holy Spirit spoke. An image came to me of two women in the late 1940s, close friends, dressed to the nines,*** and heading to a dance, both hoping to meet the man of their dreams. When I say they are dressed to the nines, I mean the whole enchilada: hats, gloves, dress coats, elegant beaded purses, high heels, stockings, fancy dresses, pearls and jewels. I pictured two absolutely stunning women who were ready to dance the night away. I imagined them arriving at the party; very quickly one of the women meets an incredibly handsome man and begins dancing. Seeing her friend dancing so happily, the other woman quickly realizes that her friend needs help; she approaches her and says “Hey! Give me that purse! You can’t keep dancing holding on to that purse. I’ll hold it for you.” The dancing woman hands over her purse gladly so that she can keep dancing the night away. A few songs later, her friend approaches again. “Hey! You’re going to melt if you don’t take that coat off.  You can’t keep dancing in that coat!”  And so the dancing woman hands over her coat, and then later her hat, and then her gloves, and then her high heels, each time relinquishing them so that she can keep dancing, so that she can keep savoring every moment of this spectacular experience.

Keep that image in mind, because I want to remind you that in life, there are many moments—we usually call them milestones, or rites of passage—that are one-way doors. Once you pass through them, you can never go back. For instance, graduating high school is a one-way door. Graduating high school is the official entry to adulthood; never again will the entire community you live in collude to help you succeed. Once you graduate, the community considers you are an adult and in many ways, you are on your own; your success or failure is up to you. Likewise, getting married is a one-way door. Once you are married, you will never be single again. You might be divorced or widowed, but you will never be single ever again. The same is true of parenthood: once the baby is born, no matter what happens to your child, you will always be a parent.  Though we mostly fail to recognize the gravity and irreversibility of these moments, one-way doors represent the death of our old self—a self that is lost to us forever, a self that can never be regained.  In this way, death has been with us from the very beginning of our life.  We experience hundreds of little deaths as we pass through the various phases of life; as we age, we lose parts of ourselves that can never be regained or retrieved, except in memory. Strangely, it was graduation from college that revealed this truth to me, as I realized that I would probably never again have the luxury of being so self-focused.  The previous four years of my life had been focused on gaining knowledge and skills, preparing for my career, and developing close friendships that would sustain me as I moved on to the next phase of my life. I felt that I would never have another period in my life that would be this self-focused and uncomplicated, and as excited as I was to graduate, the moment was soaked with bittersweet sadness because graduation marked the end of this part of my life forever.

The truth is that we can’t avoid these losses. I mean, really, who wants to be a high school student for the rest of their life?  Many of the one-way doors we pass through in our lives are based on our deep desire to move into another phase of our life; most of the time we choose to step through that doorway on purpose. In order to embrace the parts of life that are coming towards us, we have to let go of what needs to pass. We cannot be young forever. We cannot be a carefree child and still have the rights and privileges of an adult. Basically, if you want the good stuff of life, you have to let go of the old and move forward into the new. Our lives are one long list of little deaths, one after another, mostly gladly accepted so that our lives can continue to grow and change and evolve.  Without these little deaths, abundant life isn’t actually possible.

And now we are back to the two women at the dance. The dancing woman is YOU, loving every minute, cherishing the dance of life.  And Death is your close friend, coming to you again and again, prompting you to let go of what you no longer need, to let go of what must pass from your hands. And once you hand something to Death, you can’t have it back. Let go of that coat, and you will never have it again; Death will hold it for you so that you have it as a memory, but you will never have that coat again.  Death comes to take these things from you, not because she is a cold, heartless, witch (you understand me) but because Death knows that this is the only way that you will be able to keep dancing. Don’t you understand? Death votes for life, every single time!  One thing after another, Death comes to take things from you so that you will go on in the dance, continuing to enjoy all that life offers as you pass through milestones and birthdays, marriages and children, careers and retirement, aging and disability.  Death stands there, waiting for the next moment when you need to let go, to let something pass from your life. She comes to you gently, encouraging you to let go and keep dancing.  Death waits on you and never leaves you, just so that you can go on dancing. Death is not the enemy! Death votes for life every time.

