Never Forget

On September 11, 2015, students and staff at the Nuclear Power Training Command gathered to remember the events of September 11th 2001. Truth be told, only the staff could really remember since most of the students that year had been in kindergarten in 2001. I was asked to speak at the event. Here are my remarks:

Today marks the 14th anniversary of the September 11th attack on the United States. Like this morning, that Tuesday morning began bright and clear, without a cloud in the sky. Passengers boarded planes in Boston, Washington, and Newark headed for California. Workers commuted to their jobs at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. People sipped their coffee, sat in traffic, changed into their uniforms, scanned their emails, greeted coworkers, rode the subway, bought a newspaper to read on the flight, dropped their kids at school and kissed their families goodbye. It was a normal day.

It was a better-than-normal day for me. Having worked through the weekend visiting Marines standing watch in the guard towers along the Cuban fence-line and also leading worship and other activities at the chapel in Guantanamo Bay, Tuesday was my day off. I settled into my recliner with a bowl of cornflakes and turned on the Today Show to spend an hour with my fellow New Yorkers. When Matt Lauer’s visage turned grim and they cut to a live camera shot of the World Trade Center’s North Tower, I was stunned. A plane had hit the building—an enormous plane. A jet. Not a misguided thrill seeker with a small plane or anything else one could imagine. A commercial jetliner.

This was not a mistake. I had lived around the New York flight patterns for many years, and I knew this could not be an error. I tried to call my parents in New York, but the call would not go through. Thinking the issue was with my phone, I called a friend elsewhere in the US and she answered.  This worried me because that meant the problem was with the New York phone system. Anxious, I hung up and dialed my mother at work. This time the call went through: “United Methodist Church, how may I help you?”

“A plane just hit the World Trade Center. Go home and stay there.”

“Oh, a Cessna hit the Empire State building when you were a baby. Don’t worry about it, your dad and I are heading to the city on Saturday. We’ll take a look then and tell you what happened.”

“Stay away from the city,” I demanded. The second plane hit soon after I hung up.

I’m not sure what happened for the next few minutes as I stared at the TV screen. Everything seemed muddled. Between what was going on inside my head and the confusion from the commentators, it felt to me like what happens to a ceiling fan when you flip the switch to make it turn in the opposite direction. There is a slowing, followed by a complete stop, and for a moment you wonder if it can or will start again. Then it does, slowly, but not in the way it went before the switch was flipped.

9/11 was that moment. It was the stopping point at which the world started going in another direction. We were being attacked. It was intentional. Soon there was word of a plane hitting the western facade of the Pentagon. Then a newscaster announced that a plane had hit Camp David. Soon that was changed to somewhere in a field in PA, a place we now know was Somerset, a rural farming community.

My phone rang. It was a call from the chapel telling me about an emergency meeting at 1400 and that one of my neighbors wanted me to visit her. When I walked outside my townhouse, I could see that our world was already changing. Down the main street that ran the length of the base, the Marine re-act teams were already setting up concertina wire and check points. We were at Threat Condition Delta. I cut across the field to my neighbor’s house and we spent the next hour glued to the TV and weeping. Then we prayed, composed ourselves, and went bravely about doing what needed to be done.

A few months later, construction began on Camp X-Ray, the detention camp for captured Al-Queda, including those believed to be a few of the “9/11 masterminds.” It was so near my home that, when the detainees were being held there, I could see them in their orange jumpsuits from my bedroom window. In January 2002, I was assigned as chaplain to the Fleet Hospital where they received their medical treatment. Part of my job was to mitigate the anger of their caregivers who were deployed from the Naval Hospital at Camp Lejeune and their guards who were activated reservists whose previous assignment had been to comb through the rubble at the Pentagon. I remember the first time I saw a detainee, a man our nation called an enemy. He was lying on a stretcher on his way back from receiving care at the main hospital. He looked young, scared and weak. I guess that since he was our enemy, I had expected him to look evil. He looked like us.

Within a year I was in Kuwait with another medical unit, waiting to invade Iraq. When the war finally started, we followed the Marines on their northward trek toward Baghdad. Our job was to pick up the pieces. Literally. Wounded, dead and dying Marines, Iraqi Republican Guard, civilians, children. Trust me, the only people who glorify war are those who haven’t seen it. And why were we there? Because September 11th, 2001 had changed everything.

I remember visiting a neighboring Cobra helo unit and seeing the names of New York City Firemen or military members killed in the Pentagon written in Sharpie on the missiles they carried. And I remember that so many of our corpsman, and most of our Marine wounded, could be counted among those courageous post 9/11 patriots who joined the military in response to the attacks.

In 2002 the Navy honored those who died on 9/11 by naming three LPDs for the places where the attacks had occurred: USS NEW YORK, USS ARLINGTON and USS SOMERSET. In 2008 I had the privilege to be the first chaplain assigned to USS NEW YORK, which was built, in part, with steel from the World Trade Center. I also served as the ship’s commissioning coordinator. In that capacity I acted as a liaison between the ship and various New York City entities such as the World Trade Tribute Center, the 9/11 Families Association, the fire and police departments, the mayor’s office, even the NY Jets. And everyone had a story to tell.

Here are a few of them:

The owner of a popular pub, located a block from the Twin Towers, took my husband Ken and I up on the roof of his building. Pointing toward Ground Zero, he told us that on the morning of 9/11 he had gone up there to see what was happening at the North Tower, when suddenly a deafening roar overwhelmed him. He looked up just as the second plane flew over his head and into the South Tower.

On several occasions, firemen related to me what had happened to their chaplain, Father Mychal Judge. He had been with them at the Control Center set up in the base of the North Tower when suddenly the sky began to rain people. Father Judge ran over to pray for the jumpers as their bodies hit the ground. It was then that the South Tower collapsed, causing an enormous dust and debris filled shock wave. As those in its path who survived, struggled to get their bearings, two firemen came across Mychal Judge as he was taking his last breath. Not able to leave their beloved chaplain lying there, they gathered up his body and carried him a block away to St. Peter’s Church and placed him on the altar before turning back to their gruesome work. Later, when the coroner was assigning death certificate numbers to the deceased, Father Judge was issued number one. I was told it was because thinking of him leading the way for those they lost gave them great comfort in the midst of tragedy and chaos.

A fireman shared with me what it was like to hear jumpers hitting the pavement and another, what it was like to hear the floors of the Towers impact on each other as the buildings came down. I learned that as horrific as it is to imagine your loved one jumping from that height, their bravery gave their families an unexpected gift, evidence of their death. Those who died in the towers and were compressed between floors left no trace. Of the 2,749 people who died at the WTC, 1,123 just disappeared.

