58: Small Gestures

58: Small Gestures

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America

Small Gestures

Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable.

~Kenyan Proverb

I was so tired. I just wanted to sleep. The blackness that engulfed me was slipping away. I tried to hold on to it, but the pounding in the distance was pulling it away from me, like a rope slipping through my fingers. This pounding was different than the pounding in my head. It wasn’t pain… it was sound.

I fluttered my eyes and focused on the source of the pounding. The mirror on the back of my bedroom door was shaking. Boom! Boom! Boom!

“Get up, you guys!”

It was my husband’s best friend, who was in town for my brother-in-law’s wedding. My brain, pulsing from too much champagne at the reception the night before, could not make sense of what he was saying. He was mumbling something about the towers.

“The twin towers. We were attacked.”

I followed my husband, who was just as confused and hung over as I was, into the living room.

We turned on the TV.

This was not a movie. This was the news. They didn’t do special effects on the news, so it had to be real. How did this happen? What was sprinkling out of the windows? Papers? People? Why would they jump? Why would they show that on TV?

It was a live broadcast, that’s why.

The three of us stood frozen in the middle of the living room. My champagne addled brain slowly soaked in the realization that this was happening.

Then, the unspeakable. The towers collapsed.

My thoughts raced to my family. I tried to call my parents back in Colorado to tell them we were okay. I couldn’t get a signal. I tried the landline. Again… no signal. I knew they would be worried.

I thought of my husband’s family. They had all come to town for the wedding. Were they all right?

My husband and I got dressed and headed for the hotel where they were all staying. Once everyone was accounted for, we piled into my mother-in-law’s room. We sat together: some on the bed, some in chairs, some on the floor.

There was nothing we could do, so my husband and his brother and I headed for the restaurant where the wedding had been held the night before. There were things that needed to be picked up. Our bodies kicked into autopilot and took us to The Boat Basin Café.

The Boat Basin Café is an outdoor restaurant that overlooks the Hudson River. Last night’s wedding had been a joyous occasion, which now seemed like a lifetime ago. We boxed up the few items we needed and then we sat there in silence. Not sure why. We didn’t really know what else to do.

I looked out by the river and saw a fireman walking toward us.

It seemed strange to see a fireman, in his gear, walking all alone, six miles up the Hudson River from the World Trade Center. He hopped the barrier to the patio of the Café. As he got closer, I could see he was covered in soot. Not black soot, like from a fire. But tan soot, like from a beach. He sat down at a table, stared straight ahead for a moment, then put his head in his hands and began to sob. A waitress brought him a Coke and put her hand on his shoulder.

We sat, stunned, with our eyes fixed on him, and said nothing. Suddenly, the morning’s events were solidified for us. One person began to clap. Then another. And soon, we were all clapping. It seemed a bit trivial, applauding for this man. But what else could we do?

We returned the box of items to the hotel and found ourselves back out on the city streets. The three of us decided to eat. The diner we chose was not our usual Upper West Side gathering place. It was a few blocks from our apartment and was packed. We sat in the one remaining booth.

The kitchen was visible from our table. The cook was working hard, trying to fill bellies with comfort food. The waiter was running around, tending to the overflow of people. When he finally got to us, he said the other waiters couldn’t make it into the city for work. So it was just him.

Having been in the restaurant industry for years, the three of us understood his stress and could have cared less about the “service” we were getting. Nobody seemed to care. It was enough to just be together. I saw someone get up from a table and get their own water. My brother-in-law made more coffee and my husband helped deliver plates of food to other tables. I sat and thought of that fireman.

The next couple of days were spent in a fog. We tried as best we could to get on with our lives. Our apartment, all the way on the Upper West Side, still smelled of smoke. I walked to work as the trains weren’t running and the streets were filled with tanks instead of cabs. I hardly recognized once familiar neighborhoods, as the sides of buildings, telephone poles and scaffoldings were all plastered with the faces of the missing. And yet, people continued to gather at the restaurants where my husband and I worked, sharing their stories with one another.

That was all we could do. Be together.

On the first anniversary of 9/11, a moment of silence was declared. I found myself thinking of that fireman who sobbed in front of a bunch of strangers in a café. I thought of the waitress with her hand on his shoulder and the applause he received. I thought of the people in the diner who happily shared the shift of a lone waiter. I realized these small gestures were colossal. They meant something. They connected us as human beings and served as the foundation for our healing.

~Suzanne Herber

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