At the very end, Death comes to take her friend to the dressing room. After all that dancing, Death knows that her friend is sweaty and exhausted; it’s time to get out of those clothes and shed that stupid girdle that has been made her flesh ache more and more as the dance went on. That ache was almost unbearable by the time they left the dance, and Death is eager to free her friend from her pain. And there they are, Death and her girlfriend, in the dressing room pulling off the sweaty clothes and that damn girdle. Any woman who has ever had to take off her tight foundation garments knows what this is like: you pull, and you tug, and you huff and puff and it seems hopeless and yet you and your friend are laughing so hard you can hardly breathe. And outside the door of the dressing room is the woman’s dance partner and all of her friends from the dance.  And they knock on the door and they call to her: “What are you doing in there? Are you okay?  Are you sure that you’re okay?!”  But the woman can hardly answer anymore, or maybe she does but not in words that her family and friends can hear with human ears. Death finally helps her friend shed all those clothes and her earthly flesh that was becoming so uncomfortable…and that beautiful woman opens the dressing room door, and all her friends are gone.  She finds an entirely different group of people waiting for her; it’s everyone who left the dance before she did. And Death…Death doesn’t follow where she is going, because she is going on to an entirely new life; she is joining the dance that never ends. Death doesn’t get to follow…she hangs behind, holding on to everything her friend used to be. Death says to her friend, “Don’t worry about me. Go on! There’s so much more where you’re going.  I’ll be fine.”

Death votes for life every time, here on Earth and again in the next life.

Death votes for life every single time.

Death is not the enemy. Cancer is an enemy. Heart disease in an enemy. Addiction is an enemy. There are plenty of enemies that must be fought, but Death is not one of them. God sends Death with us to be our lifelong friend when we are born, because Death votes for life every time, and only Death can usher us back into His arms in the end.

I write this for my friend who is ready to begin this final journey. Cancer is her enemy and I hate cancer more than I can tell you. I am doing my best to make my peace with Death because Death is doing the best she can to help my friend to her eternal home. I pray that Death takes her time with my friend because so many of us are not ready to let her go.  I pray that God grants her a little more time in this dance, because while it is nothing compared to what is coming, this dance is sweet beyond words.


**Cynthia is her real name. She died in 2010, and tell this story to honor her life, our friendship, and the work we did together.

***For you youngsters, ‘dressed to the nines’ means dressed in your very fanciest clothes.


The Path of Placeholders

A single story in fractured pieces.  We can never know in advance how our divergent paths will converge, even when the paths are all our own.

One: 1997

During my first year of seminary I was given the chance to take a one-week intensive class in pastoral care and chaplaincy at the City of Hope Hospital in Duarte, California.  City of Hope is known for its work with with cancer and terminal illness, and the one-week intensive promised many chances to work with patients and their families. When my professor presented the information on the program, I felt God pricking at my heart and I knew that this was something I needed to do. I filled out the application and sent my money to the program director and started looking for someone to help my husband Phil take care of our children while I was out of town for the class.

The date for the class was fast approaching and I called the director of the program at City of Hope to get information about housing and transportation, only to be told that the class had been cancelled due to financial problems.  The hospital had been bought by an investor who was less interested in the not-for-profit ethos the hospital had been founded under.  They were even less interested in providing training for chaplains that would never work at the City of Hope on a regular basis.**  I was deeply disappointed, but what could I do?