My husband Ken and Mickey onboard USS NEW YORK

One night, while walking near Ground Zero, I met a former fireman named Mickey. On 9/11 Mickey was one of those heroic men who headed up the stairs while everyone else headed down. On the 23rd floor of Stairwell B, he and his partners came upon an older woman named Josephine who had gone as far as she could when panic and her limited physical condition overwhelmed her downward trek. Refusing her requests to leave her, Mickey and another fireman found a chair, placed her on it and, surrounded by several others who had slowed their descent to encourage them, continued on their way. Just as they reached the 4th floor, they heard slamming, screaming and a deafening roar as tons of steel and concrete plummeted around them. Then there was silence. It took Mickey and the other survivors three hours to find a way out of that small section of stairwell, which was all that remained of the North Tower. Had those 14 people chosen to leave Josephine as she had requested and run to safety, they would have been outside on the concourse when the building collapsed. Saving Josephine saved them all. 

Three firemen from the only VFW in the country to require its members to be both New York City firemen and combat vets told me about one of their friends who had been driving a fire truck down West Side Highway when he radioed back that he was lost in what seemed like falling debris. When he told the dispatcher his approximate location, she responded that he could not be there because that stretch of roadway was gone. That was the last anyone ever heard from him. The search for the truck lasted 100 days and when it was finally found, it was 60 feet below street level, and had been turned into dripping hunks of metal by the fires that raged underground until Spring of 2002. After telling me this story, one of the firemen opened the velvet bag he was carrying and took out a battle cross fashioned out of WTC steel at whose base was a piece of that truck. I placed my hand on it reverently.

“What’s this other piece with the rivets?” I asked as I moved my hand on top of it.

“That is a piece of one of the airplanes,”

The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and a chill ran down my spine.

Together we carried these disparate fragments enshrined at the foot of a battle cross aboard USS NEW YORK, where they remain today.

One evening after the World Trade Center Tribute Center at Ground Zero closed for the day, I sat with my friend Lee, a retired firefighter who is its founder, in one of the museum’s rooms.  The room was papered floor to ceiling and wall to wall with each 9/11 families’ favorite photo of the one they lost.  In the semi-darkness, Lee pointed to one smiling face after another. “I went to that man’s wedding… I pulled what was left of that man out of a pipe in the wreckage… that young lady’s mom gives tours of Ground Zero. It helps her cope. This man’s dad and I spent months in the rubble looking for our sons. He never found his.” On and on the stories poured out of him. On the other side of the wall in the adjacent room, Lee’s son Jonathan’s fireman’s turnout gear hung in a display case. Only 174 intact bodies were recovered at the WTC. Lee’s son was among them.

Lee and his younger son Brendan onboard USS NEW YORK

A steel worker stopped me in the street to tell me how he had helped build the towers in the 1970s and how awful it was to be among those shifting through the rubble looking for bodies. He, like many I met, talked not only of the disappointment of finding so few human remains but also about the skin lesions and breathing difficulties which were ongoing health concerns for those working in the debris.

A 9/11 family member sent me a Christmas card. In it was a map of Ground Zero that had x’s for the 8 locations where they had found her son’s DNA. A wife told me that after the second DNA finding for her husband, she requested they not call her with any more evidence so she could finally find some closure. By the way, the last reported human remains were found in 2013 in the mangled 1.4 million tons of WTC rubble which had been transported to the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island to be sorted.

During Fleet Week 2009 I attended a Yankee Game. As I was leaving the stadium in my summer whites a woman walked up to me. “You are the NEW YORK’s chaplain, right?” she asked. Before I could respond, she removed the bracelet from her arm and clipped it on mine. “Please wear this when the ship is commissioned,” she said, as her eyes welled with tears. I looked down to read the name.

“Who was Paramedic Carlos Lillo?”

“My partner. We had worked together for years. We parked our truck near the Trade Center that morning, and we split up for a moment in the chaos to figure out where we were needed. I turned to the right. He turned to the left. I never saw him again.”

I wore the bracelet to the commissioning, and every Patriot’s Day since.

On my other arm is a bracelet for two brothers, John, who was a fire fighter and Joseph, who was a police detective. Their parents gave it to me as I led them on a tour of USS NEW YORK. Their father, John, was a former Marine, a retired FDNY captain, and one of the most decorated firefighters in the city’s history. He and his wife had come on board that day with the youngest of each of their sons’ children because they felt it was the proper place to tell the children about their fathers who died saving others at the World Trade Center.

A farmer near Somerset, PA told me she had been outside in her garden when a flash of light cut across the sky. It was followed by a loud boom. Soon after, scraps of mail floated into the trees near her house. The local volunteer fire company was called and one truck responded. It drove out to a field to find a smoldering cut in the earth. That was all there was to be seen of Flight 93.

My friend Barbara worked in Protocol and Public Affairs at Arlington Cemetery. She was walking a distinguished visitor through the graveyard up toward the Custis Lee Mansion when the Pentagon was hit.  She remembers being momentarily shocked by that sight, then politely excusing herself from her guest and running as fast as she could down the hill, past the graves, down the roadway and over to the Pentagon Parking lot in heels because her daughter was in the Pentagon’s day care center. When she arrived, she saw that the Marines had already brought all the children outside, with their cribs, which they had circled up like a bunch of wild west wagons. The children had been placed in the center of the circle so they could not escape, and the Marines were standing guard on the outside of the circle to protect them. Her daughter was safe. Not long after, Barbara left Arlington Cemetery and took a job working at the Wounded Warrior Regiment, the unit responsible for caring for wounded, ill and injured Marines.

One last story, a personal one, from the morning of 2 November 2009 when USS NEW YORK, with 7 ½ tons of World Trade Center Steel in her bow, sailed into New York harbor for the first time:

It was cold and windy on the weatherdeck. Already many of our crew had begun to man the rails. Finding a spot near the bridge, I assumed parade rest and waited. None of us will ever forget this day, I thought as I looked around at the gleaming faces of those with whom I stood—Sailors and Marines, most of whom had joined the military post-9/11.

Along the shore I could already see the twinkling lights of police cars positioned about two blocks apart. Just before we passed under the Verrazano Bridge, we were joined by police boats, which looked tiny, compared to our 684-foot-long vessel. Smaller still were the Coast Guard RHIBs—inflatable rubber boats with mounted weapons. Off our starboard side a diminutive barge displayed a huge American Flag hung like a curtain through which the rising sun was beginning to shine. Above us flew a host of police and media helicopters, and around us sailed a collection of bright red tugs. But the most impressive of all were the fireboats shooting streams of red, white and blue water 200 feet into the air. We sailed past the Statue of Liberty and there before us sat lower Manhattan, glowing in the reflected early morning light.

