Gary Bird died on September 11, 2001. His death certificate lists the cause of death as homicide. Gary flew from Phoenix to New York the day before to attend a scheduled meeting in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. And as his wife has remarked since, “Gary knew he was going to a meeting but what he didn’t know was that it was a meeting with God.”
That morning his wife Donna arrived at Mt. Carmel in Tempe to drop her son Andrew off at our school where he was in 8th grade at the time. Having already seen the TV reports about the attacks on the twin towers, I was standing outside the Church watching the children come to school on a bright September morning and thinking, “I’m glad we are so far away from New York.” But then the distance evaporated with a sickening thud. One of our parishioners who was going into Mass, told me that her daughter worked at the World Trade Center and that she was a little late in getting to work since she stopped for a cup of coffee, which she rarely ever did and when she got to the building she heard the explosion and ran. And then she called her mother to tell her she was safe. Immediately afterwards, Donna came rushing over and just blurted out, “Father I think Gary is in one of those buildings.” The joy of the earlier good news sank to the bottom of my stomach. After that came a long series of merciless hours and days spent in trying to find out something, anything. Then the cold reality of nothing.
I have often thought of how such a viciously evil act, seemingly so far away was able to reach out across more than 2,000 miles of fruited plains and purple mountains majesty and disfigure a beautiful sunny day in our little patch of the desert as we were waking from sleep. Why here, why now? It became even more incomprehensible when we learned that Gary was the only resident of Arizona killed that day. Was it really bad luck, incredible coincidence, the capriciousness of evil deeds or something else?
What many of us have discovered since is that trying to figure it all out is well, almost like a dog chasing its tail. And to avoid ending up in a perpetual chain of frustration we need some marker on the horizon in order to find our way. For people of faith then the best way to proceed is to start with the question: How does the Gospel shed light on this situation? How does our faith inform a tragedy of this magnitude? Our Faith insists on bringing life out of death but it takes a courageous willingness to harvest grace from the rubble.
I know that Donna and her children worked hard to find healing and resolution to the loss they suffered on 9/11. As did so many of us. Which is why the disaster unfolding in Afghanistan is so hard to stomach. Those of us who had a front seat to the human tragedy that unfolded on 9/11 feel acutely the horror of watching the human tragedy now engulfing Afghanistan and the queasiness of what possibly comes next?
While I think of Gary and all the other victims of 9/11, I am also thinking of all the veterans of the war that I have meet. Men and women who acted honorably and served courageously but came back very broken physically and mentally. I pray for them and hope they know that they served us well even if our leaders failed us miserably. The failure in Afghanistan is not in any way a reflection of their service and their sacrifice and the wounds they bear are a reminder to the rest of us of the debt of gratitude we owe them all.
9/11/2001 changed our world in way we couldn't have imagined earlier. Now twenty years later our world is changing again and in ways that we are only beginning to see.
Gary’s widow, Donna recounted her journey in a book she authored, “Nothing Will Separate Us: A Widow’s Memoir of Faith, Grace and Miracles since 9/11”. It’s really a story of how she became a steward of God’s grace. By allowing faith to shed light on the tragic events of 9/11 she opens for us all a pathway to hope. She writes that she remembers praying on that morning: “I don’t know how to get through this, handle this or fix this. I give it all to You. It is in Your hands.”
I think we all feel a level of impotency on this 20th anniversary of 9/11 and that’s why we need to make her prayer our prayer.
We don’t know how to get through this, handle this or fix this. We give it all to You. It is in Your Hands…
Fr. John B.
P.S. If you ever go to the 9/11 Museum in NY, you will see Gary’s cowboy boots and his horse’s saddle. A simple reminder of the gentle and peaceful life he lived in AZ.BACK TO LIST