Gathering for dead is a testament to life

Copyright 2002 Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
Detroit Free Press...03/19/2002

By Rochelle Riley

NEW YORK _ Six months ago, two towers stood here, where there is now a cavernous hole in the ground. They stood under a cloudless, clear blue sky, under a golden sun; they stood for capitalism and freedom and America.

Last Monday, exactly six months from the moment the world was knocked off its axis, a small gathering of community brothers and sisters from New York's police and fire departments, Port Authority and from its streets and its families, stood on the same spot _ testimony that life does go on.

They stood in front of a makeshift altar with the Rev. Brian Jordan, who for six months has walked in the shoes of the Rev. Mychal Judge, the beloved New York fire department chaplain who died Sept. 11. Jordan invited the warriors and saints gathered to join him in reciting the Lord's Prayer and singing "God Bless America."

Everyone knew the words.

At the exact time when a plane flew into one tower six months ago, the bulldozers and workers who were shunting back and forth, turning over earth and digging for souls, all stopped.

There was complete silence as Jordan encouraged the heroes present to call out the names of heroes lost and loved ones killed in the tragedy. The names of the dead hung in the air, the syllables flying on angels' wings to soothe a group of strangers glued by grief to a spot overlooking a hole in the ground.

Among them was Anthony Knowles, a firefighter at Station 17 in the Bronx, who has been digging off and on at the site since Sept. 12.

"It's something that you can never come to terms with that it happened. Every day you look at this and you hope that it doesn't happen again, and if it does, you wonder, 'Are we ready next time?' "

Who knows whether we'll ever be able to answer that question. How can you get ready for horror, for fanaticism so fatalistic that its perpetrators feel justified in taking parents from children, husbands from wives, daughters from mothers?

I went to that cavern, that mass grave where workers have been struggling to free souls, day after day, to find something. Absolution. Hope. Ferocity.

What I found was peace and unity. Jordan told the firefighters and officers to keep their hats on because the service he was conducting was all faiths, all people, all for one. No matter our backgrounds, we said a prayer that many know. No matter our denomination, we sang a hymn we all grew up with.

That is the way with America, only in America. Room is made at the table, at the altar, in our memories, for everyone.

In the 26 weeks since the world shifted and fire lit another cloudless sky, I had felt guilt. Not the guilt of Cantor Fitzgerald survivors who wondered why they lived when more than 650 of their colleagues died. Not the guilt of firefighters who traded shifts with men who went to their graves. I felt the guilt of unfinished mourning. President George W. Bush demanded that we not only go on with our lives but lift our lives to sustain our economy and show the terrorists we aren't afraid. And we did. Across the country, we've returned to flying. We went back to work, back to class, back to our chores and routines.

But for months, I felt like we hadn't grieved enough, that we had no sustained sense of loss for what happened that day. I felt somehow that the world should have stopped.

But instead, life went on. The victims' names were scrolled on a banner at the Super Bowl as U2 sang. Funds sprang up across the country to help survivors.

And our country embraced our new national agenda of finding out who scarred our country and how quickly we could make them pay. We almost instantly went to war. The targets of our anger have grown, and Osama bin Laden is but one terrorist on our most-wanted list. Did America really take the time to stand for a moment and call out the names of the dead?

At the big cross standing at ground zero, erected where it was found with names scrawled and scratched onto it, a small group of Americans stood under a sunny, cloudless sky and called out the names of loved ones.

There in the mourning silence, the simple ceremony was the right one. With beautiful faces bowed in the sun, these strong men and women did what all the flags and the pomp and the cheers hadn't in the past month.

As we all held hands and sang "God Bless America," you felt that the dead were free. For a moment, you didn't see the damage to surrounding buildings.

I went to ground zero to apologize to the spirits of the dead. But they were too busy to listen. They were preparing for a greater task, holding up a new structure on that site, one built on the souls of the dead, one that will remind us that they lived.


(Rochelle Riley is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Write to her at the Detroit Free Press, P.O. Box 828, Detroit, Mich. 48231.)


(c) 2002, Detroit Free Press.