On September 9th, 2001, the cruise ship pulled out of the harbor, while passengers looked back and took photographs as the vessel left the port. The day was crisp and beautiful as the New York shoreline, and the majesty of The World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, disappeared from view.
A man stood next to one of the reflecting pools, where the Twin Towers no longer existed. He was solemn, and in spite of the crowd around him, seemed lost in his thoughts. Every once in a while he’d step back to allow someone else to move in closer. Then, he’d return to that one spot—his hand resting on top of a name.
The 9/11 Memorial Museum was crowded on the cold Sunday afternoon. Never, in the history of our young country, has there been a larger loss of life from a foreign attack, than when those 2997 people died. They weren’t statistics. They mattered. And, the impact of these deaths was profound in that place where we walked on hallowed ground—where so many humans, just like us, perished because of hate.
There was no way to not be emotional—to not feel the pain of lives cut short, the pain of those who survived and had to begin again, the pain of the family members who would mourn the loss of those they love.
So much shook me to the core, moved me to tears and, for the hundredth time, reminded me of the fragility of life and time and relationships. The photos of people who fell, or jumped, from the towers will haunt me always. Standing there I thought, “If I knew that I would perish, would my final, human, thought be, “God, I’m coming home”?
There were photos of uncountable damaged “things” that were swept over a damaged city:
painful reminders of what would never be among physical, mental and emotional pain.
broken things among the broken hearts,
wreckage among wrecked lives.
I wonder how often people have replayed the last moment they saw, or spoke to, a loved one. And, I wonder how people were able to take smiling “tourist attraction” photos in those sacred spaces.
For those who didn’t perish immediately, I wonder what went racing through their minds when they experienced:
the awareness of the impossibility of personal survival
the awareness of choosing to sacrifice your life so that another may make it through
the awareness of life ending all around you
the awareness of imminent death, that made each breath so precious.
In Buddhism, Maranasati is death awareness—being mindful that as we’re living we’re dying—not in a macabre way, but rather by recognizing the limitations of our human bodies. We’re often unwilling (or too afraid) to talk about death. Maybe that’s because we think that acknowledging it will make it come more swiftly—as if our silence can stop the inevitable.
Death is a great leveler—it’s where we’re all on the same plane. Career, status, possessions, intelligence, awards; none of those really matter.
When we “own” that we won’t live forever we’re better able to let go of judgment and negativity. We’re able to see greed and the idolization of stuff. Our lives become not about acquiring things and controlling people and situations, but of being fully in the moments that we have. Death does not have to be discounted in order for life to be lived fully.
Contemplating death opens the door to questions that influence our living:
With whom do I want to share my life?”
How am I walking on this earth and interacting with those around me?”
What am I seeking that is meaningless?”
And then, knowing those answers, what if the next questions become:
What is truly important?”
What do I choose to do with the precious time I have left?
What will I do with this day?
On September 11th, 2001, stunned travelers aboard the ship received the news about what was happening in New York City, Arlington County, Virginia and Somerset County, Pennsylvania. Communication back to The USA was next to impossible those first two days. We waited, clustered in groups, reserved, in shock. At one point, the ship’s captain cut the engine in open water for a minute of silence. In that vastness where “heaven and earth” seemed to meet, the quiet was deafening. When I got to hear my daughters’ voices, I sobbed with relief. We came back “home” through Boston. Divers searched under our ship because there were fears that there may be explosives attached to incoming vessels. When I saw my mother, I held her tighter than usual. Life would never be quite the same.
For some, this will be simply another day—the same as too many before—going through the routine from beginning to end, but not really living into it.
For some, this day will be holy— pregnant with hope for the future, ripe with the presence of spirit, and filled with an, almost palpable, sense of purpose. Hope will rise from the ashes. As always, I will pray for a day like that for you.