Two: 1998

I sat in the kitchen and listened to Phil share horrible news: Lee had been diagnosed with Stage 4 Lymphoma.  Lee and his wife Tracy both worked at Boeing, and Tracy was on Phil’s team.  Phil’s team had lost their boss to cancer only a few years before, and now they were facing losing another coworker.  The diagnosis was all the more devastating because Lee and Tracy had three young daugthers.  Phil had spent many days taking care of our two girls while I was in California; he knew the burden of being a single parent intimately, even if he only had that responsibility for a few days a week.  He deeply sympathized deeply with Tracy and worried for her children.  I remember Phil asking me if I would be there for Lee and Tracy “at the end” as if somehow, they would ever ask for me…a coworker’s wife who wasn’t even an ordained minister yet.  Shocked, I said I would do anything for them if they wanted my assistance.

Three: 1999

Churches who accept student pastors do their best to make sure we get a full platter of pastoral experiences, and so I taught a Disciple Bible Study on Sunday mornings.  I had a class of 12 and we had become close as a group, praying for and with each other every week.  So when one member’s 18-month old daughter needed a heart valve replaced, the class covenanted to fast and pray on the day of the surgery.  I was going to be at the hospital with the parents and promised that I would pass on word to the class so that they could praise the Lord and break their fast when the surgery was successfully completed.

The surgery went on much longer than initially anticipated.  I stepped out into the parking lot so I could get a cell signal (ahhhh, 1999 cell phones…remember Nokia?) and called Phil to let him know that I would be home later than we had planned.  He was somber.  “They are transferring Lee out of the bone marrow transplant unit and into the hospice.  There are no more options.  He’s dying.  Can you go?”  Lee was only a few floors up from the surgical waiting room where I had spent the majority of my day.  I agreed to go but reminded Phil that Lee and Tracy had never met me and would likely want nothing to do with me at such a critical time in their lives.  I hung up the phone and headed back into the hospital to see what I could do.

Certain that I would be turned away, I got into the elevator and headed up to the bone marrow transplant unit, which was on the 12th floor.  As I stepped out of the elevator I looked up at entry to the unit and saw these words:

Welcome to the City of Hope!
An extension of the City of Hope in Duarte, California.

It took my breathe away.

Four: 1999

I went to the nurse’s station and asked them to speak to Tracy. I told them that I was a minister, that I was Phil’s wife, and that I would go away if Tracy was not interested in seeing me.  The nurse went in for a moment and Tracy came out of the room and invited me in.

Thus began several hours of going back and forth between the surgical waiting room where my friend waited for word that her daughter’s surgery had gone well, and the room where Lee was being prepped for transfer to a hospice bed.  It seemed that the timing was always perfect as I moved between locations; guided by God’s timing I arrived at each spot just as the doctors came to speak to the family, just as critical decisions were being made. I went back and forth repeatedly, watching the families receive words at opposite ends of the spectrum of emotions from their doctors.  Your daughter is doing well and her heart is strong.  Your husband’s organs are failing.  She’ll be going home soon.  He won’t home for Christmas; he won’t live that long.  I struggled to contain my emotions as they swung from one end of the spectrum to the other.  I called my class members to relay the good news and then to ask them to pray for a family friend who would probably not be alive come morning.

With the surgery over and the family comfortably settled in the room with their daughter, I headed upstairs to the hospice wing.   When I got there, Tracy asked if I would be willing to stay for a few hours while she went home to see her children in their Christmas programs at school.  She planned to tell them afterwards that their father would not live until Christmas and would never come home again.  I agreed to stay and prayed with Tracy before she left for the last fun evening her girls would have for quite a while.

Death can be a painful thing even with medications, and I watched Lee move in and out of pain as I sat at his bedside.  I wanted to be useful and comforting, so I tried reading the Psalms out loud, very quietly. I prayed between each Psalm.  As a sat there watching Lee suffer, I realized a horrible truth: every person faces their death alone.  There are plenty of pain medications, but not one thing that can be done to ease the pain of leaving behind everyone you love, knowing that they still need you.  And it disturbed me to know that there was nothing that I could do to take that pain away from Lee.  Essentially, he was all alone in this journey and I could do nothing but sit and watch.