It was almost time. As we approached Ground Zero, instinctively conversations came to a close. Then a whistle sounded. As one, we raised our hands in salute.  Our ship, USS NEW YORK, with its bow stem made from World Trade Center steel, slowed and then stopped in the water.

To my right, seven guns shot once. Twice. A third time. As I gazed across the water, I could see formations of First Responders in full their dress uniforms, arms raised to return the salute. Around them flickered the emergency lights from ambulances, fire engines and police cars. Families and friends held up signs with the photos and names of those who had died. “I pray they can see this,” I whispered. After a long silence, a bagpipe band began to play. Strains of America the Beautiful blended with the sound of the lapping water. Tears flowed down my face.

The World Trade Center, transformed, had sailed home.

I will never forget that day. I will never forget 9/11, and I will surely never forget what I learned from it and the events that followed, about humankind’s capacity for evil, hatred and self-centeredness. But I will also always remember, that even in the midst of such devastation and horror, even as the events were unfolding, immediately, there were those who responded with passion and resolve; who put honor, courage and commitment above self and answered the call to serve; and by so doing taught us profound lessons about humankind’s capacity for incredible acts of love, kindness and self-sacrifice. As we pause today to remember 9/11, it is my hope that these heroic individuals be the ones we remember, that it be their stories we tell, and that it be their lives we emulate.

Copyright © 2020 bendertales.com

Look at the Fish

My windshield has been the recipient of some of the foulest trash talk imaginable, and I make no apology for it. Growing up on New York’s Long Island, home to the world’s longest parking lot, laughably named the Expressway, I was predisposed to such behavior. I apprenticed in the passenger seat of my mother’s Mustang, watching her middle finger ably signal everyone she felt deserved to see it. Her mastery of the many nuanced intonations of the word “asshole” was equally impressive.

When I got my driver’s permit, all I needed to learn was how to handle a vehicle. I was already well skilled in the fine art of relating to others with whom I shared the road. Not a fan of hand signs, my concentration was in verbal styles of communication, my New York accent only enhancing my delivery techniques.

“I’m driving here, shithead. Stay on your own side of the road… You want to tailgate me? Watch how slowly I can drive… Listen asshole, your turn signal is not optional equipment… Don’t you even think of pulling in front of me (said as I adamantly maintained the required ‘bumper to bumper’ distance in heavy traffic.)

I continued to perfect these skills until I finished my Master’s Degree and began my professional career. Soon after starting my position as a United Methodist pastor, I realized that there was a level of disconnect between my verbal driving techniques and the public’s opinion of behavior behind the wheel for someone with a clergy sticker on the bumper. It was, however, not too difficult to morph my talents to meet expectations. Since I was then able to afford a car with an air conditioner, I merely rolled up the windows so my verbiage could not be heard outside my vehicle. I also then responded to every “F Bomb” floated my way with “Oh yeah? Well, bless YOU.”

This worked well until I joined the Navy as a chaplain. Being in the military, I could keep my New York driver’s license, as long as I still used the number of expletives required each month of all New York drivers. But that also meant that since most of the people with whom I shared the roads on base knew I was a chaplain, I had to actually become a bit more gracious. Still, it was not a problem as I was able to fulfill my state mandated quota of vulgar commentary by taking long drives away from the base while on liberty.

Then I was sent to Iraq for the invasion in 2003. Although I never drove a vehicle there, I soon learned that the irritation level attainable in traffic was not limited to being in a car. A combat arena is able to bring out the asshole in many a frightened, tired and frustrated person just like what happens during an evening commute, only more so. And unlike a commute, which ends in an hour, that ever-vigilant environment goes on for months without pause, keeping stress hormones raging until they become a person’s new normal. I had no idea the profound affect it all had had on me until I returned home, got back in my car and tried to drive as if nothing had changed.

To say that my New York edginess had made a turn for the worse is an understatement. What used to be an almost comic monolog about shitty drivers became pure road rage that even I found frightening. No longer did I yell in response to a dumb maneuver in the road around me, now I screamed at every little thing. I thought my outrageous behavior would pass with time, as I settled back into a routine, but it didn’t. Moving to a new duty station with a much shorter commute didn’t help, either. I began to think that perhaps I should give up driving altogether, but how does one do that and still maintain the ability to live and work without public transportation?

Thinking a vacation might help, my husband Ken and I decided to take leave in Cancun, Mexico. Although fresh air and ocean breezes wouldn’t fix my problem, having a bit of time to relax couldn’t make it any worse and for a week, at least I would not be driving.

Since Ken is a scuba diver, the plan was that he would make a dive each day, and while he was out, I would sit by the pool and calmly read a book. On the first morning we were there, I grabbed a novel and headed over to find a shady spot under a palm tree. I settled in to the lounge chair and opened the book. I was barely a page into the story when I noticed Ken standing at the foot of the lounger.

“Your dive lesson begins in 10 minutes. Close the book and follow me.”

“But I…”

“No buts. Your lesson is paid for and you are taking it. Besides, it’s only in the pool. Since I dive, you should at least try it.”

Realizing it was futile to argue, I followed him. For the next hour and a half, I learned all about dive gear – how to wear it, how to use it, even how to clear a mask underwater and recover my regulator should it get bumped out of my mouth. That last bit was rather easy for me, since I had had to use a gas mask many times in Iraq, even donning one from a sound sleep when the chemical sensors buzzed.

Being underwater was strangely peaceful, especially since I could be there for an extended period without the need to surface. All I could hear was the rhythmic bubbling of the regulator as I slowly inhaled and exhaled. For the first time in a long time, I felt calm.

When the lesson was over, Ken was waiting for me. “Well, how was it?” he asked.

“Better than I expected,” I replied and began to tell him what I had learned, but he stopped me mid-sentence.

“Glad you liked it; your first open water dive starts in 45 minutes. Let’s get you into a wet suit and get sized for a weight belt.”

“But I…”

“No buts,” he replied.

My open water instructor’s name was Manuel, a very pleasant and competent gentleman from Cuba. I could tell right away that he expected me to follow his orders to ensure a safe diving experience, and I was grateful. Before we got into the boat, he reviewed what I needed to know about the gear, the gauges and how to exit the boat and descend along a rope. Since Ken was an experienced diver, he was going off with other divers and a guide. Manuel and I would be dropped in the ocean and they would come back to get us. As the small boat headed out to an area over a reef known as the Aquarium, Manuel gave me one last instruction.

