About two years ago or so, I read a book. “The Day The World Came To Town.” When I saw the book in Barnes and Noble I was curious. I had no idea that it was about September 11th, 2001. For years, it’s alway been hard for my family and I to read, watch or even converse about anything related to 9/11.
For years, our world was connected to those who were there. That was probably the only time we felt comfortable discussing the day our lives changed. But this book, was different. I brought it home and by the next morning, I had read the entire book.
I exhaled when I was done.
When we were experiencing the worst of humanity, the town of Gander, Newfoundland was showing the best of humanity. I was compelled to read it again the following evening, this time slower and with a highlighter pen. I needed to know each and every character. I lived each and every moment with each paragraph I read.
I exhaled when I was done.
Fast forward to one lovely mid afternoon day. A friend, Vernoy P. was talking to some of the docents on a break. I was reading an email that just came through that needed my attention. As I was almost done with my task, I could hear Vernoy speaking about something that seemed so very familiar to me. When I mentioned that it sounded like a book I had read, she said, “The Day The World Came to Town?” Immediately we began to talk about parts of the book and I told her my favorite character was Oz Fudge, the constable and Beulah Cooper. The conversation went on and on to the point that we both forgot the time which made us a bit late for our assigned posts.
Vernoy was talking about wanting to go to Gander. I was interested until she said it would be for the 15th year of the attacks. I shut down after that. I couldn’t leave NY on 9/11. I had other obligations the day after. As much as I would have loved to go, there was no way I could go. But Ms. Vernoy is one persistent woman: when she sets her mind to do something, it will get done.
Weeks later, on another break, she would ask my husband and I to come along. We explained we had obligations to which she responded, “You don’t have to be back on that Monday, it’s a day off from NY schools. You can come!” But we still had the issue that all the hotels were filled to capacity. As she grabbed her phone, she said, “I believe I booked 2 rooms. Let me check.” I looked at my husband and said, “If a room becomes available, it’s a sign.” My husband lowered his head and said, “I don’t know if I can be anywhere else but here on 9/11. It took me so long to come back to Ground Zero and now I can’t leave.” We both agreed that there were a few obstacles in our way that somehow were not obstacles any more. So we agreed, if Vernoy told us she had the room, we would go.
Vernon walked towards us smiling.
We were going to Gander.
(Karen, Jeanette, Joe and me at the airport in Toronto)
We had a few months to plan and before we knew it, we were all meeting in Toronto. This was really happening.
We went to the schools to share the 9/11 story. We brought Stars of Hope to the town, giving them to the businesses that helped all the plane people. While half of the group were giving out the stars in town, some of us were tying yellow ribbons in Heritage Park where we were going to have a 102 minute ceremony to honor the Canadians that were killed along with family and friends who were killed in NY.
(Paul and Joe and Jeanette, speaking to the students. Jeanette, Diane and Joe)
102 minutes was the time it took for 2,977 people to be murdered on 9/11 in all three attacks.
That evening, we were screeched in. We had read about it in the book, but now here we were, with fishermen hats, ready to take the plunge which included, Newfie steak (bologna), eating a piece of salted fish, chewing on a hard roll, tossing back some screech (bad Jamaican rum, which wasn’t bad at all to be honest,) and finally kissing a freshly caught Cod. We almost got away with not doing it but Jeanette mentioned it and Beulah’s face lit up and before we knew it, the cod was ready for us. Now we all had to pass the cod and kiss it, right smack in the lips.
We were now Newfoundlanders!
Saturday we were at the firehouse greeting friends. Meeting one and all whom we came to say thank you, but they were telling us THANK YOU! Here were these magnificent people who did so much for so many, who showed the best of humanity when we were seeing the worst, were telling us, THANK YOU? Their hearts were much bigger than we could have ever imagined. Those thank you’s filled our hearts with Joy. Their hugs, comforted us.
Paul, Ellen, Jeanette, Joe and I were there. Each of us saw it all, we experienced it and we still live it today. Those hugs were telling us, “You’ll be okay. We are with you. ”
We were indeed Islanders even before we screeched.
(The Brothers Fudge… Major from the Salvation Army… Presenting Plaque to the fire department and a plague to the mayor of Appleton.)
It had rained every day that we were there.
On the morning of 9/11/16, the rain stopped.
Our ceremony was simple. We read passages from poems and songs. We read the names, stopping 6 times to ring bells similar to the ones used in the New York Memorial Services every year. My husband, Joe and Paul I, a former NYC detective rang the bells. After the names were read by each person, they would place a Canadian and an American Flag in a circle I had put together with yellow ribbon. These flags would be presented to the Legion. I presented one of the bells to a Sargent from the Salvation Army. I brought the other one home.
