From Chicken Soup for the Soul of America

Ground Zero

Three months after September 11, 2001, I found myself walking the perimeter of Ground Zero in lower Manhattan with four other women. My cousin, Karen, and I had flown from Wisconsin to New York to attend the opening of my daughter Jeanne’s art show at a gallery in mid-Manhattan. Karen, a nurse, wanted to see Ground Zero because she planned to return for three weeks as a Red Cross volunteer to help care for the police and firefighters who would be working there twenty-four hours a day for at least another year.

On that clear crisp December day, Jeanne, Karen and I invited my dear friend, Mary Ann, the executive editor of Guideposts Magazine, a New Yorker by love and by choice, to join us. Mary Ann and I have been friends since 1982, have stayed at each other’s homes and are counting the years until her retirement so we can travel together and nourish our friendship more often.

The fifth woman with us that Sunday was Ellen, who taught art with my daughter at Long Island University. Ellen lived in an apartment just blocks from the World Trade Center area and actually witnessed both planes crashing into the towers and the buildings imploding. Like hundreds of others she dialed 911 the moment it happened.

None of the five of us had been to Ground Zero before that day and somehow we knew it was something we needed to do as a group. We walked and walked around the perimeter, stared, wondered, shook our heads, shed tears and watched the firefighters working to put out the fires deep underground. We breathed in the acrid air that filtered up from below the streets and smelled like burning plastic. We saw hundreds of people filing by St. Paul’s Chapel where tall fences were installed to hold thousands of flowers, notes, letters, posters and the pouring out of love and grief from a nation of people who cannot comprehend what happened on those sixteen acres in New York City’s oldest section.

We walked down the street where a half-dozen huge dump trucks lined up to take their turn removing the steel and the ashes of the dead. We five women understood that the air was filled with toxic chemicals and perhaps everyone should wear masks to protect themselves but we didn’t. Somehow it seemed that if we physically breathed it in, we would understand it better. Ellen mentioned that by breathing we became a part of the dead.

Ground Zero is a holy place. People are quiet, respectful. On one narrow street where we had to step over broken sidewalks and makeshift wooden walkways, there were a dozen handmade signs begging, “Please, no photographs or videos.” But around the corner, down another street there were people taking snapshots and filming the hubbub in and around the gaping hole. The mind cannot comprehend such devastation, nor remember the details, so photos are necessary.

I wanted to remember the coarse, black, wet ashes in front of the church two blocks from where the towers stood. I wanted to remember the chain-link fences that protected the workers and the people who flocked to that neighborhood.

Most of all, I need to remember how it felt to walk south a few blocks to Battery Park at the very tip of Manhattan where we could see the Statue of Liberty in the harbor. We five women stood on the dock where people board the ferry that takes them to the statue and then on to the immigration museum on Ellis Island. We arrived at the park just at sunset. The colors over the ocean screamed with red-orange brilliance as if all was well in New York.

There was a huge photographic mural covering a building at the dock with enormous photos of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, reminding visitors of lives dedicated to peace. To the left was the sunset, the statue, the ocean. To the right, a view of the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan, New Amsterdam, the oldest section of New York, where the Trade Center for the world once stood. Only the skyline was missing its two most dramatic pieces. The gaping space between buildings was obscene, unfathomable, especially if you’d been to New York before and could remember exactly where the Towers stood. Sixteen acres, gone.

As we five women took in that sunset, punctuated with the Statue of Liberty to the south, and then looked north to where the giant towers once stood, each of us experienced muddled thoughts about the world and about our lives before and after September 11. To see that much death and destruction up close, or to live and work near where America was attacked, does something to your soul.

As we walked toward the subway, my daughter put her arm around my waist. I reached for Mary Ann’s hand. Karen and Ellen walked close together, sharing their feelings about life after September 11.

We five women in our thirties, forties, fifties and sixties, together for one afternoon, represented a scattering of different relationships. But for three hours that day we were sisters who experienced awe, fear, anger, depression, amazement, loyalty, patriotism and the friendship that comes when people share their emotions. We saw a skyline that was different than before. But we also saw the Statue of Liberty and the sunset. We saw wet ashes and mangled steel on one side of a street and a sunset of enormous brilliance and beauty on the other. It was good to see them both together and to know that even though the skyline of New York will never be the same, the work and hope arising from the ashes in lower Manhattan is the stuff of liberty and sunrises and sunsets so beautiful you simply can’t define them. You need to go there to understand.

Patricia Lorenz

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