Although I had served after numerous regional tornadoes, organized sandbag teams and flood "mud out units," this was the first time I served after a man-made disaster and it rocked my world to be there. The relief tent where we worked was filled with the smell of sausage and peppers, so this smell immediately transports me back to NYC at a time that greatly shaped my life.
On our first trip, walking through the "Miracle Church" (St Paul's Chapel) that was lined with millions of cards from children and well-wishers from around the world, I wondered what was being done with the cards that had arrived by the bag and were still sitting in the back of the church unopened. See Photos. The church became a media-free haven for volunteers to sit, to pray, receive a message and unload their burdens. I proposed to bring a group of high school disaster relief volunteers that were part of the leadership team in Minnesota to process the cards. During our return trip in December we physically touched hundreds of thousands of cards drawn by elementary children and could feel the pain and the love that came with their cards, stuffed animals and bracelets. Artwork that encouraged and celebrated our country contrasted with some that was too graphic to deliver but provided a peak into what their little eyes saw and left on their memory so strong that they could draw it in class.
Through the cards we saw 9/11 through eyes of girl scout troops, kindergarten classes and pre-school kids. We wrote down the return addresses and sent letters thanking them for supporting New York and the disaster relief workers. Whenever we found a phone number, we called the child on my cell phone, letting them know that their card was received and thanking them. It was precious to hear their reactions that someone was calling from New York and that someone was blessed because of them, that somehow they had helped people heal. We sorted the "best of the best" for a museum display and I was also given permission to take a box home with me with some examples that I've shared with Rotary clubs and school groups.
Ross and I spent our Christmas and New Year's Eve in New York City when volunteers were understandably hard to find two months post-disaster. Participating in mass at midnight at Ground Zero on Christmas Eve with other volunteers from across the USA made an indelible mark on my soul. I learned that this was the very first time since 9/11 that work stopped for everyone. We stood by the steel beam cross that was twisted through the collapse of the building and I looked down as a firefighter on either side of me grabbed my hands and enveloped my hands in their huge rough hands. Under the stars and the lights of the cranes, we soaked in a very awkward quietness. No traffic noises. No construction noises. No talking in one of the most populous cities in the USA...and you'd never know it. Precious. It was as if time had stopped and it was just God and us.
The bagpipe played "Amazing Grace" and then we joined hands singing "Silent Night" -- and the memory still haunts and warms me. We stood reverently at the base of the "pit" where the Towers once stood, strangers and yet interwoven by an unshakeable human spirit committed to honor those who died by living fully. We prayed. We cried. We held each other. Although complete strangers before this week, we were somehow entwined and it touched a place in my soul that is so precious and private that it has taken me ten years to even begin to share this experience with those I love. My time there shaped me. And I will never view the ball drop on New Years Eve the same way after celebrating the first of the New Year 2002 with the citizens of New York.
How do I process all this emotion and all this stuff that's buried deep in me?
Simple, I cook dinner.
To commemorate our time serving in NYC, each year I prepare sausage and peppers for my family because it was served almost every meal while we were there; the smell instantly transports me back and although I want to forget, I yearn to remember the sites and smells and interactions because my time there was so transforming.The experience is still raw and it makes me uncomfortable to think about some of the things I heard, I saw, I smelled and heard from other first responders they hadn't yet told their family or their priest.
I recognized that serving food to workers and processing letters were such tiny and seemingly insignificant tasks until I was in the trenches and realized that simply spending time together was what was important more than anything we "did." We allowed people to share their stories with us and gave them permission to let down some of their load as we listened, slowly, completely, allowing them to share places that people don't normally share with loved ones, let alone strangers. September 11 forever changed how I interact with people and set things in motion that were not on my lifepath back then. Time slowed down and it has never fully gone back to the speed it was before, and that's actually quite a blessing.
I now have a seven year old son named Caleb who was just a twinkle in my eye on 9/11/2001. When I volunteered with his kindergarten class this year, I had a few moments when I wondered how their world is different because of a blue sunny sky day in September 2001. Because they weren't even born yet, their mind's eye doesn't include the picture of people in a burning building collapsing, people jumping and smoke that those kindergarten children saw ten years ago over and over again in the media. What should we tell our kids now? What should we show them, teach them? We learned some important lessons then and I want to make sure that our kids continue to learn it, hopefully without all the pain and confusion. Do we protect them more by teaching the lessons or by moving on?
As I'm writing, I'm here on campus at a high school taking advantage of a break...this is the same high school where I recruited teens to go with me to NYC to process the cards. Those students have since graduated college, moved away from home, gotten "real jobs..." Whether or not I want to, I think of them a lot each September. There are simply so many reminders of life ten years ago.
I wonder about the elementary kids who saw the plane crash into the Towers live on TV who are now attending this high school where I work. I saw students driving onto campus this morning on their way to fall sports practice. Some of them were my son's age back in 2001 who probably drew cards that were sent to New York. I wonder what impact 9/11 created for their generation, if the lessons are lost or diluted ten years later. Can we have the good results without reliving the lesson?
In Bloomington students honor Thomas Burnett through a day of service because he was a hometown hero who took action on a plane that day. I think that this service event sums up my hope for my son and his friends: rather than somber ceremonies, we will honor the fallen best by finding ways to serve each other, by getting past all the noise in life and spending bulk unhurried time with our loved ones. And for me, it starts with slow cooking sausage and peppers and inviting people for dinner...
Nutritional Information: Amount per serving (yields six servings)
- Calories: 483
- Fat: 13.9g
- Protein: 33g
- Carbohydrate: 55.7g
- Fiber: 5g
- Cholesterol: 102mg
- Iron: 3.4mg
- Sodium: 1150mg
- Calcium: 158mg
- Cooking spray
- 6 (4-ounce) links turkey Italian sausage
- 2 cups (1/4-inch strips) green bell pepper
- 1 cup (1/4-inch strips) red bell pepper
- 1 cup (1/4-inch strips) yellow bell pepper
- 6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 1 (26-ounce) bottle fat-free pasta sauce (such as Healthy Choice)
- 1/2 cup (2 ounces) shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
- 6 cups hot cooked penne (about 3/4 pound uncooked tube-shaped pasta)
- 2 tablespoons grated fresh Parmesan cheese
- Heat a large nonstick skillet coated with cooking spray over medium-high heat. Add sausage to pan; cook 8 minutes or until lightly browned, turning occasionally. Remove from pan; cool slightly. Cut sausage into 1/2-inch-thick slices.
- Wipe pan with paper towels; recoat with cooking spray. Place pan over medium-high heat. Add peppers; sauté 6 minutes. Add sausage; sauté 2 minutes. Add garlic; sauté 2 minutes. Add sauce; bring to a simmer. Reduce heat; cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat.
- Add mozzarella, stirring until melted. Place 1 cup pasta in each of 6 shallow bowls; spoon about 1 cup sausage mixture over each serving. Sprinkle each serving with 1 teaspoon Parmesan.