So I sat and watched and wondered why I didn’t know what to do.  I was a pastor, I was trained…isn’t there something I’m supposed to be doing?  Isn’t there some relief that I’m supposed to bring?  Certainly I provided assistance to Tracy, but what could I offer Lee?  He was dying!  Reading scripture wasn’t going to help him much, and even if it could help, most of the time he wasn’t conscious to hear it. I prayed but he didn’t hear that either and what was I supposed to pray for…a quicker death?  I sat there for several hours feeling futile and useless and stupid.  The critical moment of pastoring had come and I had nothing to offer. I felt like a failure.

I finally made it home later that night.  Phil and I went into the bedroom, sat at the edge of the bed and cried bitter tears.  He felt Tracy’s pain and loss acutely, and I deeply identified with Lee who was leaving his children behind much like I left mine behind week after week to attend seminary.  We sat and cried and tried to comfort each other.  It was all we could do.

Five: 2000

Even student pastors go home now and then, and so I would occasionally cut out of services at my student pastorate and attend church with my family.  St. Matthew UMC was the church that confirmed my call into the ministry and sent me off to seminary; attending worship there felt like coming home.  It was springtime and we were all gathered on the patio after worship for coffee and doughnuts.  That was when Dan approached me.

“Thank you for being there for Lee at the end. We really appreciated it.”  I was stunned!  How did Dan know Lee, and how did he know that I was there at the hospital for Lee and Tracy?  I discovered that Dan was Lee’s boss at Boeing, and that he and his team had been devastated when they found out that Lee was going into hospice.  They hadn’t known what to do.  Should they call?  Should they send someone to the hospital?

“That’s when word came from Tracy’s team that Phil’s wife, the minister, was there at the hospital to take care of Lee and Tracy.  I knew you and I told the team about you…and we were okay after that, because if felt like one of us was there, because Phil is one of us, and you’re his wife, and I knew you…you know what I mean?”

I did know what he meant, but what Dan said had revealed something much larger to me. Suddenly, I understood what my purpose had been when I sat at Lee’s bedside. I was a placeholder. I sat there at Lee’s bedside as a placeholder for a number of people.  I sat there in Tracy’s stead until she could return so that Lee wouldn’t be alone.  I sat there in the place of each member of Lee’s team at Boeing, because they couldn’t be there and weren’t sure what to do.  I was there in place of each member of Tracy’s team who wanted to support her and be there for her in a terrible moment of need.  And I sat there with Lee to represent God, and God’s presence with Lee even in his final moments.  While there was nothing I personally could offer to comfort Lee as he faced death, I could hold the place of every person who wanted to be there.  I could be a placeholder for them so that Lee would know that he would be missed, that he was loved, that his life had value, and that God was present even as He eagerly waited for Lee to come home.

Six: 2000

When I returned to school after Christmas, months before Dan revealed my purpose to me, I told my Field Education professor the entire story.  I was still distraught and feeling worthless.  Strangely, several of my classmates had experiences similar trials in ministry and were feeling particularly broken as well.  The professor reminded us that God was not wrong when He called us to dedicate ourselves completely and entirely to the Kingdom.  She said that we can never know just who we are in the Kingdom or what good we have done, because none of it will be clear until all is revealed to us in Heaven. Until then, she said, all we can do is trust that God knows what He’s doing.  Then she read us this Psalm.  To this day, whenever I hear it, I think of Lee and Tracy and the revelation that all things, even me, have a purpose greater than what we realize at the moment.

Psalm 19:7-11, 14
The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever;
the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

** This was back in 1997, so please do not levy judgment on the current leadership of the hospital.

I Told You That It’s Hard To Shut Me Up!