“Since we cannot talk underwater, we will have to rely on hand signals. Thumbs up means you need to surface right away. Hopefully you won’t need that.” Forming a circle with his right thumb and forefinger, he said, “This is the okay sign. Periodically I will ask if you are okay using this sign. But before you answer with the same sign, I want you to do three things. First, look at your air gauge to make sure you are not running out of what you need down there to keep you alive. Second, check the rest of your equipment to see if anything is amiss. And third, look around to see if there is any potential danger, like a speedboat, a torpedo or a shark.”

“A shark,” I stammered. “There could be sharks?”

“It’s the ocean. There could be sharks.”

“What if I see one?”

“Try not to annoy it.”

I laughed, trying to control my fear in a situation I was not sure I wanted to be in, in the first place.

“Let’s go over this again,” Manuel insisted. “I give you the okay sign as a question. What do you do?”

“Check for the immediate threat of lack of oxygen. Then check for the pending threat of equipment malfunction. Lastly check for a potential threat like a SHARK. Shouldn’t I check for the shark, first?”

“You won’t get away from him if you don’t have any air,” Manuel replied with a smile. “And if all those threats of yours are, how do you say, ‘neutralized,’ then what do you do?”

“I signal back with the okay sign, not the thumbs up, right?”

“Right.”

When we got to the drop spot, with fear and trembling I fell backwards out of the boat, letting my heavy air tank lead the way. Then I followed Manuel as together we descended the rope almost forty feet to the ocean floor, stopping periodically to clear our ears.

I had never seen anything like it! There were fish. Lots of fish! Iridescent ones, spiny ones, blue, pink, silver, striped fish, blowing sand off the sea floor, hiding behind coral, slipping past my face mask fish. There were fish everywhere! I understood at once why this area was known as the Aquarium.

With Manuel leading the way, we swam in, under and around the reef. At every turn there was something to see. At one point, a large eel slipped out of his hole to see us. I stopped dead in the water. Eels look like thick snakes, and I am not a fan of snakes. I began to look around with a more critical eye. If there is one eel, there could be more of them. Perhaps other dangerous creatures are lurking nearby. Maybe even a shark. I am down here with a person I don’t know well, in an environment I don’t really understand, using equipment that is unfamiliar. I froze. Manuel looked in my direction and I guess he saw a look of panic in my eyes. He gave me the okay sign. When I didn’t immediately respond, he pointed to my air gauge. I looked at it. I had been breathing so calmly up to that point that I had lots of air left. Then I felt around my gear. Everything was in place and functioning. I looked up. No torpedoes, speedboats or cruise ships. I looked around. The fish were still swimming around my head with no sense of urgency. Everything was just as it should be. I gave Manuel the okay sign. Looking at my eyes, he could see they were wide and staring inside my face mask. He pointed at me and gave me the okay sign again. Quickly, I did a second inventory. All was well. I okayed him back. Then he took his forefinger and middle finger and pointed them at his eyes, then turn his wrist and pointed them away. We hadn’t covered this sign, but I knew it meant look. Then he put his two palms together and wiggled them. He then repeated the two signs, to tell me to “Look at the fish.”

In my panic, I had forgotten to do that. I had stopped looking and reverted to merely seeing. As we continued our dive, I tried as best I could to regain the fascination I’d had when we first descended, but it was difficult. Now that I was looking for danger as well as beauty, it was hard to relax. For a moment, Manuel swam away from me and when I looked to see where he had gone, he was floating next to a large nurse shark. Putting his hand on the shark’s side, he used the other to beckon me forward, but I was already swimming backwards as fast as I could to put distance between that big fish and me. I don’t know where I thought I was going, but eventually Manuel was beside me again. Thankfully, it was time to surface. We had gone full circle and were back at the rope. It took all the strength I had to stop and clear my ears as needed instead of shooting straight for the surface and away from any other threats.

Back in the boat, Ken wanted to know how it had gone. Before I could say anything, Manuel said, “Your wife was a little nervous, but she’ll fix that on her next dive.” Then, as Ken went off to tend to his gear, Manuel pulled me aside. “Diving is about wonder and beauty. It is an opportunity to relax and enjoy the environment. It is not an exercise in how well you can control panic. You need to dive more. It will do you a world of good.”

On that trip, I did seven open water dives and two cave dives. Over the course of the week I got more familiar with the equipment and ever more fascinated with the diversity of life on the reef. Again and again, Manuel gave me the okay sign until I could do the three checks automatically. Do I have what I need to sustain life where I am? (Oxygen). Is what I rely on functioning? (Gear). Is there a potential problem I can foresee? (Anchor dropping on my head). If all is well, then look at the fish. Just look at the fish. Appreciate them for all that they are. That is why we are here.

On the first day back to work after Ken and I returned from Cancun, I again had to face the horrific just-over-one-mile commute that had become so unbearable. And wouldn’t you know it? A driver cut me off.

Automatically, I took a deep breath, mumbled, “Well, nothing happened to my car,” glanced at the other drivers around me and said out loud, “Wow, the trees are already budding. Those pale green baby leaves are so pretty.”

Without thinking, I’d done the check and moved on to appreciating the world around me, a world sometimes in need of laughable, somewhat vulgar commentary, but never anymore rage.

Many thanks to Manuel Mola, my patient instructor, who thought he was just teaching me to dive, but taught me so much more.

Copyright © 2020 bendertales.com

Never Forget

On September 11, 2015, students and staff at the Nuclear Power Training Command gathered to remember the events of September 11th 2001. Truth be told, only the staff could really remember since most of the students that year had been in kindergarten in 2001. I was asked to speak at the event. Here are myContinue reading “Never Forget”

Look at the Fish

My windshield has been the recipient of some of the foulest trash talk imaginable, and I make no apology for it. Growing up on New York’s Long Island, home to the world’s longest parking lot, laughably named the Expressway, I was predisposed to such behavior. I apprenticed in the passenger seat of my mother’s Mustang,Continue reading “Look at the Fish”

Crumbs to a Beggar

For nearly a year between college and seminary, I was employed as a live-in companion for a 90-year-old woman.  My job was to cook and serve her meals, see that she took her medication, run errands, and help her with activities of daily living. This was not always easy, for Mrs. L. was in theContinue reading “Crumbs to a Beggar”

Crumbs to a Beggar

For nearly a year between college and seminary, I was employed as a live-in companion for a 90-year-old woman.  My job was to cook and serve her meals, see that she took her medication, run errands, and help her with activities of daily living. This was not always easy, for Mrs. L. was in the process of stubbornly living out her days.

Dinner could only be eaten on fine china by candlelight, and only if she were attired in a proper evening gown. Because of a hiatal hernia, she spit up a lot, and her aim was not particularly good, so often she had to go back upstairs to switch gowns in the middle of a meal. All this formality and costume changing caused dinner to go on for an inordinately long time each evening. It would have been much easier on Mrs. L., who was rather feeble, and on me, her caretaker, had she had a simple meal and been done with it, but she was insistent. And her evening meal was merely one example of her stubbornness.

