My husband Wes and I were in Manhattan nineteen years ago today. The year after we returned I gave a sermon about it which I always reread on this day. It struck me how much of which we felt then, we are feeling now.
In Psalm 30 the psalmist tells us that “weeping may remain in the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” There are those of us who are still weeping about September. 11th. There are many of us who are weeping for what is happening in our country right now. There are some of us who are finding joy in the in-between moments. Although there are a lot of things that we as a nation have done wrong or done badly, I want to tell you about some of the things that happened on September 11th, 2001 that made me believe that the soul of America is essentially good.
Wes and I planned to leave New York City on September 12th. On the morning of September 11th we were on our way to an art museum when we received a phone call from our host telling us that the World Trade Center had been attacked.
I ran to the television and while waiting for it to warm up, looked out the window where I could see billowing clouds of smoke. I turned to the TV and saw the image on the screen and I simply could not put them together.
Wes and I left the apartment after about an hour to volunteer as phlebotomists, drawing blood from donors in the New York City Blood Bank. It may sound as if we waltzed in and starting drawing blood, but the truth is, we had to take a crash course in NYC Blood Bank procedure, we were both rusty in our phlebotomy skills—I hadn’t drawn blood in 20 years and Wes doesn’t do it on a regular basis.
One word comes to mind when I think about that first day: sweat. Not only was it hot and humid, but we were nervous and scared and there were people lined up for blocks wanting to give blood. And we were new and making mistakes—I taped my glove to a man’s arm and because he was so hairy, rather than ripping off the tape, I wiggled out of the glove and then cut the glove off his arm except for the one finger that was under the tape. He was good sport about it, but I was mortified.
So for three or fours hours we were just madly drawing blood and sweating and then suddenly there was a break in the activity—no patients for a few moments. We sat on the edge of the chaise lounges, silently resting. Then the door frame was filled with a big, tall red-headed man. He had a smile on his face. Most important, he had visible, bulging arm veins.
Simultaneously Wes and I said, “Come right over here.”
“He’s mine!” I whispered fiercely. Then sweetly, “You need a break, honey.”
“No, I don’t, sweetheart. I think he’s mine.”
The red-headed man gave a laugh and handed me his paperwork. “Sorry, mate, I’m going with the lady.” He turned out to be Australian and worked at the U.N. in security.
I really wish that I could have had a long conversation with him, but he filled his blood bag so quickly that all I knew about him was that he was married to an American woman. I walked him to the canteen for his juice and cookies. (Part of our job was walking donors to the canteen, so we would be there to catch them in case they passed out.)
As I turned to leave I grabbed a bottle of water for myself and thanked him again for donating blood. He looked at my bottle of water. “So you’re going to be the Golden Roo.” I looked at him quizzically. “Do you know about the Golden Roo?”
And I thought, the Golden Rule? Of course I know about the Golden Rule, I’m an ordained minister!
“C’mere,” he said. “I want to give you something.” He unpinned from his shirt a golden kangaroo tie tack. “Here, for you, ’cause you’re the Golden Roo. “
He then explained (and I don’t know to this day if the story is true) that when there is a drought and a pod of kangaroos are dying of thirst, they send out one kangaroo to find water.
“It’s always the mile,” he said. “Always the mile.”
I didn’t understand how a kangaroo knows it has gone a mile, and then I couldn’t remember if Australia used miles or kilometers, but I didn’t want to interrupt.
So he went on and told me that if the kangaroo finds water, he returns and then the rest of the pod smells the water on his muzzle and then follows him to the source. If he doesn’t return—well, he’s dead, but at least they didn’t sacrifice the whole pod.
“It’s always the mile,” he said again. “Because the femile is too valuable to the pod.” And with that, the light broke forth for me and he handed me the pin.
“So there you go, Golden Roo.”
I thanked him and quickly walked away because I didn’t want him to see me cry. I was so moved by that image: The Golden Roo bringing back water—nourishing, refreshing, life-giving water to the pod.
And I can’t help thinking that the Golden Roo is a lot like the prophet Isaiah. “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And Isaiah answers, “Here I am! Send me!”
By the third day, the adrenalin rush had worn off, the nights of bad sleep were catching up with us and the acrid air stung our eyes and burned our throats. It was at the end of this third day that Wes had a particularly difficult “stick.”
She was about 50 years-old with short cropped hair, no make-up. Her veins were tiny and deep and she was probably dehydrated, which made it even more difficult to find her vein. I could see she was terrified. So while Wes worked on her right arm, I came over and held her left hand.
“I waited six hours to get in,” she said. “I’ve never given blood in my life because I’m terrified of needles. “
And I just looked at her in wonder. “How much courage you have,” I said, “to come and give blood when you are terrified. And to wait with that terror for six hours. I think you are a most remarkable person.”
The tears ran down her cheeks. “My brother died of AIDS this year. There was nothing I could do about it. Nothing I could do to help.” She swallowed hard. “So when this—the attack happened, I decided that this time I was going to help. And I’m so happy to be here.”
