Twenty years have come and gone and yet, when looking from my window, my eyes drift toward Manhattan and I see the empty space. The smell and visions of black smoke that haunted my senses for years have finally disappeared, but my eyes still see the empty space in the skyline.
An empty, undefined space remains in my heart. I never knew a single individual who was lost on 9/11, yet I observe the day quietly in my home, listening to each of the names as they are called and displayed on the television screen, in expectation of hearing one that is familiar.
The smell of that smoke was a signal for me of isolation, loneliness, fear, and a host of other emotions, including being out of control. But through the smoke, the city lights never went off. Crime plummeted, the theater district and the museums became even more crowded, as we went about our lives feeling humbled by what had transpired. We reentered Central Park and went among the tourists just to walk on grass. We ran into St. Patrick’s Cathedral to pray when we were on Fifth Avenue. The Bronx Zoo and Yankee Stadium were opportunities to return uptown to the Bronx and remember the days before.
When disjointed, disorganized, or just plain feeling low, I am lifted by reminding myself, “the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).
The light shone in the darkness after Sept. 11. I tear up as I remember the sunshine filled with ashes falling from the sky.
A different story
On 9/11, 2,753 people from all over the US and the world, from janitors to executives, died in the Towers. At least 33,450 people have died of COVID-19 in New York City, as of mid-July this year.
In March 2020, the city moved from being alive with life to being closed in death. Doors closed with lights blazing. No subways, buses, cars, Broadway, big business, or people in the street. For a time, even the homeless could not be found in the streets or in the parks.
A couple of days after the pandemic hit, I opened the door to my neighbor’s knock and took the bundle of bananas from her. What would she and her husband do with two boys, locked up and not even allowed to go in the backyard?
During the second week, I went to the drug store—not for drugs but for shampoo, wax, and hair dye. No beauty parlor or manicurist would be available for months. The air was thick with Clorox in the drug store. I smelled like Clorox, as did my entire apartment.
The email from NYU Langone Hospital, where I am a chaplain, asked all volunteers to remain home until they figured out what was going on.
Brooklyn First Church of the Brethren closed, along with all houses of worship.
I looked out the window and saw a white ship with a red cross on its side, going up the harbor. A Navy hospital ship had been sent at the request of our governor because our hospitals were overflowing with the sick and dying. New York 1 television spoke of refrigerated trucks for the dead outside the hospitals.
No black smoke or ashes came across the waters, but death was all around, as was silence.
Now, more than a year later, when the sun goes down a barrage of light emanates from the skyline of New York: The lights of Broadway, the museums, the ballet, opera and jazz at Lincoln Center, past and present poetry, fiction, philosophy, and ideas found in the libraries of the city—and most of all the hope of its people ablaze on the Statue of Liberty.
The darkness has not overcome the light of the city. Thanks be to God.
Doris Abdullah is a member of First Church of the Brethren in Brooklyn. For many years, she has served as the denomination’s representative to the United Nations.