Mrs. L. believed that one must spend at least one hour outdoors each day. In pleasant weather I couldn’t agree more, but Mrs. L. didn’t care about the weather.  She had been outside one hour every day for 90 years.  My objections could not stop her.  When it rained, she donned a raincoat, hat and galoshes, sat in her lawn chair and covered herself with a plastic tablecloth.  When it snowed, she’d send me to shovel a path to her chair and out she’d go, all bundled against the cold.

It has been said that the difference between perseverance and obstinacy is that one comes from a strong will and the other from a strong won’t.   Mrs. L. was both obstinate and perseverant, and I admired her ability to be both.

Mrs. L. has been gone for many years now. I can’t say I miss her because we were never really friends.  But now and again I remember some bits of wisdom I’d heard her speak to herself; wisdom I received as crumbs to a beggar.  “All sunshine makes the desert,” she’d say as she’d hobble out the door for an hour of sitting in a rain storm. Or “never watch anyone out of sight.”  At 90, it was quite possible that when she said goodbye to someone at the end of a visit, it could be for the last time. So instead of ending a pleasant social call with a sad thought as their car pulled away, she would turn on her heels and head into the house, muttering that phrase under her breath.  “Never watch anyone out of sight.”

There was something else she whispered regularly, too, but I can’t tell you what it was because I never heard it.  All I can tell you is that she’d say it each night on her knees with her head bowed and her hands folded on her bedcovers.  Then she’d climb into bed, calmly close her eyes and go right off to sleep.

I wasn’t there when Mrs. L.’s life finally ended.  I was away at school, getting my life started.  But I will always remember that headstrong old lady whose days were filled with tea parties and visitors, fresh air and faith in God.  A woman who, right to the very end of her life, stubbornly maintained her interest and enthusiasm for living.

Not a bad idea for the rest of us.

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Harmony

The first time I heard “Blue Moon” it was sung, not by Frank Sinatra, but by the two Zulu men I was sitting between on a makeshift seat in the front of an old van. Okay, so it was probably not the first time I had heard that song, since I was familiar with theContinue reading “Harmony”

I Remember You

Names carved in granite, Neatly, in rows, Ordered by date of death. “I remember you,” I mutter, as my fingers read a section. For a short moment my mind races back to body bags, opened in search of dog tags listing religious preference. A bullet hole in the spine, just below the skull. Searching throughContinue reading “I Remember You”

A Word for Those Who Need It

It’s Mother’s Day again. I know because my Facebook page has been filling up with sweet photos of friends’ moms and heart-felt memes encouraging everyone to appreciate theirs while they still have them. Seeing those sentiments makes me happy for those whose mothers deserve recognition, but it also reminds me that not everyone is asContinue reading “A Word for Those Who Need It”

Harmony

The first time I heard “Blue Moon” it was sung, not by Frank Sinatra, but by the two Zulu men I was sitting between on a makeshift seat in the front of an old van. Okay, so it was probably not the first time I had heard that song, since I was familiar with the tune, but I did not know the words any better than they did. “Blue Moon… da da da da da da da… da da da da da da da… da da da da da da dah.” They kept singing it over and over.

My friends in New York had been afraid I’d encounter Zulus ever since they’d seen the newspaper headline: “African National Congress and Zulus Clash in Downtown Johannesburg.” The story had been dreadful enough, but the accompanying photo had shocked everyone, even me, although I did not want to admit it. Yet who could ignore a picture of dead bodies on a sidewalk in what looked like an upscale shopping area, especially since one of them had a spear sticking out of him? “Don’t go to South Africa,” was the consensus expressed as my phone rang off the hook the day before I was to leave. But despite my friends’ guidance and my own unspoken fears, I went anyway.

The unrest leading up to the first fully democratic election in April 1994 made it necessary for the multi-ethnic clergy group with whom I was traveling to pay extra attention to security issues. We were especially cognizant of this when we arrived at the Methodist Church in the center of Johannesburg and found policemen removing concertina wire near the front door where the ANC/Zulu clash that had made those headlines had taken place. We were there to attend voter registration training and a peace rally.

That this had already been the site of extreme violence was unnerving, but I tried to be brave as prospective voters came in to learn how to cast their ballot for the first time. It must have been even scarier for them, knowing that there were those willing to do bodily harm to disrupt their right to vote.

Between the training and the peace rally, we paused for dinner from the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant down the street. Over the shared meal, a few representatives of local factions joined us for more intimate conversations about the upcoming election. Afterwards, we moved to a spacious auditorium on the church grounds for the rally, which took the form of a concert, featuring a musical group from each political faction or tribal entity. Although the participants were deeply committed to conflicting visions for the future of their country, in music, they found commonality, and for a moment, a sense of much needed peace.  

Then an announcement was made that the next group, the largest of the evening, represented the Zulus. I squirmed in my seat as flashes of that spear photo coupled with clips from the old movie Shaka Zulu raced through my brain. Were we about to be attacked by wild men whose accomplices had, just a few days ago, killed their political opponents outside this very building? That’s how the media had portrayed the Zulus in their vivid and shocking headline news article that had made it all the way to New York. So what else could I expect?

I hunkered down, hoping to become invisible, and braced myself for what might happen. Simultaneously, the doors at the rear of the auditorium opened, and the Zulus entered… singing.

What? That was not the war cry of a primitive people about to wreak havoc upon their audience. It was… it was… barbershop music. As the chorus of almost one hundred tuxedo clad barbershop singers made their way down the aisles to the stage, the melodious tones of complex harmony began to fill all the empty places, both in the room and in all of us. It was enchanting.

So, when a few of the Zulu crooners, who we met over coffee after the rally, offered to give a bunch of us a ride back to the retreat center in their van, we were delighted to accept their kindness.

“Blue Moon…” Even though none of us knew the rest of the words, the harmony was unforgettable.

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How to Prepare for Reassignment

* Dedicated to military members, clergy and anyone else who gets moved around for work… whether they like it or not.

Pretend it is not coming. Continue to think of yourself in this place with these people forever. Whine over the same daily annoyances as if they are permanent problems.  Tell no one you are leaving.

Receive email from your relief.  Treat it like an intruder. Wait three days before replying and blame your lateness on “network problems.” Make ominous remark to him about how he’ll have to learn to put up with that, too.

Read and reread his email. Be sure they will like him more. Get depressed. Remember past difficulties with colleagues. Present these to yourself as evidence that it is really time to leave. Completely ignore all information that does not support this thesis.

Pick a fight with a staff member or policy. Get worked up over it. It is easier to deal with anger than sadness.

