When even the sky cries

"Did you cry?"

The question was from John Drennan, who was 15 years old back on this 12th day of October in 1994. He was riding in a department car from the annual memorial ceremony held at the Firemen's Monument on Riverside Drive. The five fallen firefighters that year had included his father, Fire Capt. John Drennan.

Young John was now asking Fire Capt. Patrick Brown if he had cried.

"Yeah," Brown said.

John seemed amazed a hero such as Brown had cried.

"You did?" John asked.

"You bet," Brown said. "Did you cry?"

"No," John said.

John then mumbled a qualification.

"I did on the stage," John said.

He reached in his pocket and took out the two medals he had accepted on behalf of his father.

"Ma, here, you want to hold these?" John asked.

John turned and handed the medals to his mother, Vina Drennan. She sat in the back seat with a friend, gazing at the medals in her open hand. The Medal of Valor had a red ribbon. The Medal of Supreme Sacrifice had a blue ribbon.

"This is one medal I hope you never get, Patrick," Vina said.

"Me, too," Brown said.

Both medals are awarded posthumously. Brown already had most of the others. He kept driving us down to Tavern on the Green, where the fallen firefighters' families were to have lunch.

As we stepped from the car into the sunshine, Vina handed the medals back to young John. The Drennans went inside with Brown, and they were joined by Fire Chaplain Mychal Judge.

Judge had been with the family through the 40 days of the older John Drennan's terrible suffering. He had come to seem part of the family himself.

Afterward, the Drennans returned to a house in Staten Island that now had an empty chair at the dining table. The continuing routines of life included the laundry, and Vina took young John's pants from the wash to discover she had run them through with one of the medals in the pocket.

"It's probably the first medal that ever went through the laundry," Vina would later say.

The medal was fine, but the same could not be said for the ribbon. Vina left it as it was and lived on from one day to the next with young John and her three daughters. Judge was always there. Brown remained their guardian angel.

"When it was over, when it got lonely, when it got quiet, when it got scary, Paddy was there for us still," Vina wrote in her journal.

In time, two of the three daughters started families of their own and the third moved to the Pacific Northwest. Young John became as decent and delightful a person as ever worked in the financial industry, or for that matter any other.

"He's a great kid," Brown said.

Brown corrected himself.

"I mean young man."

Heard the plane

On Sept. 11 of last year, young John was coming out of the PATH train downtown when he heard the first plane hit the World Trade Center. He telephoned his mother.

Vina had just seen the news break over TV. She knew Brown would have raced down there, on duty or not. She also knew he would still be inside when the towers came down.

At that moment, Vina needed nobody more than she needed Mychal Judge, but he had also perished. She attended his funeral with her grandson Drew in her lap.

After Brown's funeral, we scattered his ashes at the top of the Great Lawn in Central Park. Vina sang "God Bless America."

Last week, Brown's brother Mike called Vina and asked her to join his family at this year's Fire Department memorial. There were too many fallen firefighters to gather on Riverside Drive. The observance would instead be at Madison Square Garden, at the corner of Seventh Ave. and what has been renamed Father Mychal Judge St.

Yesterday morning, Vina and the Browns joined the other families of the fallen on the floor of the Garden. She greeted Judge's twin sister, Dympna Judge Jessich, in Row A and took a seat with the Browns in Row K.

The names of the fallen were read and when the recitation came to "Capt. Patrick J. Brown," the only consolation was he could not have been in better company. His smiling face flashed on the big screens and then came the next name and face and the next and the next.

Tears fell, big and silent. A chill seeped up from hockey ice below the temporary flooring.

After the final name, the gathering rose as one in a standing ovation that seemed determined to prove these comrades lived on in spirit. The applause grew even louder when a panning camera flashed 7-year-old Terence Stackpole on the big screens. He was the image of his fallen father, Capt. Timothy Stackpole.

At the end, the white-gloved department escorts presented each family with a polished wooden case containing four medals, including a World Trade Center medal and a medal from the international union.

And then there were the Medal of Valor and the Medal of Supreme Sacrifice, the ones that Patrick Brown said he hoped he would never get as he drove the Drennans away from the memorial exactly eight years before.

Mike Brown was carrying the medals as he came out of the Garden with his family and Vina. Everyone had cried and a light rain was still falling as if it were joining them, as if this day had been more than the sky itself could bear.