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.  The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give.  You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.  You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married.  For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.   Isaiah 62:1-5

There are days when I read the lectionary scriptures and ponder and ponder and ponder and…

Today was one of those days. It isn’t that the scriptures didn’t move me because scripture always moves me.  It was that the one verse that got stuck in my head was there because I listen to John Michael Talbot.  If you have never listened to his music, it is high time for you to go to Amazon or iTunes and get yourself some soul soothing, uplifting music.  Please understand me: I am a punk princess who likes to pogo to tunes from AFI and The Offspring, who has sweated to death at a three hour long Green Day concert, and who loves to get down to all manner of music meant to make you dance (are you listening Zumba fans?)  Still, I love some good worship music; despite my predilection for anything that makes me want to dance, sometimes you need to worship in the depths of your soul, soaking in the sweet and quiet space that you and God create.  John Michael Talbot is one of the artists that helps me find that sweet and quiet place.  So when I read the words “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be still” I instantly found my mind filled with music.  It is one of JMT’s more lively tunes and I just couldn’t get it out of my head.

Talk about an earworm.  Try to get worship music earworm out of your head just once.  Fat. Chance.

Finally I started wondering what it is that God might need me to say if this is where my mind and my heart found themselves focused after reading the scripture.  I realize that earworms are labeled earworms because they crawl into your head and refuse to come out despite their lack of reason for repeatedly playing over and over and over in your mind…but I am also aware that God has this habit of using the stuff I’d prefer to ignore to guide me and make His will more evident.  So I asked God to reveal the reason for the earworm.

And there it was: Willow.  Write about Willow.

I met with Willow on Tuesday night.  She and I go way back.  Her father Todd sang in the choir at my church and she attended our youth group.  I watched her grow up from a little girl to a young woman and then fell out of touch when she moved away to attend college. I’d see her when she’d come into town to visit her dad and of course, we’d talk, but that was about all. When Todd was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Willow shared her anguish with me.  We wrestled with what it is to lose a parent when we aren’t yet ready to be without our parents and the horrible injustice of dying before we get old.  Willow and I became friends during those texts and phone calls, and I was honored to sit at her side at her father’s memorial.  Nowadays we stay in touch mostly by text and occasional coffee dates when one of us is in the other one’s town.  I was down in Tucson this last Tuesday and Willow drove over to my hotel to meet with me.  We talked about all the normal stuff: jobs, partners, family…and of course life, death, and her father.  Sadly, Willow has a friend and colleague that is dying of cancer—again long before they grow old—and it is waking up all her grief over her father.

I remember going to visit Willow’s dad during his final days.  Todd had chosen to spend his final days at home and so that is where I went to visit him.  It was the first time that I had a chance to see him outside of the church setting, and I was not surprised to find a ton of pictures of Willow everywhere.  The most prominent picture of Willow was quite striking. It was a black and white picture of Willow with duct tape over her mouth and the words “No H8” written on her cheek; her fist is raised in defiance to the discrimination and hatred aimed at LGBTQ persons every day.  It was the first thing I mentioned to Todd when I walked into the bedroom to visit with him.  He beamed at me.  “Isn’t it a great picture?!” He told me that it was featured in a national magazine and was somewhat famous.  Then he began to talk about Willow.  Todd told me how proud he was of her, and how great of a teacher she would be. He told me that he had always knows she was a lesbian and that was fine with that; the most important thing was that she was happy and had someone who loved her.  He went on and on about what an amazing woman she was becoming and then he said “She is the best thing I’ve ever done.”  I understood him completely.  No matter how great our life is, no matter what our accomplishments, for a parent the greatest accomplishment of all is a child who lives a vibrant, meaningful life—a child who is busy becoming all God created them to be.

Sitting with Willow Tuesday night, I chose to tell her that story. I wanted her to know what her father had said to me so that she would always know proud he was of her.  She cried.  So did I.

And this is why I cannot get Isaiah 62:1 out of my mind.  You see, Willow didn’t know.  She had always known that her father loved and accepted her totally and that he was very pleased with her accomplishments, but she had no idea the depths of his feelings about who she had become.