Do something that you know will be “the last time in this place.” Feel melancholic. Tell no one.

Announce that it is Spring. Clean the junk out of your office. Pretend not to hear someone whisper, “Isn’t she leaving soon?”

Mention matter-of-factly over lunch that you have heard from your relief. Be glad when surprised colleagues ask, “You’re leaving soon?” Brag about new assignment.  Keep fingers crossed under the table.

Refuse to call person you are relieving.  Fear that “something will go wrong” and you won’t get this assignment if you call. Google new job and gather outdated information.

Tell colleagues nice things about your relief. Begin to pave the road for his success because you care about these people. Once you have convinced yourself about the goodness of your relief by the recitation of his attributes, call him and begin a proper turn over.  Laugh a lot during the conversation. Look forward to meeting him. Really. Hope things will go this well when you contact the person you are relieving.

At staff meeting, listen to litany of upcoming challenging work requirements. Remember you are leaving soon. Smile.

Remember you are leaving soon. Panic! Force yourself to call the person you are relieving. Pray he does not answer the phone. He does. Know that he is as conflicted over leaving his assignment as you are over leaving yours. Be nice. Ask lots of questions. Take copious notes. Thank him for his good work. Congratulate him on his new assignment.

Get excited! Make plans. Change plans. Hurry. Wait. Panic. Get frustrated. Be sad. Say goodbye… cry, but don’t let anyone see.

Say hello! Be brave… keep breathing … find your way… business as usual.

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At the American Cemetery in Normandy

On Memorial Day 2014, the United States Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment visited the American Cemetery in Normandy and with a student group from an American college provided evening colors. As we remember the 76th Anniversary of D-Day this year, here are some photos from that visit and the prayer I offered during the ceremony.

Almighty and Merciful God, we are gathered on this hallowed ground made sacred by the presence of our forebears-in-arms who gave the last full measure of devotion on the shoreline below us.

Standing among so many graves, we are reminded of the cost of war and the sacrifices that have been made throughout our nation’s history by those who have answered the call to protect and defend. Some are known to us as father, grandfather, distant ancestor, close relative, neighbor or friend. Others have stood beside us on the field of battle. Most we know only by their devotion to duty and their physical and moral courage which has preserved for us a just and free nation.  With honor and fortitude, they made their stand against all enemies to alleviate tyranny and oppression, build up civil society, provide humanitarian assistance, defend the constitution, uphold human rights and dignity and work toward that glorious day when at last there shall be peace.

And so, O God, in their honor and memory we pause to offer to you a prayer of thanksgiving as we remember them silently in our hearts:

Let us pray for those who fought and died…

Let us pray for those who fought and lived…

Let us pray for those who, through their support, care and love for those who fought, have faced their own battles…

Let us pray for ourselves, that we continue to do all in our power to stand against those who oppose freedom, democracy and the establishment of a just and lasting peace…

O God, may we always remember the patriots upon whose shoulders we stand and may we as a nation always be worthy of those who defend us.

In your most holy name, we pray. AMEN.

Interfaith Chapel

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I Remember You

Names carved in granite,

Neatly, in rows,

Ordered by date of death.

“I remember you,” I mutter, as my fingers read a section.

For a short moment my mind races back to body bags, opened in search of dog tags listing religious preference. A bullet hole in the spine, just below the skull. Searching through a journal for a name, when other ID was missing. Deep screams filling the tent as death came painfully. The sound of my own voice singing hymns to a Baptist as he silently moved closer to heaven, his brain death preceding his last breath by hours. A Buddhist? Did I say the right prayer? God, I hope so.

Enough.                                            Enough.

“I remember,” I say again, my voice hoarse from cheering for the team.

Across the parking lot athletes are leaving the gym,

Two hours of seated volleyball and wheel chair basketball only invigorating them.

They move quickly on prosthetic legs worn proudly with shorts.

A few, with scars on their heads, search for the bus.

These warriors wear their memorials, tattooed on existing limbs, telling the story of how they came to be wounded, who they lost and why it matters.

My tattoos are in stone.

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A Word for Those Who Need It

It’s Mother’s Day again. I know because my Facebook page has been filling up with sweet photos of friends’ moms and heart-felt memes encouraging everyone to appreciate theirs while they still have them. Seeing those sentiments makes me happy for those whose mothers deserve recognition, but it also reminds me that not everyone is as fortunate. So, I’d like to offer a word for those who could never honestly make these posts; who feel the need to fall silent so others may enjoy the day.

Here’s the dilemma:

The ideal mother is a joyful, caring, self-sacrificing, loving being whose greatest desire is to nurture and protect her offspring. In reality, a mother is someone who does her best to manage a household of cranky children, endless meal prep, piles of dirty everything and still try to have a personal life and likely also a job. But on Mother’s Day, and many other days as well, her child still views her as closer to the ideal. Why? Because the child’s love for her bridges the gap.

But then there are those “mothers” whose gap is so wide the Chesapeake Bay Bridge couldn’t connect them to the ideal. As a Navy chaplain, I’ve had a steady diet of their stories, since one of the quickest ways to escape a brutal childhood is to join the military. Some accounts were so awful that it would make me wonder how their now adult child lived long enough to be sitting across from me. Yet even that person would likely hedge on saying their mother was completely to blame. Why? Because something inside told them it was their job to close the gap. Even if their mother cooked meth in the bathtub, shot their sister, was perpetually under the influence, beat, abused, and neglected her children, brought home a continuous line of unstable men, abandoned the family, maxed the credit cards she took out in their name or put Satanic spells on them. Somehow, it was partially their fault.

“If only I were a better daughter, things would be different.”

“I know I am supposed to honor my mother, but how do I do that when she is so neglectful and mean?”

“I hate holidays. All they are is another opportunity to be abused. But my mom says she wants me to come home. Do I have to go?”

“My mother doesn’t work because she can’t pass a drug test. She says if I don’t continue to send my paycheck to her, my siblings will starve. I need to keep some money to live on, but I don’t want to hurt my brothers.”

“What do I owe my mother despite how she’s treated me?”