Here. Here I am Lord, send me. She was glad to be here, terrified, and at the same time, overcoming her fear and making a difference. And her example was like . . . fresh, cool water to me.
She was the Golden Roo for me. And since then I have wondered how many times each of us is secretly called to be the Golden Roo for one another. Who will come back with words of encouragement, words of hope and love? Whom shall I send?
The Blood Bank was full at the end of that day, so they told us we didn’t need to return. So I went down to the Armory to volunteer as a chaplain. The Armory was where families of the lost came to fill out Missing Person reports and check the list of the dead.
There were several of us, and we received our briefing from Mindy, a tall, commanding woman with blonde hair and piercing blue eyes. I confess that at first I didn’t pay much attention during the briefing because I thought, I’ve done this for 16 years—yawn. So I looked at her hair and thought she could use a trim and maybe wear it up for disasters.
Suddenly her eyes were on me and she said, “And above all—do NOT ask police officers or firemen about their feelings!” I blinked and nodded but thought, Not ask about their feelings? Well, that’s my whole gig! Why can’t I ask them how they feel?
As if she heard my thoughts she said, “We need the rescue personnel to remain professional.” She paused and let this sink in and then continued. “Do not make any sudden moves around the officers. These are trained professionals and they can hurt you. Do not interrupt any police officers. I want you all to simply walk around and be visible. When you are needed an officer will raise his or her hand for you.”
Although I made myself visible and walked all over that Armory, no cops signaled for me to come and help out. So that first day, I spent most of my time talking with cops who weren’t at that moment talking to families. And what we talked about most was baseball. They loved it.
I said to a group of cops, “You know, I really admire you New York cops—but you’re so hideously misguided about baseball.” (I said this without making any sudden moves.)
“Yeah, what’s your team called? The Seattle Sailors or somethin’? No, the Seamen, no, I know, the Mariners.” (He pronounced “Mariners” ma-REEN-ers.) This got a huge laugh. I wanted to use my finely honed pastoral care skills, but they didn’t want to be serious. They didn’t want to talk about grief or spirituality. Why debate the existence of God when you can argue the merits of the designated hitter?
Whom shall we send to talk about baseball? Here I am, send me! So although it was a bit of a blow to my ego, I was the Golden Roo and I was bringing laughter to the rest of the pod. Sometimes what we want to give is not what others really need. So we have to scrap our big, important plans and pay attention to what they need.
It was at the end of my third day as a chaplain, that I called my parents in California just to check in. Outside the Armory MCI had set up a trailer with dozens of phones which any voluteers, families and rescue personnel could use to call anywhere in the world. The phone rang long enough for me to think that I would have to leave a message. But my mother answered and I could tell she had been crying. This is not a woman who cries easily so I was shocked.
“Mom! What’s the matter? We’re fine! Wes and I are okay.”
There was a long silence during which I could tell she was swallowing and trying to regain her composure. Finally she said, “Cousin Andy was on the Pennsylvania flight.”
My stomach curled up into a tight little ball and I felt as if someone had a hand around my throat. My mother was waiting for me to respond and in those seconds I understood why Mindy had said, “Don’t ask them about their feelings. We need them to remain professional.”
I calmly said, “Mom, when I get home, I’ll call you and we’ll talk about Andy. But I can’t talk about him right now.” I knew I couldn’t talk about him and then go back in and finish my shift. Then I hung up and sat there in stunned silence. I decided to tell no one because I knew they would send me home.
I simply parked that horrible fact in the corner of my brain, vowing to get to it later. I had good support back at the apartment. We were staying with two friends, scientists at the Rockefeller. Their daughter Maya was 11 and their son Philip was 13. We have known these kids since they were babies. We are known to them as Uncle Moosely and Auntie Deb.
When I walked in the door that evening, Maya said, “Auntie Deb, let me give you a hug.” And she put her little arms around me and squeezed me. She was the Golden Roo.
I couldn’t imagine what could be a more healing experience than cuddling on the couch with her and Philip. Except possibly playing the hand clapping game with Maya during which she chanted:
Eenie meenie sicilini,
I love you.
Take a peach,
Take a plum,
Take a stick of bubble gum,
Just a stick of bubblegum.
I wish I could tell you I was comforted that night by prayer, meditation, scripture, and a couple rounds of Gregorian chants. But the truth is, it was the unfathomable mystery of the hand-clapping game that renewed me. I think it was when she looked into my eyes and said the line, “Ockey-jockey, ever-ockey, I love you.”
We left New York City September 17th, six days and seven nights after we arrived.
Now, here we are 19 years later. Wild fires, unhealthy air, race relations, COVID, governmental chaos. In spite of all that, I still believe the soul of America is essentially good. I still believe that “weeping may remain in the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.”
When and where can we be Golden Roos for one another? A word, a smile behind the mask, a wave? Sometimes that is all we can offer. Often that is enough.
Here I am, Lord. Send me.