Jeanette G and I had made a promise, not to cry. The whole point of this trip was to say thank you but for Jeanette, Paul I, Ellen, Joe and I, we were stepping out of our comfort box. We needed to do something different but what,how? Gander was it. Later on, watching the video someone took for me, I could hear Jeanette’s voice and mine crack. We inhaled several times. Joe and Paul were standing at attention, so proud in their handsome uniforms. I could see each time they rang the bells, how hard it was for the both of them.
I kept saying to myself, “don’t let go now. Hang in there. You can do it.”
When the ceremony was over, the folks that joined us came to us. The hugs were abundant. They were comforting. They were just what we needed from a town that faced fear, uncertainty but still pushed through it and gave so much of themselves to people they didn’t know.
They were OUR hero’s.
We had gone on a tour of the airport with the Mayor and others. Before we left on our trip I had told Vernoy, I wanted to bring some gifts of gratitude to the town. Our group was called Tour of Gratitude.
Before I knew it I had a bronze stature from the NYPD union, a plaque that was made by one of our docents at the 9/11 Tribute Museum, another plaque made by Paul’s brother. Paul had brought some certificates from the Detectives union. We gave the constables and Beulah a Tree of life wooden box filled with patches from the NYPD, FDNY and pins from each organization along with Challenge coins.
I knew we didn’t have to do this. They were happy just being with us but we wanted to say thank you in so many ways.
One of the visits some of us made was to the Search and Rescue of the Canadian Air-force. It was rather amazing to be inside a helicopter were so many rescues had taken place.
That evening would be our last. We were invited to the Ecumenical Ceremony where they had the choir sing, the mayor speak and it was all about unity, peace and honoring the lives lost. Joe, Paul, Ellen and I were asked to walk in with the Royal Canadian Army. Joe kept saying no, we couldn’t do that but before we knew it, we were in the front, walking arm in arm with them. They told us they were honored to have us in the procession. I didn’t feel as if I should have been there. I pulled the officer aside and said, “Let the men walk, we’ll wait up front.” His reply?” You were there too. You know what many of our families deal with. You deserve to walk with us as well.”
I begged my tears not to start. Jeanette says I cry ugly. So I’m sparing you those pictures. ;o)
Instead I’d rather show you a picture of what an angel looks like sitting next to me.
That’s Beulah Cooper.
Every request, question or thought we had about our visit, went to Beulah and this splendiferous woman, had answers for all and if she didn’t, she’d find them. Her smile in infectious. Her hugs the best medicine in town.
That evening was our last dinner together. It was also my husbands birthday. After 9/11, he made it clear he did not want us to celebrate his birthday. No cards, no cakes, maybe a hug. For him it was the day he lost both partners and we lost several close friends. I was the day so many innocent lives were lost. I tried one year to surprise him with a dinner. He smiled here and there, pulled me aside and asked, “What do I say when they tell me Happy Birthday?” I told him to say thank you.”Why?” he would say. “I’m here and so many others aren’t. I can’t do this.”
The morning of September 11th, 2001, I woke up to a clear beautiful bright blue sky. Our daughter was excited as we would be joining Joe at the precinct that night with a pot of home-made chili which Joe’s crew loved to eat. I had made the chili the night before and fully intended, after I did a few things in Manhattan that day, to meet up with Carissa and Joe to celebrate his birthday.
Instead, the world as we knew it had changed, suddenly and violently. We would not hear from Joe until about 5 pm that night. He told us where he was and how horrible everything was. We had never heard our spiderman speak that way. Moments after our phone call, we would be told that the building where he was near had collapsed. He was supposed to call us at 10 that evening and he never did. On the morning of September 12th, we thought and discussed briefly of a funeral. My daughter reminded me of what I always told her when things weren’t going well, “Without Hope, We cannot Cope.” I held on to that until Joe walked in later on that morning, injured, in shock and covered in soot. He would never speak of his time there for many years. He only spoke 3 days after 9/11 to read off the names of the people who were missing, or as he said, “Their gone. All gone. Why them? Why wasn’t I taken as well?” I had lost the man I had kissed the morning of 9/11.
He was never the same.
Our last dinner.
Eating, chatting, laughing we were suddenly silent as Robert, an amazing singer and actor stood up and came behind Joe. With both his hands on Joe’s shoulder, he sang Happy Birthday to Joe. I held my breath.
Joe smiled. He really really smiled.
Earlier that day, Paul and Ellen had given Joe two gifts. One was a pair of sunglasses that Paul had worn before and Joe had admired. Paul found a pair for Joe.
The other was a picture of the both of them in gallery five of the Tribute Center. (Now the 911 Tribute Museum)
We headed back to our hotel, ready to pack and rest before our early morning flight. As we got into bed, Joe said,”This was nice. I haven’t smiled so much in such a long time. These people lived 9/11 like we did. I think I can do this.”
I’m not sure what he meant by the last comment but it didn’t matter to me. He was smiling. He was happy and it was still September 11th, 2016.