These painful laments were difficult to hear and often I would drive home telling my windshield what level of harm I wanted to inflict on said “mother” just to get it out of my system. So imagine what the annual arrival of a day to celebrate mothers does to those who’ve suffered through childhood with them. Since rage is not a fit sentiment for a greeting card, silence is all that’s left. But that loud silence also deserves guidance. So, here are a few of my responses that have passed the scrutiny of those who have endured these kinds of mothers, in case one or two might be helpful to someone you know:

  • You don’t get a free pass in life because you had a crappy childhood. You are still responsible for who you become. Even if your mother was raised in a tough situation, that does not mean she is justified passing it on to you. The same goes for you.  Fix what’s broken. Let her be the end of the line for negative and addictive behavior.
  • In a parent-child relationship, the parent is the responsible party. Even if your mother wants to “identify as a child” and acts like one, that doesn’t make it so. You are not to blame for being too young to be the adult you both needed.
  • A child’s love is not enough to turn a woman with criminal tendencies into something she is not.
  • You don’t get extra points in life for suffering or making those around you suffer. If you are psychologically unwell because of your experiences, see a counselor and take meds, if necessary.
  • Take stock of what you learned: Practical household skills out of necessity? How to be self-sufficient at an early age? The perspective that comes from really seeing where addiction or untreated mental illness leads? You are stronger in many ways because of your difficulties.
  • You can still believe in the Hallmark card ideal of motherhood, even if your mother didn’t fulfill it. Just know that an ideal is a concept of perfection, a guide toward becoming more excellent, not an achievable end state.
  • People are not all one thing. Your mother could have been the vilest creature imaginable and still have done a few good things worth remembering.
  • All adult relationships are voluntary, even the one we have with our mother. If yours is toxic, stay away. If there’s any chance for a future relationship, it will be more possible if it has not been poisoned by continual negative interactions.
  • The best way to honor your mother is to become the best version of yourself, the one she would have wanted for you if she had been able to do so. This is not something you owe your mother. This is what you owe yourself and the world around you.

As Mother’s Day approaches this year, if your own mother is more worthy of a “pink slip” than a greeting card, let her go. It’s just another day on the calendar. But if you are brave, try to find a way to “rejoice with those who rejoice”. Honoring those who do their best to nurture the family, who cherish children and see that role as essential, is good for us all.

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The Third Death

I couldn’t see the words. There was a story there, but the tree was in the way. Who would have planted an elm on a boys’ grave: A grieving mother burying two children forty-five days apart? A father, wanting to honor the lives of his boys with something that would grow stronger each year, as they should have, passing seed and essence to generations to come? Or was it the wind howling over ground which years before had witnessed the Battle of Washington Heights, a great loss for the roughly clad, fledgling Continental Army, who, in their retreat across the Hudson to Fort Lee, left behind nearly 3,000 troops, some of whom died on this land but most who would die that year at the hands of their British and Hessian captors? Perhaps it was not so much the wind as the birds that soared and dipped on its currents, attracted to the adjacent farm once known as “Minniesland,” as if they knew it had been home to artist and ornithologist John James Audubon who had devoted his life to the careful rendering of the natural world.

Was it the intention of those who loved these boys, or just a whim of nature, using breeze or creature to plant a tree that would put its enormous roots literally through the bodies of my ancestors, entwining them and me forever with this place, rich in history, which the original inhabitants called “Manahata,” and we call Manhattan? But there it stood, my DNA rising upwards among the tombs, extending its limbs skyward and casting a large shadow across the path so that those seeking respite from city life could find shade on an afternoon stroll, or tourists wanting to see the final resting places of the famous and the infamous might pause beneath its branches to check the map.

This place, Trinity Cemetery, had few “residents” when Hamilton and Clifford Flock were buried in late autumn of 1850, but over time the population of these four-square blocks has grown to more than 75,000.  It is located in an Upper West Side neighborhood known as Hamilton Heights, named not for my ancestor, but for one famous resident remembered, less for being the first Secretary of the Treasury, with his image gracing today’s version of a ten-dollar bill, and more for having died in a duel with then Vice President Aaron Burr. Alexander Hamilton, who my ancestors admired enough to name a son after, is interred not at this Trinity Cemetery, located at 155th Street but at Trinity Cemetery at Wall Street, the closure of which, in 1822, caused the church to look for this second site uptown. Opened twenty years later, these Victorian grounds, bisected north and south by Broadway, were laid out by James Renwick, who when he wasn’t landscaping graveyards, was busy designing Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, one hundred and five blocks south, Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY and the Smithsonian Castle in Washington DC.

The Flock plot is in the westerly section, with a view of the Hudson River. Bounded by granite posts and linked by wrought iron rails with a large obelisk just north of center, it is inscribed with the names of the boy’s parents, Alfred and Maria, my third great grandparents.   

Through the years several noted residents have joined them on the gently sloping hillside:

Alfred Tennyson Dickens, the oldest surviving son of Charles Dickens, and godson of the poet Lord Tennyson, was buried nearby in 1912, having died of acute indigestion while staying at the Waldorf Astoria. He was only five when Hamilton and Clifford died, having been born two years after his father finished writing A Christmas Carol. Had the Flock boys heard of Ebenezer Scrooge and his midnight transformation? Had they felt a kinship for Tiny Tim: frail and weak, but strong of spirit? It only took a year after it was written for that story to jump the pond, be set to music and performed in 1845 at the Chatham Theater, not too far from their father’s poultry shop on Broadway and 12th Street. Even if they had not heard of the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, perhaps Hamilton and Clifford had overheard their father relate a tale gleaned from his customers of how hundreds of newsboys had been brought in to see a performance and had behaved so badly the police had to haul a bunch of them off to the ominous Tombs, the House of Detention named such because it looked like an ancient Egyptian Mausoleum. I could imagine that conversation becoming an “instructive” moment between parent and child starting with the phrase “If I ever hear of my boys acting that way…”

Or perhaps Ham and Cliff had had the chance to see acrobat and clown Richard Sands perform his backwards somersaults off his horse May Fly two years later when he also performed at the Chatham during a slump in the theater’s history that allowed for circus acts. The boys would be several years embraced by elm roots by the time Sands invented the act for which he was most remembered–walking on a ceiling using suction cups attached to his feet. Legend had it he died in Massachusetts, plunging from the inside of a dome when the plaster gave way, but he actually lost his life with much less fanfare, succumbing to yellow fever in Havana, Cuba.  Buried in 1861 just down the hill from the Flock plot, a tall monument, reminiscent of a Corinthian temple was erected over his grave. In the center a platform sits empty, where once the bust of this circus showman sat encased. Apparently, someone years earlier made the statue disappear and never returned to finish the act.

If a link to Ebenezer Scrooge and a star circus performer are not enough company for two young boys, down the hill nearer the mausoleums is a low, gray granite grave with the word Moore cut in large letters below a list of names. Close by is a small marker, also made of dull gray stone with the letters C.C.M. and nothing else. This marks the last resting place of a dour theologian, professor of Greek literature and Bible and writer of A Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language, likely used as a 19th century cure for insomnia. One wintry day in 1822, while traveling by sleigh from his home in Chelsea to Greenwich Village to buy a turkey, he penned a few verses to read to his own six children on Christmas Eve. The following December a friend had those verses published anonymously in a Troy NY newspaper. It was reprinted many times over the next fifteen years until Clement Clarke Moore finally admitted that this frivolous, unscholarly verse was his own. By that time his “jolly old elf” and sleigh with “eight tiny reindeer” were already reshaping the culture and defining how children like Ham and Cliff might experience Christmas. Of course, their deaths just before the holidays in 1850 likely did much to shape their family’s observance, at least for that year.

