I have been reflecting back to the days leading into isolation. You know the feeling when a string of events happen and at the time you don’t realize why, but in retrospect you see you were being prepared for something? That’s how I feel when I look back to the week before we stayed home. Tuesday night of that second week in March, I felt annoyed and anxious. Something called the Coronavirus was pulling me away from the season finale of the Bachelor and I was pissed. Instead of watching Pilot Pete’s mom roll her eyes at Madison Prewett, I was on an urgent call with the Heartworks Board of Directors deciding if we had to postpone our 15 Year Gala planned for next Saturday night. The event was a huge deal honoring Lois and Neil Gagnon, who have supported our foundation since we were just a small circle of women gathering in houses around town. It was a huge bummer to be talking about postponing due to a virus outbreak and at the time, it felt like too extreme of an action. The call itself felt unnecessary and a bit dramatic. We were completely unaware at the time that life as we knew it would come to a halt in just a matter of days.
I went to bed that Tuesday night with looping thoughts about the 300 people who had paid to come to the gala. I kept thinking about the committees that had spent 10 months organizing, the businesses that were depending on our business, the funds we needed to raise and the new Heartworks video we were previewing at the event. The second printing of my book, Angels Over the Towers, was being completed that week and a signed copy was to go home with all attendees as a way to kick off a year long fundraiser for first responders affected by 9/11 related illnesses. Now, due to a life-threatening virus that can be contracted through social contact, it was looking like the gala was not going to happen. I was stressed and pissed and praying for guidance. The farfetchedness of this storyline reminded me of 2001 when on a sunny September morning, my sister Jennifer’s 30th birthday party got cancelled because terrorists had crashed planes into buildings and a field on US soil. And here we were once again talking about something that seemed more like out of a movie than real life.
These words (typo and all) were not put into my laptop as a screen savor by a human being. One day, last May, I was down at the Jersey Shore with two trusted Heartworkers for a social media planning session. All of a sudden, these words appeared on my laptop screen. Neither myself or the two women I was with, had put this on my screen, so I then texted my daughters to see if they had and the answer was no. Since that night at the beach, these words appear, consistently…every single time I get overwhelmed and want to throw in the towel while eating Snickers bars. That morning was one of those days and again, like spiritual clockwork, the words appeared on my screen. They always instinctively remind me to take a deep breath and draw attention to whatever looping thoughts are hijacking my brain. I usually repeat them over and over until my body settles into them. These words (typo and all) were not put into my laptop as a screen savor by a human being. One day, last May, I was down at the Jersey Shore with two trusted Heartworkers for a social media planning session. All of a sudden, these words appeared on my laptop screen. Neither myself or the two women I was with, had put this on my screen, so I then texted my daughters to see if they had and the answer was no. Since that night at the beach, these words appear, consistently…every single time I get overwhelmed and want to throw in the towel while eating Snickers bars. That morning was one of those days and again, like spiritual clockwork, the words appeared on my screen. They always instinctively remind me to take a deep breath and draw attention to whatever looping thoughts are hijacking my brain. I usually repeat them over and over until my body settles into them.
While I was getting ready to leave for the city, Heartworks Advisory Council member Nesa, started to make calls to see if the venue, the band, the auctioneer, the florist, the photographer and the Gagnon’s were all available on Friday, September 11th. I thought the chances were low that all could make a second date, but I took deep breaths and remembered the words “You are loved and have more support then you can imagine.” I handed it over to the Universal Flow and continued getting ready to leave for the train staton. When she called the venue, they said that they were booked up for the Fall except for one date… September 11th. Now she needed to call all the other moving parts to see if they were also available. When we got on the train, I pulled out my copy of Angels Over the Towers, The Unseen Story of September 11th, that I had written in 2006 for the 5th anniversary of the terror attacks.
