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Tuesday, September 11, 2018

I Still Cry. 9/11--seventeen years later

     Seventeen years ago, I was sitting in my office in Franklin, TN. I was a single dad, two years into a painful divorce. My office had become my refuge on those days when my daughter was not with me. I spent a lot of time there, waiting for the next Thursday visit, or “My weekend” in the every-other-weekend carousel.
     That’s where I was on September 11, 2001. My morning routine was to get up at 5:30, go to the gym, and then be at my desk at 8:15. I had forty-five minutes to prepare my day, review the current files, and my sales plan, and be ready for 9 a.m. when the underwriters began their day, and the banks opened, and I discovered which fires needed to be put out, and which ones needed to be lit.
     I was watching the headlines on my computer when the first plane hit the tower. That’s all they said at first…that a plane had hit the tower. Nobody said whether it was a commercial jet, or a Piper Cub. Being a history buff, I instantly recalled that a B-25 had hit the Empire State Building in 1945, so there was a precedent for this being an accident.
But it wasn’t.
     While they were still trying to sort out the details and figure out what happened in the first crash, another plane hit the other tower. This time I saw it in real time. We all did. There was no mistaking it. The stress load on the wings as the demonic hijacker veered the craft into the building at high speed was ominous. This was no mistake. This was hitting a target.
     Before I could blink, my phone rang. It was a friend of mine in town who immediately said, “Jesus…we’re under attack.” I’d already thought the same thing but couldn’t put it into a sentence. We’re under attack. Once I’d accepted this, I knew who it was who’d done it. They’d already tried this eight years earlier, and these particular devils aren’t the kind to give up easily. They are pure evil. You hear that term a lot…”pure evil,” but you don’t see it as often. Manson was pure evil. Hitler was pure evil. The Muslim attackers on 9/11 were pure evil.
     I sat there at my desk, in a trance. “The people,” I thought, “All those people.” I thought of the people in the buildings. I thought of the people on the planes. How horrifying were their final moments? How much pain did they feel? What about their children? Their families?
     I called my ex-wife and talked to her about what we were going to do about our daughter. She is a nurse and worked at a hospital at the time. She told me they were already on lockdown, that there had been rumors of threats in Nashville as well. I told her I would sit tight for another thirty minutes to see what was happening and then if I needed to, I’d go get Daisy at the day-care. She agreed and we hung up.
     My attention turned back to the screen. I sat there in tears, watching two iconic buildings burn. I prayed for my country, through those tears. I prayed for the victims and their families. Then the horror got even worse. At first I thought they were pieces of the building falling to the ground. Then it became clearer, and the commentators confirmed it: those were people. People jumping from the windows of their offices, because they would rather fall to their death than burn.
     I remember rocking back and forth in my chair, sobbing now. Thinking about someone’s daddy, making that terrible choice, maybe calling to say goodbye first, and then leaping to their death. Or someone’s mom. Or someone’s fiancĂ©, or son, or daughter.
     It was hitting me full force now. These were my family. By right of their citizenship in the US and further…by their very humanity. Those were my brothers and sisters, hurtling to their death, because to not do so was to suffer an even more gruesome end. Twenty minutes later, the scene exploded into a nightmarish, twisted, surreal vision of ash, and glass, and molten steel, and fluttering papers, raining down on white-faced survivors fleeing for their lives, and brave first responders, running the other way, into the danger, to do what they do willingly.
     The first tower collapsed in forever-slow-motion. I can still see it in my mind. I’ll never stop seeing it in my mind. Never. I can feel the temperature of the office I sat in, the warmth of the sun on that picture perfect morning, flooding my office with a light that suddenly didn’t seem to be appropriate.
     There was no chance now. No chance for survival for the thousands in that building. I knew it as I watched. And I sobbed again. “What are they doing to my beloved country?” I thought. “Is this happening anywhere else? Are we safe here in the South?” By the time news broke of Flight 93 missing in Pennsylvania, and the plane hitting the Pentagon, I’d already decided to go get my daughter. “Maybe they’ll target daycare centers” I thought. “These people are animals, really. They want to inflict maximum pain. What would be more painful than attacking children?”
