Sunday, September 11, 2011
On September 12, 2001 I was driving to work in a daze, having been up most of the night haunted and worried about my husband's cousin, and thousands of other lost people at the site of the fallen Twin Towers. On a bridge across the eastbound Long Island Expressway, somewhere near East Moriches, there was a banner made from a ripped white bed sheet. On it was written "Pray for Us" in black spray paint. The sky gray and my windshield speckled with rain, the makeshift banner looked like an abandoned movie prop from a horror film. That scene is etched in my mind forever.
Ironically, the morning before, I was teaching high school English, in the middle of a creative writing exercise that placed my students in a hypothetical emergency situation involving an act of terror when a girl in the center of the room raised her hand and quietly asked if I knew that a plane had just hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. I remember running down the hall shortly after that, meeting some of my colleagues in an empty classroom where they had turned on a television. We ate lunch staring at the screen in disbelief. The South Tower fell just before the bell rang. I pushed my lesson plans and my entire lunch into the garbage pail adjacent to the desk where I was seated, watching in silent horror. What followed were three periods of emotional paralysis as I wondered which one of my loved ones or friends might have perished in front of my eyes as I sat eating a salami sandwich.
The call came when I got home. It was my mother-in-law phoning from several states away. My husband’s first cousin, John Scharf, was missing. John, a 29 year-old electrical engineer for Ohio based Leibert Technology, wasn’t supposed to be in the South Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11th. He was there the day before for the first time ever, on a service call at Aon Corporation located on the 105th floor. John was missing a part for the job on Monday, so he came back on the morning of the 11th to finish his work.
This was the cousin who my husband viewed as a brother, who shared the same first name with him and was the same age, the one who had looked out for him when they went to grade school together. When they were both teens, John was the one who took my husband, then 16 years-old, under his wing after he lost his dad to cancer.
“This is bad. I can’t tell him,” I said, but I had to. “He cannot hear this over the phone,” my mother-in-law insisted.
As I waited for my husband to arrive home from work I couldn’t help thinking of some of the stories he had told me about growing up with John.
“We had so much fun together,” he once said. “In school, John had the market on junior high school blow-pop sales. Even when fellow students tried to compete with John, he found the larger blow-pops and was able to maintain his customer base. In eighth grade, we hid in my family's camper until my Mom went to work. We soon realized that there wasn't much to do staying home from school in the middle of the week. So we walked the four miles to the junior high.”
The good-natured teasing between cousins didn’t end in adulthood. My husband once recalled how he and John competed for years, playing one on one basketball.
“I was small, quick, and thin (with a good outside shot). John was tall and strong (with two left feet). That is how I remember it, anyway,” he’d laugh.
An hour or so after I hung up the phone, I met my husband in the middle of our backyard, which is adjacent to an old cemetery in the Village of Patchogue. He had gone straight from the driveway to the shed to get the American flag. He was clutching it in his hands when I told him. Fighter jets were flying over our house from the east.
I was not prepared for my husband’s collapse at my feet, nor was I ready with any words of comfort as I watched him break down right there on the grass. I heard the jets flying past, but I was too numb to look up. Instead I was squinting through tears toward the back of the property, half expecting to see people emerging from the crypts beyond the fence line. It felt like the world was ending.
And while I have avoided images of 9-11 for the last 10 years, this past Sunday my husband, along with 17 members of his family found himself moving toward that horrific event, on a train bound for Manhattan and the 10th Anniversary Memorial Service. My husband shared his feelings about the Ground Zero memorial.
“It was a solemn ceremony that provided families, for the first time, with a tangible place to feel connected with their loved ones, which led to a general feeling of serenity throughout the memorial park. For me, the sadness wasn’t diminished in any way. Seeing John’s fiancee and daughter side-by-side peering into the memorial pool was painful. I was thinking of what should have been and never was,” he said.
When I met John Scharf, in 1997, I was immediately introduced to his playful sense of humor. Appreciating his quick wit, I liked him right away. He was playing basketball in the driveway of his parents’ house in Manorville. My husband- then boyfriend- was shooting hoops with him when he introduced me to John saying- “This is my fiancée.” His cousin smirked, and whispered in his ear - "Get married? You sure you want to do that?" Then, without missing a beat, he turned to me and said, “Oh, hello. Nice to meet you.” We shook hands laughing.
Although I didn’t share that bond my husband had with John, I saw in him some of the same, perhaps, genetic qualities that I love most about my spouse. He was tough on one hand, being a decorated Marine, but John also had a gentle personality and a million stories about growing up with four siblings that he was always ready to share. He was the guy at the barbecue playing with all of the kids in the backyard. It was obvious that he valued his family and friends above all things.
I have little snippets of memories of who John was. I remember a dinner table debate in 2000 over which baseball team was better- Mets or Yankees. After a long historical comparison of the two teams, John argued that it was a matter of family loyalty. Grandma and Grandpa Christie were Met fans, and so everyone in the family needed to carry on that tradition. John’s speech, however convincing, did not get his cousin to convert.
It was very difficult to witness the Scharf family’s pain after the attack. John had left his life in medias res, with his parent’s house half shingled, (he was helping replace the roof) and wrapped Christmas presents stowed away in his apartment for his little daughter. At his parent’s house, the basketball net still stood in the driveway. I watched John’s sister and fiancée leave the living room repeatedly to call his cell phone number which went to voice mail. I sat quietly next to them on the sofa as heart-crushing images of celebrating terrorists flashed across the television. And the whole time I was awestruck by the strength of this family.
To the victims' families, or those who lost their shoes running away from the collapsed towers, for those who witnessed the carnage and walked across the Brooklyn bridge that terrible day covered in dust, ten years is the blink of an eye. Bravely, we all move forward, without closure, in an altered society, until sometime in the future when the last generation of Americans who were wounded in some way by this horrific event is finally gone. Rather than seeking to “close” what happened on 9-11, many can’t help but stand firmly in the memory of it. They wiped the emotional dust off themselves as best they could and kept walking. After all, that’s what our forefathers would have done and that spirit of survival is what makes our nation great.
first one is John Scharf, the rest are from the memorial at Ground Zero. His daughter, now a teenager, is pictured with Hillary Clinton. Last picture is my husband, in bottom right corner (kneeling), with his family.
This post is reprinted in the September 15th issues of Suffolk County News and Islip Bulletin. Download a copy of the Point of View here.
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