I woke up early the next morning to start preparing emails and notifications to be sent out to Heartworkers, vendors and volunteers updating them on a possible postponement. I wanted to get things done before I left with my girls to see a Broadway play while my oldest was home from college on Spring Break. We had tickets for Come From Away, which is the true story of 7,000 stranded passengers and the small town in Newfoundland that welcomed them on the morning of September 11th. Throughout their lives, my daughters have heard me describe, in hundreds of ways, how our family was changed by the kindness offered to us when their Uncle John was killed in the South Tower. I was bringing them to the play hoping they would further understand how life stopped so unexpectedly and how the world joined together, for a short time, after the attacks. I had no idea we were getting closer and closer to a similar experience only a week away. I wanted to focus on our day in the city, but my mind was looping with thoughts of the World Health Organization declaring a pandemic and all that needed to be done for Heartworks. I was on the phone and texting board members while getting dressed and making scrambled eggs for my girls. I just wasn’t accepting that after all this work and planning we would have to postpone the gala to the Fall. Then, a calm and acute thought suddenly came over me that the only date that would feel right, if we had to wait until Autumn, was the sacred day of September 11th. I wasn’t even sure what day of the week it was and when I checked, it lands on a Friday this year…how about that. I called my sister Maryanne to see if it felt like too social of an idea for such a private day, which for the past 18 years has been spent at a local memorial service with other 9/11 families. She was quiet at first, but then she began to understand the deeper purpose for having the gala on this particular day. My irritation lessened… a teeny-tiny bit, but not much. I was trying to practice what I teach about “letting go and letting God” but it wasn’t working all that well. I don’t like change. I am uncomfortable with the unknown, and what if we cancel it and this whole virus thing blows over in a few days? I walked into my family room and there, on my computer screen, was the message that has shown up over and over again since last Spring; whenever I am overwhelmed with anything concerning the mission of Heartworks…
The book was a way to explain to my four nieces and nephews what had happened to their father, without the traumatic visual aspects of the media. A few months prior, when I had bought the tickets to the play, I had every intention of reading the angel book to my daughters before seeing the show. They had heard the story of the angels before, but not since they were younger and I wanted to refresh their minds of the events of that historical day. Because of the new developments with the virus and the need to change the date of the gala, I didn’t have time to read to them, so I had put it in my bag to read on the train. It was a struggle to keep stress and overwhelm at bay, and so before I started reading, I took a deep breath and tried my best to surrender to the moment. So much was happening that was out of my control. I repeated the words again “You are loved and have more support then you can imagine.” The synchronicity of those words, while simultaneously bringing my girls to see a play about 9/11, and Nesa checking to see if 9/11/20 was available as a new gala date, were all giving me that familiar feeling that forces beyond my control were paying attention. When we were settled in our seats I started to read the book. Even though I had read it 100 times before, as I began to read, I teared up and my voice got shaky. I was a few pages in when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and there was Jacob….I could not believe my eyes. The Universal Flow at play… awake and reminding me that all things have purpose and are connected.
I had met Jacob in May of last year (a week before the words appeared on my laptop screen) when Heartworks was featured on a Facebook live show called Returning the Favor. It’s a great show hosted by Mike Rowe, who walked into an Advisory Council meeting and surprised the %#$& out of me. Returning the Favor travels around the country in search of “Do Gooders” and gifts them with essentials and supplies to support their mission. The RTF team wanted to help get our message of “Continuing the kindness that began on September 11th” out to a wider audience, so we were selected for filming. It was the most powerful day of my professional life (and I have had a lot of powerful days in my professional life), and Jacob was a producer on the show. The day I had met him, the staff had come to the Heartworks House to set up filming. We were super hesitant about the idea of inviting a film crew into our sacred space, due to being so fiercely protective of our mission. The crew was nothing but respectful and gracious and it felt like a love fest from beginning to end. Jacob’s calm demeanor and genuine interest in what we were doing was a huge part of the reason we agreed to be filmed. When he was looking around my office in May, Jacob picked two things out of the clutter to ask me about:
1) A copy of Angels Over the Towers that was sitting on my shelf.