     I was already in my car and on my way to my daughter’s daycare when the second tower fell. I heard it on the radio. I could barely see to drive, for the tears. I called Daisy’s mom on my way across town and told her I’d have her with me, and we’ll coordinate later. Again she agreed. She was scared. The hospital was a rumor mill and she’d heard them all.
     I called my family to check in. Everybody was okay. All accounted for. I turned into my daughter’s daycare and saw the line of cars. I parked in the lot and walked to the front doors. I punched in the special code and walked in the lobby. The same fear and anger and sorrow I was feeling was on every face. The moms and dads who, like me, had decided that the best place for their kids was with them, protected and safe, all had the same look in our eyes. “What in Hell was happening?” That wasn’t a figurative or a colloquialism. It was what we really felt. Only Hell itself could have cooked up a plan like this. Were they done? Was there more?
     I walked toward the big room where the 3 and 4 year old kids played together. My little girl was three-and-a-half at the time. The apple of my eye. I paused outside the room as other parents went in. I spotted my daughter in the corner, playing with some of her friends, oblivious to what had happened.
She was still just a child.
     I waited. I watched her playing. Something deep inside told me to let her play just a few more minutes. The other parents instinctively knew not to mention what was going on and not to scare the children. We all put on a smile and pretended that we were just there to pick them up for a special day together. I let Daisy play for maybe three minutes or so…while I thought.
     I thought about the world she was now living in. How in one ten minute span, her entire future was changed. I didn’t know just how much, but I knew that after today, things could never be the same. And I cried again. I cried because I knew that somehow, the childhood I’d dreamed of giving her; the one I was working for, and planning for, was not possible now. This evil monster would always be there. From now until eternity.
     I finally walked in the room and she ran to me as she always did. Because she was a daddy’s girl. I scooped her up and hugged her as tightly as I could. I was trying to shield her. To block the evil from affecting her life. Like maybe if I squeezed her enough, the morning would be undone and she could just have a normal childhood. But that could never be.
     The day was a blur after that. We went to get breakfast and then we went grocery shopping. I called her mom and she talked to our daughter for a minute, just to hear her voice. We went to my home, which was ten minutes into the countryside, where we felt like it was safer. But was it? She played outside in the sunshine oblivious to what was happening, while I listened to the radio and pushed her on her swing.
     By the end of that long day, with the sky empty of planes, except for the occasional military jet, patrolling, and with the stunned sorrow beginning to turn into righteous rage, I wept again.
     I thought of my grandparents. Was this what they felt on December 7, 1941? Was this how it felt that Sunday evening, after the smoke had settled and the body counting had begun?
     I cried a lot more the next day, seeing the smoke and fire where two works-of-art in building form had been. When the reports came in of the brave 343 first responders who willingly ran into the buildings and died when they fell.
     Seventeen years later and I still can’t see those pictures. I still can’t see the stills of the ones who chose to jump. I still can’t see the flag, flying from a mast still attached to a piece of the building now laying in the street. I can’t see any of that without crying. In fact, I think that if I ever relive that day in my mind and don’t cry, I’ll question my own humanity, my patriotism, and my compassion.
     When I see people who don’t get emotional it angers me. When I see that in some pockets of this country, people who openly espouse the kind of sick evil are actually running for elected office –and in some cases winning—I am sickened and seething.
I will never fully trust those who belong to the sect who did this to us. Sorry…that’s life. That’s what happens when you attack us. There is going to be a bit of guilt by association and you had better just understand it. You’d better just understand my distrust and my holding you at arm’s length and you’re having to prove yourself to me and to my country.
     Because I still cry.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

