9/11 Question and Answer

A questionnaire reply given during a recent religious retreat.

Q: Can you tell us of a moment in your life when you definitely felt the presence of God?

A: It wasn’t when the first tower fell, or when I could hear–on the phone with a friend who lived very close–the second tower come clattering down. It wasn’t when I stood at 9th Avenue and 14th street to catch my breath, and by turning my head just an inch to the right saw serene Villagers safe in the beautiful light and air, and then by turning my head just an inch to the left saw a sky blackening with dust from the two buildings; and right before me silent tangles of people covered by the detritus of coworkers and friends making up some of that wreckage were numbly trying to find their way home. It wasn’t when I managed, after a few hours of walking, running, and thumbing a ride, to get within a few blocks of where those buildings I’d worked and shopped and (only a few times, when I was a teenager) had sex in had been, and was stopped by a young cop, who answered my hoarse “Don’t you understand? There are thousands of people down there!” with “Mister, I just saw, and there’s nobody down there,” that I felt my soul roll its eyes to find a way to fasten itself to the grace of God. But there was still no sign of him anywhere, no matter how portentous the setting sun and Inferno-dark the clouds already blocking all the light out as if to obscure what had happened. All those moments reminded me of others: when a concentration camp survivor sitting across a college desk described to me what it was like to survive mass murder, to keep going when the smoke of that day’s dead palled the entire camp and made breathing impossible; or the day during my AIDS volunteering when four people with AIDS I had visited, cheered up, cared for all that autumn died within a few hours of each other (on the same floor of the same hospital), and even the nurses were scrambling from terror, the empty hospital hallway full of the sounds of sobbing and slamming doors—that moment, standing between 9/11’s triumph and the more peaceful world still there a step or two away from me I had that feeling I’d had on those earlier days, the one I dreaded above everything else, even death itself: I believed in Godlessness.

So no, he never reached down to take my arm or lend me his shoulder. The clouds refused to part. The big man’s voice wasn’t rolling anywhere, even amid squealings of collapsing girders and shrieks of exploding glass that could be heard from more than a mile away, and that the people getting bottled water for wanderers on the street, some of them so blanketed by ash they looked scorched, or the people who didn’t make it downtown running into a neighbor and colleague who did, whose faces turned from him when he raised his voice to say “Don’t you understand? Hardly anybody at _________ got out. I don’t know how I made it. The others were all still up there,” or the people camped out hopefully on stoops of friends’ or lovers’ houses eager for a reunion, all tried not to hear.
But something did begin to happen a few hours later,

downtown just before twilight, when I was standing a half mile or more away with hundreds of other people eager to help somebody, anybody. A young woman whose face was still grayed by layers of twin towers ash stammered she had stood before the tower she’d worked in (trying not to be thankful a long line at the coffee shop had kept her outside) and forced herself to pray for each person she saw falling—I asked God to turn them into angels right away, before—and she paused, her sweet voice answered by a roar that maybe we both thought was some kind of attempt at an answer, even though it made the air itself cringe. Everybody turned heads south to see 7 or 11 WTC (I always got their addresses confused) collapsing, and another giant cloud of debris swallowing block after block in seconds, hot on our trail. I remember the sound of hundreds of feet pounding north in an instant, of rushing and rushing forward as hard as I could, even though I held no hope anymore and as the first whoosh of hot pursuing air pushed forward on the asphalt to slow down our feet I found myself not minding this might be the last feeling I’d ever know.

It still wasn’t exactly then, either. It really began a moment later, when a hand grabbed my left arm and pulled (I was the biggest, and one of the slowest, people in the crowd), and other people pulled slower ones along with them as they ran, and a voice like out of another, older fall trembled as it cried Don’t look back!, and another hand reached amid the whirl of breaths and footbeats towards mine to help me along, and a crunching, sucking sound shoved every other one out of the way as I saw in windows of buildings alongside me the cloud getting nearer and nearer . . . and then we kept running, and it stopped following us. My lungs had given up the ghost, and as I searched for a sewer to stick my face into (someone else had done this when the first tower fell, and had told me about it) I tried not to look back, muttered ‘To hell with Lot’s wife,’ and turned. The debris cloud was half
a block away, hovering enormous and splendid and so full of the power of suffering I almost bowed before it; but just short of crossing the street it had paused, as if having consumed so much that was human it had learned politeness and was waiting for the traffic light to change (I could see around its edges two little red lights winking to green) before it came after us afresh. Or maybe, as the cloud just stayed where it was, it seemed as if some force bigger than evil had put a hand on the thing, made it pile upon itself up and up into the sky (as it was now doing, its ascending rumbles as shocking as enraged curses) rather than gallop forward to engulf us, because whatever had suddenly exercised restraint over it had spent the day watching thousands

die and millions despair and had finally tossed omnipotence, forced a gap between more death and us, as if quietly but firmly saying to everything, ‘Alright— that’s enough.’

That’s what I thought at the time, amid the sound of hundreds of lungs wheezing with relief, and loud plops as bodies fell only a few feet to the gutter, not dead but crying in a very alive relief. We weren’t alone; we weren’t abandoned; we weren’t worthless and graceless; something or someone had stepped in and saved us; we could still live. “Thank God, Thank God,” I heard a hundred times in ten seconds from inches or blocks away. But, I thought a moment before I could thank God myself, and get up and start walking home again before stopping this next thought, Why can’t I, even after a moment like this, be certain I really have anyone to thank?