2) A framed note from my father, written the week before he died; my father had been helping me write the book up until the night he died.
I had not seen him since the filming 10 months before. I was so completely stunned; here is Jacob, at this particular time, just as I had started to read this particular book, while on my way into NYC, to see a play based on September 11th, while trying to change the date of the gala to 9/11 that I could not even recall his name. My head was filled with that airy, thick sensation that I get when the invisible becomes visible. We hugged (that was right at the time hugs sort of stopped, but I my natural instinct took over). I introduced him to my girls and blathered on about going to see the play. It was just so surreal and kismet that it truly stopped me in my tracks (notice train pun). All day I couldn’t shake the feeling that something huge was about to take place and the Universal Flow was reminding me to pay attention to the invisible, supportive forces at play.
When we got to our seats in the theater, I felt a pit in my stomach when the man in front of us had a mask on. Although it was not even a month ago, it was a different life. We were sitting in a crowded theater, not thinking a thing of it. “Come From Away”… was…extraordinary. This is what I looked like when it was over.
I cried for 90 minutes straight; from start to finish, and continued crying as we walked out of the theater. It was respectful, moving, real and beautiful. I LOVED IT, but have to admit that I was annoyed when I first heard it was being shown. You see, when my father was alive he did not like to watch war movies, nor did he encourage us to. Having been in two wars, it bothered him that Hollywood always seemed to have beautiful symphony music playing in the foxholes. If he were to find out I saw a war movie, it warranted a discussion about there being no beautiful music playing in foxholes. He was never convinced a movie could get it right and was afraid that any glamor would desensitize us to the reality of war. This is what I was afraid would happen when I brought my children to a Broadway play about the September 11th terror attacks. When in fact, it completely captured the way of life in the fall of 2001. It demonstrated the response of awareness and stripping down that I was unsure my daughters would ever experience in their lifetime. I did know, sitting in those seats, that the very next day Broadway would go dark and we would be headed into an unprecedented national lockdown. I was unaware of the fact that stadiums would be filled with cots to accommodate the overflow of the hospitals and that life as we knew it would stop. As we were leaving the theater, I got a text from Nesa saying that the band, the auctioneer, the florist, the photographer and the venue were all available to participate on September 11th for our Gala. Again I took a deep breath and my head filled with that airy sensation of invisible support being made visible.
Life is so different from the night of the Batchelor finale. It’s wild that I took my girls to see Come From Away because a part of me felt badly that they have not yet experienced something so uniting and I wanted to show them the capacity of how humans come together for each other. 9/11 was horrendous and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But what I do wish for is that we could start living more connected like we lived then, like we are living now, on a regular Tuesday morning with no major, national trauma happening. Because the truth is, trauma is happening all over the world, everyday. So it’s not like we would be making it up. This is what the Heartworks mission has been attempting to teach for the past 15 years. I know now that my annoyance that night in mid March was masking the deep dread I was feeling in my core that something very out of our control was presenting itself. I have had this feeling before, when people I love have received a diagnosis and particularly on June 16, 2005 when my phone rang at 4:00 am with my mother on the other end saying that my father needed help. Feeling out of control is a part of life. My friend Chris’s nephew says to “Control the controllables.” There are parts of this that Heartworks is leading us in an idea to respond with love and then keep this love going when the crisis has passed. To understand each other from our own experience with struggle and to do our best within the limitations of our human limitations. We must remember that we are loved and have more support than we can imagine.
I know now, that in 6 months when we are sitting at the gala, there will be a level of connection that probably would have been missed had the event been held on March 21st. I know now that the hugs will not be taken for granted and that the Gratitude Walk planned for in between the cocktail hour and dinner will be received with less resistance and awkwardness than it would have originally been met with. I now plan on inviting Jacob and his wife and I am hoping their babysitter is available too. I have a feeling she will be.