I believe that we often leave our most important words unsaid.  Maybe it’s because we think we’ll always have another chance to say them, but I think it’s more because we don’t realize just how frequently the people we love have no real idea of just how much we love them and how much we value them and their contribution to our lives and to the world.  When my father-in-law was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I remember calling his friends and family members to let them know; several of the people I called asked if I had any idea what my mother-in-law thought of me. I was a little startled by their question. My mother-in-law and I got along fine and enjoyed each other’s company, but I actually had no idea at all what she thought of me and so I told them so.  I was humbled when each of those people shared with me the things my mother-in-law had told them about me—how she felt about me as a wife and mother, but also how she felt about me as a pastor and counselor, as a woman and as her only daughter. I had no idea that she held me in such high esteem.  Over the next few months I became much closer to her as we worked together to help my father-in-law die a peaceful death.  I enjoyed every minute of our time together during the last three years of her life, and I will always be grateful to the people who told me what she thought of me.  They gave me a great gift.  My mother-in-law died in 2013, but every time I think of her I remember that I have no idea what others truly think of me.  I also remember that I am more loved than I know, and that my life matters more to others than I am aware of—that my actions impact them more than I realize.  I comfort myself with that knowledge when I feel low and it helps…a lot.

This is why I had to tell Willow what her father thought of her.  For her sake I could not keep silent, for Willow’s sake I could not be still.  She had every right to know what her father had said to me, because for Todd, Willow was everything he had ever hoped she would be.  I can only hope that knowing this will comfort her and lift her up when she is low, and that it will remind her to never value herself too little.  We are more powerful than we realize and we make more of a difference in the lives of others than we can ever imagine.

I suppose I should tell you to tell the people around you just how much they mean to you, so…you go do that!  Do that now!  Do not keep silent and do not be still.  But the greater thing to hear is this: when someone speaks praise or love to you about someone else, pass it on.  Pass it on because it is difficult to hear praise like that face to face and our humility stops us from hearing things full strength when they come straight from the source.  When it comes to third party praise, love, and admirations, go find the person and pass on the good words you heard about them…pass them on so that they can know without a doubt what they are worth.

“…you shall be called My Delight Is in Her

…for the LORD delights in you

…as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”

Just so you know, I did get Willow’s permission before posting this.  Each story that is told belongs to the one who lived it, and those stories are intimately woven into their very being and therefore deserve to be held in respect.

In Memory of Tragedy, Terror, and All That Is Good

I never saw it coming.  You never do.  You’re just rolling along one day, and boom! The next minute is tragedy.  I remember that I was getting the kids ready for school that morning.  We had already gotten breakfast, and everybody was dressed, and like moms and kids all over the world, we were watching cartoons until the kids had to leave for school.  My husband called, and when he asked me if I was watching TV, I remember laughing at him and saying “Duh!  Of course we’re watching TV.  The world would stop revolving if we didn’t watch “Rocket Boy and Big Mike” every morning!”  He told me to get the kids out of the room and turn on the news.  That made me nervous, because he was not the type to chase the kids out of the room for anything.  I shooed the kids out of the room and changed to the morning news and immediately saw why my husband had called. The World Trade Center tower 1 had been hit by a plane. I remembered seeing the news footage after the Empire State Building had been hit by a plane, but the damage was nothing like the gaping hole in the side of tower one.  Of course, that was because the Empire State Building had been hit by a small, private plane. My husband and I talked for a minute, and we both wondered if this was a terrible accident or if it was a terrorist act. Of course, we were also concerned because it was a Boeing plane and if this was a terrorist act, there was risk that there would be further strikes against Boeing—which is where my husband works. We started talking about other Boeing sites, and if they had been evacuated or put on lockdown.  We spent a few moments discussing what I should do if he was unable to leave because of a lockdown.  It didn’t take long for the kids to come back to the TV, and it took quite a bit of fast talking to get them out of the room once they saw all that black smoke.