I Was Here...Saying a long goodbye to a dear friend

     This is a hard week. It’s been a hard few months, bookended within a hard year. Just hard. I turn fifty-five this week. It’s been hard for me. It’s not the number…it’s the regrets.
I hate my birthday. I think I always have. There are reasons why and I won’t go into them here. But by the time I was thirty, I stopped celebrating my birthday at all. I just chose to go to work or school and act like it was just another day, until it finally became just another day.
     But this week is hard. Harder than usual. In the midst of my usual self-assessment and subsequent sadness over all that should have been, might have been, and probably never will be, I’m also now forced to begin the grieving process for one of the dearest friends I have ever had.
     My friend Rick has terminal cancer. I can’t even look at the words as I type them. I can’t accept this and I can’t believe it. Rick has been my friend for almost thirty years now. He was a Christian musician and I began as just a fan, met him almost by accident, and we became friends. I am the oldest in my family, so I never had a big brother. But I had Rick.
     I am watching him fight bravely. Fight the disease and fight the prognosis, and fight the sadness and the unrelenting assault of the illness. Cancer doesn’t have a game plan. It has no time limits. It can move slowly or invade like a lightning strike. It doesn’t care. It’s just a bunch of unfeeling cells with only one thing programmed into its code.
     My friend is doing his best to refuse surrender. He will find ways to make me laugh when I call. He’ll joke about his plight. He’s good at this…good enough that I can’t tell if he’s just being brave for everyone else, or if he’s really this hopeful. Like maybe he knows something we don’t. Like they found a cure and it’s being rolled out thirteen days from now and he is number three on the list and everything is secretly going to be just fine. Like he’s just holding this card close to his chest until a day or so beforehand and then he’ll tell us all, and we’ll go have dinner together and celebrate.
     I know none of this is true but Rick’s humor and ease makes me wish, and believe just a little. I’m in denial. I know it. But I can’t bring myself to accepting this. I can’t grasp a world without Rick Elias and the music, and the conversations, and the Christmas Party, and the Superbowl commentary. (Rick’s father-in-law was an NFL coach and his wife can take over a football viewing party like no other woman)
     There is a certain self-satisfaction with being a fan of someone who exists slightly on the outside of a genre. It’s like a badge of honor that tells the world that your tastes are a little more discriminating. My musical tastes were always this way. My record collection was, for the most part, made up of names you know, but you don’t know any of their stuff. I reveled in converting my friends to the sounds of Southside Johnny, Little Steven, Willy Deville…and Rick Elias.
Usually the first response was “That’s Christian music? That’s way too good to be Christian music.”
And it was. It was because, for the last twenty years or so, especially since the plague of “praise and worship” took over everything on the airwaves, Christian music has been horrible. Horrible like “I’d rather hear the “Brady-Kids-singing” horrible. The last record I cared about was Rick’s “Job” album and before that, “The Jesus Record” which was Rich Mullins’ posthumous masterpiece. I stopped listening to the genre…then I stopped caring about it. That’s sad. And that’s why we needed Rick in the first place.
     This is weighing on me as I have dealt with this terrible illness that my friend has and with the inevitable goodbye, and with the gaping hole in my heart, and with the snapshots of all the moments we’ve shared. I can’t stop the movie that plays in my soul, and I don’t want to. But sometimes watching it hurts even more.
     Three weeks ago I wrote him a letter. I debated sending it because I was afraid it was sounding like I was eulogizing my friend before he was gone. Like I was giving up. But I wanted…I desperately needed, to know that he heard my words sooner, not later. I wanted to be certain that he knew I loved him. That I was honored by his friendship. That I bore witness to this life of his. That someone stood up and said “I see you.” That he knew that others knew he was here.
     That’s really the point of this piece today. Because Rick is facing something that ultimately we all face, and for me it has only served to emphasize the internal wrestling I’ve been experiencing for over a year now. I’m getting older. Certainly not old, but I’m older. And I wonder, as fifty-five approaches in a few days, did anyone know I was here?
My daughter knows, of course. A few of my friends I suppose. But otherwise I wonder about the value of the life I’ve led so far. If I was somehow undone from history, what would the world look like?
     I’ve walked most of this walk of mine alone. That’s simply a fact. I didn’t grow up in a home where I was valued very much and I learned early on to just make my own way. That’s great for survival, but in the long term, it doesn’t lend itself to the feeling that somehow, someone in the crowd of six billion humans saw you. I’m questioning this now as I turn fifty-five, and as my friend faces eternity. Who saw me? Who saw Rick?
     I wrote him that long letter and sent it last week, after a few days of debating it in my heart. I hoped he would understand what I was saying, and what I was not. I wanted him to know that I saw him. That I see the footprints of his life and his work and some of those prints are on the sacred ground of my own heart. I saw the man he is and the dad he is and the husband he is and the Christian he is. I’ve seen the good and the bad and the in-between. And I stand as a witness to a life well lived. A job well done. A body of work that is superior to many who have achieved more fame, on far less talent.
     He’s been my friend. My friend when I was flying high and when I crashed on his couch. My friend when we disagreed, sometimes vehemently, and my friend when we were in complete unity. He read my writing and laughed at my jokes. He’d send me an email with a new song inside. “Don’t share this yet, but what do you think?” or he’d call me and ask me to come over and just hang out, because he knew I was a new divorcee, and I was his friend, and his friend was hurting.
     I am angry with myself that I have not learned this lesson already by now. This lesson of telling people you love them while there is plenty of time for them to accept it, and process it, and live in the truth of it, and let it inspire them. Rick and I –thankfully—kept short accounts. Twice I remember us disagreeing so passionately that we stopped speaking. In both cases the silence ended fairly soon and we were sorry it happened at all.
     My friend’s life and death battle has taught me, reminded me really, that nothing is forever and nothing should be taken for granted. If you love someone…tell them. Whether you love them as a friend or romantically or whatever, tell them. Tell them what they've meant to you, and why. Tell them how bland and boring life would be without them. Tell them what they've added to your life. Give examples. Remember moments. Thank them for making your life better. Hold on tightly. Laugh at yourselves. Tell them you love them. Make sure they know. Make sure they know how invaluable their life was to yours. How flavorless your banquet would have been without the dish they brought. Go ahead and cry. It's in those tears, and in that brokenness that the love you hold for them can escape the bonds of safety and propriety, and you can feel it in all its depth.
     Say it. Go ahead and SAY IT! I love you, my dear friend. You have meant more to me than all these words of mine can ever express. You have brought me laughter, tears, joy, depth, anger, connection, hope, despair, a glimpse of the Holy, the faint scent of the profane, and the soft flutter of the occasional angel wing. The steps we took together covered more ground than all my steps alone ever could.
     Hold nothing back. Because ultimately, in this crowded world of six billion people, it’s hard to be seen. Hard to be recognized. Hard to feel that someone, anyone, can pick your face out of the maddening crowd.
     Friends are that for each other. The witness to the life each other has led and the chronicler of the victories and defeats and the ground gained and lost. I am determined, more than ever now, to not let even one of my friends go through this life without them hearing me tell them I love them. And why. And what that love has done in this hard heart of mine.
     Maybe in that way, this long goodbye I am saying to my dear friend Rick, will have meaning and purpose that extends beyond his life, and into the concentric circles where his life and mine have overlapped.
     That, and the wonderful music he has bestowed on us all, will keep him fresh in my heart, painful as it will be, until I see him again.
Tell them you love them

* If you would like to help my friend Rick and his family please consider giving here:
Go Fund Me for Rick Elias