When you’ve Come From Away

It’s that time of year again.

The most difficult week of the year for me.

The week when the very date on the calendar is enough to make me anxious. Smells set me into flashbacks. Loud noises make me cringe.  Planes overhead make my heart skip a beat.

It’s the week of 9/11.

In my 38 years on this planet, I’ve had a lot of experiences. Many of them have been nothing short of extraordinary — but none have shaken or shaped my life more than my time at Ground Zero in New York.  Walking to the edge of the pit that first day, at barely 21 years old, it was like looking at the end of the world.

It took me nearly 15 years to be able to talk about it openly.

15 years to go back to the corner where my mobile kitchen was set up. Where I worked my last disaster. Where my father and I served shoulder to shoulder for the last time.  I wasn’t a New Yorker. I was a kid from a small town in OHIO, for christ’s sake. I’d already been thrust into a different world, and now that world was burning. 

Now it’s been 16 years.

16 years.

I’m an entirely different person than I was then.  Older, yes, but more than that.

It CHANGED me.

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My clearance pass for Ground Zero

The first time I got back into an airplane after 9/11, I was terrified. My sister Tracy and I boarded a plane at Newark airport and took off, heading to an airport called Gander, on a tiny island off the northeast coast of North America, called Newfoundland.   

I fell in love with that island, with her people, with the weather, the darkness, the trees, the northern lights….all of it. And I’ve kept going back ever since.1930971_31885927431_2901_n

Just outside Gander Airport, Gander, Newfoundland, August 2003

What does that have to do with a post about 9/11, except that it was the first place I went in an airplane after it was over?

Turns out, Newfoundland, it’s people, it’s music, and it’s hospitality, had an experience of their own on 9/11, when 38 planes full of terrified people were forced to land at the Gander Airport when the US closed our airspace. 5 days, 19 animals….7,000 people. SEVEN. THOUSAND. PEOPLE. Gander only has a population of 9,000. And yet, there they all found themselves.

They wrote a book about it, after the fact. The Day the World Came to Town was the first book I was able to read that had anything to do with 9/11. It quickly became one of the things I pointed to when I thought about ‘redeeming’ the day.

And that was that. It was a nice book, about wonderful people on an island that I loved.

I read it, it was nice, I had a bit of a cry at the end, and then returned it to the library.

Didn’t think much more about it.

Until this past weekend.

I was in NYC, visiting Tracy, when she put on the soundtrack to a popular new musical that she’d seen. This in itself is unusual, because Tracy, as a rule, dislikes Broadway as a genre, and REALLY dislikes listening to soundtracks.

Within 8 bars, I was hooked.

Within two songs, I was feeling…something.

By the middle of the soundtrack, I was full on ugly crying.

And laughing.

If someone had told me that, 16 years later, two people would write a joyful musical about 9/11 in Newfoundland, I would have written it off as an audience-repelling, disrespectful FLOP that would never make it out of previews, but that’s exactly what Come From Away is, and, somehow, it WORKS.

And it doesn’t just work…..it HEALS.

It’s been a week since I first heard the first drumbeats of Welcome to the Rock, the last sad cries of Me and the Sky, the joyful skips and trills of Screech In…

I can’t stop listening.

It’s almost obsessive. I load up youtube and play it over and over, sometimes the same song three or four times, letting the music take me to another time and place, looking up the lyrics so I can take in every word.

The opening number set the stage, and the familiarity of Gander, and the Rock, flow into my mind. I love that island. The playful crassness of the locals, the simplicity of just another day in Gander…..and then, even before the words are spoken, the music hints at something….the shock of 8:46 AM…..the resulting confusion, the moment everything changed….we all remember where we were.

“I’m sitting in my car.

I’m in the library.

I’m in the staff room.

And I turned on the radio.

You are here, at the start of a moment, on the edge of the world.”

I cannot tell you how many tears I’ve shed listening to this soundtrack. How many tears I’ve been fighting back here at the Legion hall in Maryland as I write this. How many more tears I’ll likely shed if I ever get to see this show in person.

This show.

THIS.

SHOW.

It is everything.

It is everything that is redeeming about the worst day ever. It is everything that is right with humanity. Everything I want to remember. Everything I aspire to be.

It is HEALING.

I’ve never used that word about a show before.

Listening to that soundtrack, admittedly obsessively, is healing something in my heart that 9/11 damaged.

Maybe it’s Newfoundland and her music.

Maybe it’s the hope woven through.

Maybe it’s the shared experience, the universal emotions of that day and the days following.

I don’t know.
But what I do know is that if I ever have an opportunity to see that show in person, I’ll have my 9/11 badge tucked in my bra, my Newfoundland flag pin pinned to my shirt, and a box of kleenex in hand.

Until then, I’m going to keep listening as many times as I need to, especially on Monday.

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Beach combing outside of Twillingate, Newfoundland, August 2003. 

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