Finally, I got them out of the door and off to school, and I sat down to watch the news coverage.  At that point, no one really knew what was happening.  There was no word about the hijackings, there was no idea if this was deliberate (although they assumed it was), and they had no idea what was going to happen next.  All that confusion reminded me of another day six years earlier when I had sat on the same couch, watching the same television, listening to the same confusion.  I had watched the entire story of the Oklahoma City bombing unfold.  My youngest daughter was barely 4 weeks old when the Oklahoma City bombing took place, and I remember that I spent the entire day on the couch, holding her, feeding her, too absorbed by the news to do anything else.  I remember hoping that this would turn out to be a terrible, terrible accident, because the idea that we might be under attack was too horrible to really thing about.

I had been sitting there for a while, lost in my own thoughts, when the second plane hit.  The shock of seeing it live made it almost unbelievable.  I couldn’t understand what had happened.  I couldn’t believe it was possible.  I kept thinking “This can’t be real.  It just cannot be real.”  I truly wanted to reject reality, because once the second plane hit, there was no chance that the first plane had just been a horrible accident.  It was obvious: we were under attack. I didn’t know whether to be mad or sick, and while I wanted to be mad because it felt a little safer, the truth was that I just felt sick and scared and uncertain of what to do.  My husband was at work; my children were at school.  I started chiding myself for letting my children leave for school, and I was tempted to go and get my children and bring them home, to not let them be away from me.  I was afraid that something would happen and that I wouldn’t be able to get to them.  I talked myself out of it, reasoned that all I would do was scare them witless, but I really wanted to go and get them.

Realizing that other mothers like myself might not know, I called a friend of mine and discovered that she hadn’t seen the news either.  I spent a few minutes on the phone with her, sharing what I had seen already.  Then I called two other moms on my street who also turned out to be unaware.  Each time I was amazed to hear how happy they sounded when they first answered the phone, and how stunned and sickened they sounded once they saw the live pictures on TV.   Usually I feel better when someone else feels the way I do about something; it feels validating.  Sharing that sick, stunned feeling wasn’t nearly as nice. I finally called my mom, and we sat watching the TV, praying that the people inside the towers would be rescued.  We prayed for a long time, praying for the dead and their families, and for the families waiting to receive their survivors; we prayed for the rescuers and the hospital workers, even for the media.  We were pretty deep in prayer when my mother suddenly stopped speaking and she moaned.  She had been praying with her eyes open, and she had seen the jumpers—the people who jumped from the towers rather than die in the heat and the flames. Neither one of us could pray another word.  We just sat in horror and watched the people jump and die. I remember hoping that the words in Romans 8:26 were true.

“For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” 

We were still on the phone when the news came through that the Pentagon had been hit in Washington, DC.   We finally hung up.  There really wasn’t anything else to say.

I sat there in silence on the couch, wondering what was going to happen next.  Then the south tower collapsed.  By this time I had been sitting there watching the events unfold for almost 90 minutes. At this point, the constant replays of the planes hitting the towers were making me numb. They added the footage of the south tower collapsing to the stack of repeating images, and I became even more numb.  The newsmen started talking about protecting the president; that the vice-president had been taken to the secret bunker; that the president was in the air and wouldn’t be allowed to land until things were safe.  I can’t tell just how much those phrases chilled me: the presidential bunker, the president being kept “safe” in the air.  I remember being a young child afraid of nuclear war—that was the threat when I was a kid.  The Cold War was going strong, and we feared that one day, Russia and the US would finally have it out in a huge nuclear battle.  When we talked about it at school, many of the kids would ask what would happen to our government if there was nuclear war, and we were always told that the president would be protected from any harm.  He would either be taken to a special bunker where the radiation couldn’t harm him, or he would be up in a plane in the air, and he would stay up in the air until they could find a safe place to land.  Back then, that information was comforting, but on 9/11, hearing that the president was “in the air” and would remain “in the air” was terrifying.  It was like all my childhood fears had come true. The terrible thing I had feared as a child had suddenly appeared and instead of nuclear war it turned out to be random attacks on US soil. I kept waiting for the Civil Defense siren to go off, or for the TV channels to start playing that awful alarm sound that used to be associated with Civil Defense warnings; now we use it for Amber Alerts.  I was still sitting there wrapped up in my fear when the reports started to trickle in about a plane crashing in Pennsylvania.  But there didn’t seem to be much information about the plane in Pennsylvania, and then the north tower collapsed, and all the focus came back to the World Trade Center.  Then the images started to roll in from the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and I began to wonder where that last plane had been headed before it crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.  Anymore, I honestly don’t think I want to know.