But it didn’t end there.
We made life long friends or as the from Gandor, Mayor Claude Elliot would tell us, “No, not friends, you are family.”
Oz kept in touch with Joe all the time and I could hear Joe sometimes laughing so loud. I’d walk into the living room and see phone in hand. He’d hold it up and say, “That Oz… do you know what he said?” And he’d continue to laugh.
Oz calls me the war department but that’s fine because he calls his wife the same thing so I am in good company.
Weeks later, Joe would ask if there was something we could do for the folks in Gander who were coming to NY. I jumped from my chair and said, “Here? In our hometown? How? Why? And do we have room for all of them? Where can we put them all? Oh this is too cool… What should I cook? Should I cook different dishes made with cod? Oh wait, maybe we should have our own screech ceremony.”
I called Jeanette telling her to help me put a screech ceremony together. No matter what we came up with, we soon realized that our family from Gander would not even blink an eye no matter what we came up with. They’d drink castor oil and eat raw fish if they had to. They were warm-hearted people but they were also fearless.
We soon gave up on that idea.
And then they were here.
The opening of Come From Away. A broadway show about Gander, the people of Gander, the plane people.
How can a story about 9/11 be turned into a musical?
Well, they did it. Almost fourteen awards later and Sunday, June 11th, maybe seven more awards to be added to this phenomenal play, they did it. The Tony Awards.
We laughed. We cried. We smiled. We now knew of another story. The story of the plane people. The world would see the book come to life on stage in the most simplest of ways. In a most profound way. There was fear, that turned into comfort, that turned into love, that turned into uncertainty with love still there. And the end… spoke volumes to those of us from the 9/11 Tribute Museum…
Our family from Gander visits the 9/11 Tribute Center (Now the 9/11 Tribute Museum.)
(The magnificent Kelly)
(Oz, Joe Carissa and Gander Man)
(Jeanette, Moi and Gino, who plays Oz, very very well)
(Our angel, Paul and Ellen)
(Yup that’s us, The Agrons)
(Ahhh Leo, sweet Leo who accepted the circle of flags for the legion and Diane… sweet sweet Diane who has a heart of gold…and always reminds me about responding to quizzes on FB.)
(Gino and moi. I told him I adored Oz and well, he just smiled and a Kodak moment was born)
Tonight we honor what was lost but we commemorate what was found.And those simple words tell another story.
The story of a community that suffered so much loss coming together in a small gallery to share their stories with the world with the hope of peace, the hope that communities will stand together regardless of religion, political beliefs or cultures. We have all honored those that were taken from us and in our stories, in our sharing the knowledge of what we can all do as a community, we have become friends, sharing each others blessings. We have honored what was lost but we have commemorated what we found: each other. And that includes our family in Gander.
On the northeast tip of North America, on an island called Newfoundland, there’s an airport.It used to be one of the biggest airports in the world, and next to it is a town called Gander.
Welcome to the rock if you come from away,
You’ll probably understand about half of what we say.
They say no man’s an island but an island makes a man,
Especially when one comes from one like Newfoundland.
Welcome to the Rock
Welcome to the wildest weather that you’ve ever heard of.
Where every one is nicer but it’s never nice above.
Welcome to the farthest place you’ll get from Disneyland.
Fish and chips and shipwrecks, this is Newfoundland.
Welcome to the land where the winters try to kill us and we say, “we will not be killed.”
Welcome to the land where the waters try to drown us and we said, “we will not be drowned.”
Welcome to the land where we lost our loved ones and we said, “we will still go on”
Welcome to the land where winds try to blow, and we said “No!”
Welcome to the fog, welcome to the trees,
to the ocean and the sky, and whatever’s in between.
To the one’s who left, you are never truly gone.
Our candle’s in the window and our candle’s always on.
When the sun is coming, and the world has come ashore.
If you’re hoping for a harbor than you’ll find an open door.
In the winter, from the water, through whatever’s in the way,
to the ones who have come from away,
Welcome to the rock!
Welcome to the friends who have come from away
Welcome to the locals who have always said they’d stay
If you’re comin’ from Toledo or you’re comin’ from Taipei
Because we come from everywhere, we all come from away:
Welcome to the Rock!
Nine months later, we are still reliving our moments in Gander. We have seen the play six times and will be going as a group from the 9/11 Tribute Museum in September.
We speak to our family in Gander and have planned a trip back to our home away from home. Or as Oz says, “You can stay with us but I’m going to put you to work.”
We have made the most amazing connections with a town not too many people knew about and hopefully soon, very soon, they will know that there is hope, there is love, there is kindness, there is acceptance, there is another place to call home:Gander Newfoundland.
I’m an Islander, I AM AN ISLANDER.
#ComeFromAway #911TributeCenter #911TributeMuseum
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