This day 9/11 brings back memories for me with the clarity of other world changing days. Days like the assassinations of Jack and Bobby Kennedy and Marin Luther King. Days like when Neil Armstrong took man's first steps on the moon, or when I pulled my car over in order to listen to Richard Nixon resign. The day my daughter was born, or the day we found out she was diabetic.
The day the Berlin wall came down was a biggy too, because on that day I thought I had seen the end of the nuclear nightmare, and then came 9/11/2001.
I remember hearing from coworkers that the twin towers had been attacked. They were breathless and wide eyed. I unplugged myself from my headset and got to the break room just in time to see the first tower collapse. I almost puked. My first thought went right to the EMS personnel, wondering how many of them went down with that tower. I remember thinking what an incredibly heroic sacrifice they had made, a really heroic sacrifice in that they made a choice to enter hell in order to help others. That kept going over and over in my mind. They chose to go in there knowing..........
When the second tower came down I was too numb by then to really compute the compounding of an already incomprehensible scene. Surreal I thought. This can't be really happening. Denial and yet certainty intertwined with each other in my brain. I seemed stuck, or more accurately, thrown so far off track I couldn't find the tracks. I wandered back to my desk, I guess looking for some sense of normalcy, and I took a phone call from a client.
I worked in the state's call center for Child Support Enforcement, and it was my job to straighten out child support issues. The caller was a young woman who was complaining about the fact the state had shorted her support check. This was not an infrequent occurrence and depended largely on whether the state had received the correct amount from the payer's employer. I asked her how much her check was short. She said one penny. I was put right back off track. I didn't say anything until she finally asked me if I was still there. I asked her if she had heard any of the new this morning. She said yeah, I'm watching it now. Too bad for all those people, but what about my check?
OK, I admit I came unglued. A penny. You are calling over a penny. She got her penny's worth of my thoughts alright as I was suddenly tracking with a vengeance. Not surprisingly she hung up. None of my supervisors dared mention a word about professionalism. I don't remember much about the rest of the day, except I know we were all allowed to go home if we wanted. I wanted.
I saw them carrying Fr. Mychal Judge out of the towers. I knew he was dead. I could tell by the tears on the faces of the Fire fighters. And suddenly my tears mingled with theirs and thoughts started to coalesce. Terror and fear drive people to do stupid things, things that terrorized, frighten, and yes, disgust other people, and yet there are other people who react compassionately, responsibly, and selflessly. Like people who wear the uniforms of the EMS services, and even some who wear Roman collars or Franciscan habits, and occasionally they wear both---servants to the servants.
I cannot remember 9/11 without remembering both Fr. Judge and my penny caller. It's so easy for me to see Christ shining through Fr. Judge, and so damn hard to see Christ in the penny caller. That"s what makes Christ's command to follow him so hard. Sometimes it's damn difficult.
Had my penny caller had the fortune to call on some other day I would have had the professional insight to understand her motivation. It wasn't the penny, it was the principle. If she didn't make a stink this time, next time it might not be a penny, it might be the whole check. Using the call center was her way of letting her ex husband know she needed his support, every last penny.
Mychal Judge didn't need to be reminded his firefighters needed his support. He gave it all, every last penny. It's what Christ calls all of us to do. Sometimes He even gives us reminders, even on the very last day we would want such reminders, and even in ways which are so starkly different.
Today when I'm spaced out and someone says "Penney for your thoughts" it starts those wheels rolling on those same tracks of 9/11. Now, however, I can grin a little and look them in the eye and tell them maybe they don't really want to spend that penny because I'll give the thoughts for free.
Here's to Mychal Judge and my penny caller, and all those others whose lives were so changed by 9/11. May God look at all of us with compassion and walk our walk with us.