There are some other permanent residents of Trinity that would not be so interesting to two young lads: Four New York mayors including the more recently deceased Ed Koch, at least that many congressmen, any number of socialites, including Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor, the doyenne of the gilded age and self-proclaimed arbiter of the elite four hundred. There are physicians like David Hosack, whose unusual family practice included trying in vain to save Alexander Hamilton after his 1804 duel in Weehawken, New Jersey where, three years earlier, Hosack also could not save Alexander’s son Phillip after his own duel. One of the most infamous residents is one who excelled in business endeavors and was, at the time of her death, the richest woman in America. Born Eliza Bowen, she married French wine merchant Stephen Jumel and after his death increased her fortune through wise investments. An unwise investment, though, was marrying 78-year-old widower Aaron Burr who promptly began losing her money. So she put him out of her house and, for emphasis, divorced him on the day he died. A strong, independent woman, she was known derogatorily throughout the city as “Madam Jumel,” because as any 19th century citizen would be certain, a successful woman must have some level of connection with the second oldest profession.

Not far from the Flock plot is a vault containing a body recovered at sea a week after a British liner making its maiden voyage sank after colliding with an iceberg. According to the Encyclopedia Titanica the following description helped to identify the floater:

“NO. 124 – MALE – ESTIMATED AGE 50 – LIGHT HAIR & MOUSTACHE. CLOTHING – Blue serge suit; blue handkerchief with “A.V.”; belt with gold buckle; brown boots with red rubber soles; brown flannel shirt; “J.J.A.” on back of collar. EFFECTS – Gold watch; cuff links, gold with diamond; diamond ring with three stones; £225 in English notes; $2440 in notes; £5 in gold; 7s. in silver; 5 ten-franc pieces; gold pencil; pocketbook. FIRST CLASS. NAME- J.J. ASTOR”

At the time of his death, John Jacob Astor IV was likely the richest man in the world, traveling on the largest ship afloat, reported to be unsinkable. Here at Trinity Cemetery, he is just another resident.

A few steps from the Astor vault is a monument in memory and honor of United States Marine Stephen Higginson Tyng, Jr., also lost at sea, but unlike his famous neighbor, never found. He was on his way to Parris Island, South Carolina when his transport ship City of Athens was rammed in the fog by a French warship on May 1, 1918. Married on the day the ship set sail, his wife Elizabeth never remarried and is buried close by. She died May 2, 1964.

The loved, the cherished. The lost, the found. The youthful, the infirmed, the scoundrel, the fascinating and the dull. The busy, the brutish, the fop and the fanatic. First lives, then stories, then just names carved on stone. Passersby read them aloud. Perhaps. Or go by, gazing at the foliage, the marble angels, their timepiece, trying not to imagine themselves here, on the other side of the sod.

Genealogists say we die three deaths. The first is when our body dies. The second when the last person who knew us dies. And the third? The third death is the last time our name is spoken.

Here in Trinity Cemetery, under the shade of my family tree, I, the last of my line, read these names:

Hamilton Flock. Age 10. Clifford Arms Flock. Age 6 years, 5 months, 20 days. Nothing else under Hamilton’s name is legible. I only know the date of his death from the City Hall records: 29 October 1850, and even there his name is misspelled “Flack.” About his younger brother Clifford, I know a little more. He died of “water on the brain”–hydro encephalitis. Whether this was a problem from birth or the result of an illness or accident is unknown. All the obituary in the New York Herald said was that family and friends would gather on the Friday following his death in his parent’s home “in Fiftieth Street three doors west of Third Avenue” at two in the afternoon and that his remains would be taken to Trinity Cemetery. There all would gather, two weeks before Christmas, to help Alfred and Maria do the one thing parents never want to do–bury their child.

Hamilton and Clifford. They had not lived long enough for time to assign them fame or anonymity. Likely they had played on cobblestone streets, heard stories told to them by firelight, slept in a crowded bed with several other siblings and grew up to the rhythm of the marketplace where their father dealt in poultry and pumpkins. But they were loved. Fifteen lines of illegible carving on a granite slab whose face is wedged up against the bark of that great ancient elm tree attest to that. But there was a sixteenth. Embracing the tree, I leaned in for a closer look:

“… tear is shed.” Wait. A bit of maneuvering. A squint or two. “… farewell tear is shed.” Then above it “… greet them

On a hunch, I typed the words into a search engine on my android phone. It was the last line of a hymn written in 1833 by Lowell Mason to eulogize Martha Jane Crockett, a sixteen-year-old, well-loved student at the Mount Vernon School in Boston where he worked. He’d composed both tune and words on his way to school the morning after her funeral service. Not as inspiring as “Antioch”, the tune of “Joy to the World” he wrote six years later, nor as useful for mass casualty situations as his tune “Bethany” to which “Nearer My God to Thee” is sung, but heartfelt nonetheless. When the still grieving students arrived in his classroom that warm July day, Dr. Mason put them through their vocal exercises using individual lines of plain music. Toward the end of the session he instructed them to sing those lines in harmony. Then he wrote these words on the chalkboard to be sung with the tune:

“Sister, thou wast mild and lovely, gentle as the summer breeze,
Pleasant as the air of evening as it floats among the trees.
Peaceful be thy silent slumber, peaceful in the grave so low;
Thou no more wilt join our number, thou no more our songs shall know.
Dearest sister, thou hast left us, here thy loss we deeply feel,
But ’tis God that hath bereft us, He can all our sorrows heal.
Yet again we hope to meet thee, when the day of life is fled;
Then in heaven with joy to greet thee, where no farewell tear is shed.”

From what I could read on the stone marking Hamilton and Cliff’s grave, these were the verses written there – his parents only creating plurals where the original called for a singular. If the words I could not see were indeed the rest of the hymn, likely they changed gender, too, but the sentiment remained.

“Yet again we hope to meet them, when the day of life is fled;
Then in heaven with joy to greet them, where no farewell tear is shed.”

A few more touches to the screen on my cell phone and I was listening to the melody.

I’d come to Trinity Cemetery to see the burial place of my ancestors and save them from the third death, at least for my lifetime. Instead, I walked away, as Clifford and Hamilton’s immediate family may have when the headstone was erected 170 years ago–singing a hymn of promise, peace and belonging.

MY FAMILY TREE

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