16: Tough Task

16: Tough Task

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People

Tough Task

All of us have wonders hidden in our breasts, only needing circumstances to evoke them.

~Charles Dickens

The phone rang at 2:30 that morning and scared me out of my wits.

“Mom, I’m sorry to be calling so late, but I just have to talk to someone about this.” It was my son Lee. He had just returned to his apartment after helping at the 9/11 Pentagon disaster.

I asked, “How are you holding up? Have you eaten? How are you feeling?”

He asked, “How is the rest of the family doing? Were there any events in Maryland? How are your patients handling it?”

The tragic story emerged throughout our nightlong conversation. Lee worked across the street from the Pentagon. He heard the explosion and ran over to help.

He went from bystander to rescue worker in one horrible heartbeat. His friends worked in that building and he wanted to help. Lee was not a fireman, military man, or medic. He was there and he was willing to do what needed to be done. Someone gave him directions and a flashlight and sent him to join one of the search teams.

He cried into the phone. “I wanted to help so I could say to one little girl, ‘your Daddy will be coming home,’ but that didn’t happen.

“Mom, there were no bodies... only arms and legs. I wasn’t able to save a single one of them. There were no pulses... not one, the whole time.” He began sobbing. My heart broke for him. He struggled to continue. “I saw a hand, just a hand, on the floor; it had a wedding ring on it and all I could think of was my Crissy.” (Crissy was the girl he wanted to marry.) That said, he wept again. “Mom I never meant to lose my composure—I’m sorry.”

“No son, don’t be sorry; if you could go through what you just did and not feel anything, you would not be human.”

“I’m supposed to be in control of myself. I’m falling apart here,” he protested. “Sorry to call so late,” he continued in a whisper.

“I’m honored you called to talk to me,” I whispered back.

“Since you’re a nurse and have watched many people die, I thought you could tell me how to handle it,” he said. Then he wanted to know how to regain his composure, so he could go back and continue the search. I told him that the devastation he just saw was not like anything I had ever witnessed.

“You’re going to feel overwhelmed because it is an overwhelming situation. There is nothing you can do but rest and go back and do what you know you must do,” I said.

He kept repeating, “I have to go back and try to help, but it’s hopeless.”

With all the love a mother could give, I tried to explain that he had done all he could and that he was only human and he couldn’t change fate. I tried to think of comforting Bible verses but none would come to mind. I just kept reassuring him that he had done all he could. He told me that once he rested and regained his composure, he wanted to return to the Pentagon.

“That’s why I wanted to talk to you, Mom. How do you do what you do and not break down in front of people?”

“Lee, it doesn’t matter if you break down. No one will care about that.”

“But,” he protested, “I’m supposed to be objective, controlled, and saving lives, not picking up hands and legs!”

“Who said you have to be composed through all this?” I asked. “Is there a rulebook on how you should act in the midst of a terrorist attack? Son, you are reacting like a human. Are you really worried that someone might see you cry?”

“No. It’s not that. I just want to handle this and keep my composure and be strong for the families, like you do at work.”

Apparently he pictured me as Florence Nightingale attending to war-torn troops. The truth was, in the entire forty years of my nursing career, I had never witnessed the horrors he had seen in the last forty hours! However, I admitted that I had wept with the families when there was nothing more we could do to save someone they loved.

“Hon, we’re only human, we feel human emotions.”

“Then tell me how to control my thoughts. I have to think clearly,” he pressed.

That I could do. “Even when I was crying, I prayed for strength and concentrated on doing my job to the best of my ability, and I continued to do it,” I answered. “That’s what you have to do, pray and concentrate. Remind yourself that you are there to do a job and do it. Focus on the task and ask yourself what do I need to do next?”

He answered in anger, “I’m supposed to be rescuing somebody but there’s no ‘body’ left to rescue!”

Just then, he let out a gut-wrenching moan and shrieked, “Oh my God!”

I screamed into the phone, “What’s happened now?”

“Mom, I just looked down and there are fragments of other people’s skin on my arms!” Then he broke into sobs. His heartbreak seeped into my heart and I cried with him.

My mind tried to think of something else to say to comfort or help him. I reminded him repeatedly that even when we can’t see it, God is in control. I also reminded him that this life is not the only life we will ever have.

After an entire night of talking, “pray for the strength and do what you have to do to the best of your ability,” was the only sound advice I had to offer. After all is said and done that is all we can ever do. Lee went back to finish the gruesome job.

The advice I gave him that night will help him through anything. Lee now knows he can get through any crisis by praying for strength and doing what he can to the best of his ability. That is all I could ask of my son. That was the best advice I had to give.

In the aftermath, I worried that such a horrible experience would scar my son for life. It didn’t. In fact, he is a better man for having done such a tough task in a terrible situation. While I wished he had been spared that tragedy, he became a stronger person because of it. He has a deeper appreciation for his life and the people in it. He cherishes each day and he takes nothing for granted.

Lee and I are still miles apart. Yet, we are closer in heart and spirit because of a night spent talking on the phone, sharing tough times.

~Joyce Seabolt

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