It occurred to me that eventually my children would come back home from school, and I would have to somehow explain what had happened to them. They weren’t little kids anymore, and they had a right to know—to know something at least—maybe not the whole truth. I couldn’t imagine what I would say, and yet I couldn’t imagine letting them see the news coverage either. How do you explain terrorism to a child who still believes that the world is full of good people? How do you explain why someone kills thousands of people? How could I explain that they shouldn’t be afraid when I was so afraid?  I had no idea.

 After all the horrible images and the sickening news on 9/11, the news in the following days took on a different sound.  It was subtle, and at first, I didn’t hear it.  There were so many reports of death and destruction, and the images were as horrible as the images of the attacks themselves.  There were reports of hundreds of firefighters and police officers that died in the towers; there was footage of the terrified, debris-coated people who flooded over the Manhattan bridge on foot trying to get away from the destruction; there were the first-hand accounts of those who had evacuated the World Trade Center, who had had to run from the collapsing buildings.  That part was still horrible, but there was this other part, another sound in the news, and it sounded bittersweet and even hopeful.  There was the thousands of people who lined up to give blood; cities all over the nation were getting record amounts of blood donations as people realized that this was one thing that they could do to help what we hoped would be the injured who were found alive in the rubble. The donations persisted even after we realized that no one else would be found alive in all the wreckage.  There were so many accounts of firefighters and police officers that had continued climbing the stairs as others had evacuated, hoping to reach the people trapped by the impact of the planes. Their deaths only increased the sense of nobility and selflessness that it must have taken to run into that inferno even as others ran out. And the pictures from the capitol: George Bush, walking alone from Air Force One into the White House, fearless, only hours after the towers fell, walking without a security escort even as the nation feared more attacks. Seeing our Congress, gathered on the capitol steps, singing “God Bless America.” The inevitable country music song that popped up to remind us that we are free people who must fight to keep our freedom. The stories of assistance, and rescue, and bravery by common people who, despite their own desperation to escape the burning towers, stopped to assist another person, often saving their life.  And finally, the story of a group of airline passengers who fought their hijackers to the death in order to prevent others from having to die with them.  A few of their final known words became our war cry in Afghanistan: “Let’s roll!”

I realize that 9/11 is a national tragedy that will never totally be healed for those who lost their loved ones, but I also realize that 9/11 gave America a gift that the terrorists who attacked us did not anticipate. They had not imagined how this nation would pull together, how we would support and care for one another, how we would face this tragedy not only with courage, but with compassion and with an outstretched hand, reaching out to help our brothers and sisters in New York, in Washington, in Pennsylvania. They didn’t count on our suddenly realizing and honoring the heroes in our midst. And they didn’t count on our unfailing faith in God, either. As we remember the events of September 11, 2001, as we remember the many who were lost, let us also remember the essential goodness of the American people. Let us remember not only the death and destruction, but also the noblesse and self-sacrifice, not only the suffering, but also the healing. And most of all, let us remember that in all of it, God was with us then and is with us now, weeping, mourning, and remembering. Let us dedicate this day to their memory, and to the hope that we can create a better peace in our time, a peace that will be worthy of their memory and of their sacrifice.