I am working on the re-write of my second novel. Yes. The first novel sits on the floor of my closet, waiting for its re-write. But for now, let’s focus on the second one. The main character, Suzanne, is an attorney. She has worked in publishing for about three years, since she finished her law degree from NYU. She took a job in Chicago so she could get away from the reminders that lingered in New York. She was there during 9/11, and lost her fiance, Evan, who was a consultant working for a small subsidiary of Marsh & McLennan, on the 95th floor of the North Tower. She was in lower Manhattan when it collapsed. A portion of the novel deals with the issues Suzanne has surrounding that experience, including post-traumatic stress disorder.
At least 10,000 people have met the criteria for treatment for 9/11-related PTSD. Estimates for the number of people who may actually suffer from the disorder are as high as the hundreds of thousands. Whether or not it the phenomenon is that wide-spread, it is, without a doubt, one of the most traumatic experiences our nation has had as a whole. But it is only so because each of us has some kind of relationship to the events of that Tuesday morning ten years ago, whether it is watching the television in horror, being an eye-witness or first responder, or having a personal relationship with those who lost their lives.
I have a friend. I’ll call her Sally. When I met her, this tough woman truck-driver with bright hazel eyes and curly hair was suffering from a number physical ailments, but the thing she struggled with most was anger and guilt. She came to my house with her fiance and a friend of hers. They wanted to investigate having a Baha’i wedding, which consists of a simple vow, with no clergy required. She and her fiance wanted to avoid the inevitable conflicts that came from the various religious options available from their families’ backgrounds, which included Lutheran, Catholic and Mormon. But they wanted a spiritual, rather than secular, service. I told them about the basics of the ceremony, but I wanted them to have brief overview of the Faith, so they could understand the wedding’s basic context. I started with some of the basic teachings, and then moved into a brief history of the life of Baha’u’llah, the Faith’s Founder. During the explanation of the teachings, she was very interested, and eagerly asked questions. But when I started talking about the history, she became reticent and agitated. Finally, she said, “Wait a minute. Are you telling me all these beautiful teachings of peace and justice are from over there?” I asked what she meant, and she indicated, with some difficulty and emotion, the Middle East. I told her that, yes, the Baha’i Faith originated in Iran. She then told me this story:
Several years before, she got involved in an online community with a friend. In this community, a group of 20 to 30 people became very close to each other. They even planned several gatherings in real space, and had a great time, both in small groups, and all together. Then one of them had a great idea, to see both coasts of this great country of ours. The plan was simple. They would all meet in LA to see the sights, then fly to New York the next day for a night on the town. Sally was psyched. She coordinated the plan. She helped people make their travel arrangements.
The day she was to leave on the trip, all hell broke loose with a soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend. He had become extremely possessive and jealous, and told her that she couldn’t go on the trip. She, being the tigress she is, told him where he could go. He then proceeded to take her keys, drivers license and credit cards, and vanished. Though she did go to the authorities to report the problem, there was no way she could meet the group in time. She had planned to drive up the coast and meet a group of them traveling from Boston to LA to start the party. She missed that flight. Her friends did not. They got on the plane, American Airlines Flight 11, that Tuesday morning. A friend they were going to meet in LA called Sally that morning, panicked because she had just seen the news, and woke Sally from a sound sleep. The friend couldn’t believe she had reached her. Sally didn’t understand. She hadn’t seen the news. When she found out what happened, something broke deep inside her.
“I used to not care who you were, black, white, purple, green. You were a human being. But after 9/11, everything from over there,” she said, choked up, “everything, became evil to me. I can’t believe that something as beautiful as what you’re telling me is from there.”
She sat on my couch and cried, this gentle soul, so completely and personally hurt by what some mad men did to make their mark on the world.
But Sally couldn’t let go of those beautiful teachings. Over the next few months, she asked question after question. There were times when she would rage, not understanding why people do such horrible things to each other. Then she would watch her child show compassion to my three-year-old son, reading a book to him, or showing him how to be gentle with a kitty, and she would say, “We learn it, don’t we?”
I watched this angry and hurt woman transform into a beacon of tolerance. Two months after I met her, we went to an inter-faith prayer gathering for peace organized by the local university. Several priests and ministers from various congregations prayed. A Baha’i prayer for peace was read. The mullah from the local mosque said a moving prayer for peace and inter-faith cooperation and healing. Afterwards, Sally approached the man. With tears in her eyes, she said, “Two months ago, I wouldn’t have been able to face you without a gun in my hand. Today, you showed me how powerful love is. Thank you for your prayer.” Those were not just words to this woman. It was absolute truth. I don’t know if that mullah realized the miracle he had participated in, but I know what I witnessed.
There is a so much hatred in the world. It is darkness, and it causes terrible injuries to our hearts and souls. But there is also healing, and greater love, and light. If you have story that shows the kind of transformation I saw in Sally, share it. I’d love to hear it. I also want to help my character, Suzanne, learn from your wisdom, so don’t hold back. Show us how the phoenix rises from the ashes that still smolder in the hearts of so many broken hearts.