One of the first things that brought me from shock to tears that terrible day of September 11 was seeing the names of the people who died on the airplanes being scrolled across the TV screen in my Boston apartment. It struck me in the days that followed that their names represented the light of their souls. I thought I would try to compose a memorial composition called “Reading of the Names” in which the names of all who died on September 11 would be the only words.
I generally begin the process of composing by immersing myself in the subject matter intensively. In this case, I was very frightened to go down to New York City, and it was January before I could bring myself to do it. Within a few blocks of approaching the World Trade Center site, the pain and fear were already unbearable. A kind policeman who stood guard took interest in my proposed project. He took me past the barriers to the open gates and described landmarks that were no longer there. I couldn’t begin to wrap my mind around what had happened, nor could I find any value in composing music that would take people back into the memory of this horrific act.
I asked how I might interview some firefighters, and the policeman directed me to a small firehouse a few blocks away, Engine 6. There I met five firemen. I met kindness, compassion, and courage. Incredible men. There was no fear. They told me their stories. They took me out in the fire engine to Ground Zero, into the heart of it. They showed me where they believed their lost men were still buried under the ramp. In the middle of all this horror, I found myself overwhelmed with their goodness, their sense of honor, their desire to help and to save. Their grace.
Looking at these men who had been working long overtime hours, raking through mountains of rubble, I did not see how a piece of music would help them. It was a battlefield down there. Men were exhausted from the clean-up of the site. Emotionally used up from all the funerals, still in shock. Men were working with injuries and not telling anyone. And they just kept giving. Tourists knocking on the door, wanting to take their pictures with the fire engine. Documentary filmmakers wanting interviews. These men endured it all, never complaining, never asking for help, they just kept giving.
Having some credentials in the healing arts, I found myself setting aside the memorial project in view of the needs before me. I made a committment then and there to “adopt” this firehouse and provide bodywork over the next year. I went to work that very day. When I left the firehouse that evening, I was amazed to find that I was not afraid anymore.
On the train back to Boston, a melody came to me. I layed down the sketch of the entire piece, but the melody was so simple, I didn’t believe it honored these men, that it didn’t capture the magnitude of what I had learned about them. I finished the orchestration over the next four weeks and put it aside.
Having committed myself, I was now faced with the financial logistics of how to get down to New York City on a regular basis for the longterm. But then something happened. As people learned about what I was doing, they stepped forward to help. It seemed that whatever I needed was immediately supplied. My family and friends paid for some of my trips down there; a client, who heard I was paying to stay in a hotel, gave me the key to her midtown Manhattan apartment to use whenever I wanted; others gave me money to use toward the firefighters in any way I saw fit ; a NYC chiropractor and masseuse treated me at no charge. It was a miraculous experience, watching so many people come together in a common cause. We were, indeed, united.
But certainly, the greatest gift came from the firefighters themselves. In the firehouse, I found a world that I had once thought was only a possibility, where you were judged by who you were and what you did rather than by what you looked like or what your credentials were. I heard men speak highly of each other. One of them telling me that so-and-so was the bravest man they had ever known. That absolutely fascinated me. Who were these men that could show such respect for each other. If somebody made a mistake, it was not grounds for making fun of him. The words “respect is earned, not given” and “conduct becoming a firefighter” had meaning, and I watched them live by these words in all their actions. There were no empty words in this firehouse; if men were talking, they had something to say. With each visit I discovered that their ability to risk their lives on a daily basis required an extraordinarily high level of intelligence and awareness that I had rarely (if ever) seen in my life. Either this job attracted great men, or made men great, but no matter, the standards of behavior I witnessed reduced me to a state of humble awe. The goodness and the love that resided in that firehouse shielded me from the open wound that was only a few blocks away. I felt absolutely safe. It was a strange and powerful thing to be able to say at that time and under those conditions, but it was true. I was safe.
During the course of one of my visits, one of the firefighters asked if he could read me a letter he had written to a librarian out in the midwest. She had asked him to share with her community what he wanted them to know about 9/11. This was his reply:
“What I want you to know the most is something that I’ve come away with after going to so many masses and memorials. Ok, now, I’m only speaking of the firefighters and not the other almost three thousand innocent people who lost their lives that day. Each of the men I want to speak of whom would lay down his life for you and I was an individual. Each man had his own family, his own Mom and Dad and his own friends. Many of these men were Dads themselves. Most of these men had a wife who now grieves on her own. So many individual children lost their Dads that day. These kids are not a statistic. They are individuals as well. Each child grieves separately and no child understands why their Daddy doesn’t come home anymore.
I cannot group these men together and say, “yeah, we lost 343.” It’s so much more. This is what I want you and your community to know being so far away. God Bless. Firefighter, FDNY.”
Reading of the Names 9/11: The Firefighters includes all the names of the 343 firefighters who gave their lives that day. You will hear these names NOT as a list– but as I met them: a united brotherhood of men who loved each other and loved helping others. Through their sacrifice, we were lifted up out of the chaos of hate into a light of which I am sure they still remain.