[The Crow by Damien Hurst, 2009]
–Rev. Trudi Hirsch-Abramson
ACPE Chaplain Supervisor
Vassar Brothers Medical Center
When training as a monastic under Roshi John Daido Loori, I would often hear him
say, “It is not easy being a human.” What I believe he meant by this was that being
human contains the entire universe, which includes all feelings and thoughts at any
given moment. As we try to understand and make sense out of the myriad events
of our life, especially September 11, we tend to grab onto anything that gives us the
feeling of solidity or safety—trying to make the next unknowable moment known
to us. But life teaches us again and again that it is continuously changing; there is
nothing to cling to.
During that Tuesday in September 2001, two Buddhist quotes stayed with
me. In the first quote, Gautama Buddha advises against ignoring the suffering we
see: We must find ways to be with the suffering; we will, thereby, awaken others
and ourselves to its reality. In the second, the Buddha is dying and advises to be a
light onto oneself and to do one’s best. These two statements carried me through September 11 and have given me the strength to begin to reflect on what actually
happened in and around me.
Being a Zen Buddhist Priest, chaplain, and supervisor for the Beth Israel
Medical Center, I felt a strong responsibility to write about this day from a
Buddhist perspective. In reflecting on what a Buddhist perspective might mean, I
realized that this called for an authentic and honest portrayal of the day as well as
“being and fully embodying” each moment as it arrived.
Here is my story.
I woke up early, particularly aware of how perfect the day was—sun, mild
breeze, a fall day that you wanted to be awake for. I remember feeling good, even
before my ritual Starbuck’s stop on way to a downtown staff meeting scheduled for
9:00 A.M. Now that I think about it, I don’t know why I was across the street on
Fourteenth at the bus corner. Ah yes, the crowds—so many upturned faces with
hands over their mouths and chins at a forty-five degree angles. Something “big”
was happening. Being curious I rushed in, lining myself up for a view that still has
not yet found a home in my mind.
I remember having an internal dialogue that went something like this: What
the hell. Is that a plane? No, well just the tail end of a plane. What’s it doing
sticking out of a building? Wait, planes don’t get stuck in buildings. Wow. Could a
pilot have misjudged? It must have been in trouble and flew into the building by
accident. Wow. Look at all that smoke.
My mind had taken it in and was trying to connect this image to all previous
images in its filing cabinet. I thought of Godzilla, and I was participating in the
crowd of people looking up, horrified. Then I heard Bart Simpson say, “Geez, this
is cool.” I thought, “Wait till I tell Bugs,” who is my husband, Mark. Then for a
while I stayed with Hollywood images, taking refuge in the no-mind of a couch
potato. This wasn’t real; how could it be? Slowly the voices around me began to
annoy me. I looked down at my watch and realized I was late for the staff meeting.
A quick look back showed the building surrounded in black smoke.
My appointment carried me toward the Spiritual Care office where CB and
rabbi JS were. I was the bearer of “hot news” and wondered how to convey it. I
decided to tell the facts, thinking that it had been a mistake and not the rumors I
had begun to pick up from the voices in the crowd. I wanted to sit down, as if
exhausted from a full days work.
Everyone went into action. Phones: “CB, you stay here and write down the
messages.” Another staff member, who just arrived, a little sheepish at being late,
was told to “go down and see what’s happening.” What about me? What would you
like for me to do? The response was, “Go down to the ER, and see if you are needed
The use of the word “ER” seemed to make the picture of what I’d imprinted
in my head come to life. I think it was the first time I realized that there were people
in that building, and of course they might be hurt—or dead. It was much later that
these people would have names and faces; some of them I knew.
As I made my way down the stairs, I passed through various conversations
and heard about the second building. I felt more distant from my feelings. “Oh,
another building hit by a plane. I don’t get it!” There were a few floating TVs
around, and the images all seemed to repeat like an old film caught on the reel.
There was considerable activity in the halls, on the floors, like a beehive with an
intruder. I stopped to marvel at the fluidity and focus of units, wondering where I
fit, what I could do. Beds were rolling into the auditorium making way for the
“victims.” That was another word that represented the before and after of a usually
horrible event. The victims. The victims. What was happening? I asked a few
people if I could help, but there was no time for “help,” only time for action. I felt
out of rhythm and useless and meandered into the ER waiting area where a small
crowd of mixed professionals, families, and patients had their eyes glued to TV
sets, repeating once again the shot of the buildings collapsing and the crowd
franticly running away from an avalanche of white and dusty powder grabbing for
their heels. My eyes were glued too, waiting to hear this was a mistake, a very bad
mistake. I looked around and noticed there were a few patients dealing with their
personal disasters right here next to me in this very room. I saw a man with a leg
amputated, a woman with one of those hats that disguises the loss of hair from
chemo, and a mother with a young daughter with something growing out of her
head. It seemed that everyone looked diseased or crippled. I felt as though I’d been
hit by a stun gun.
I also felt very simple-minded. I stopped thinking and just opened to
everything around me. The feeling I picked up was of hushed fear, as though a
secret was about to be revealed. I felt my ears stretched toward the newscaster.
Waiting, watching, waiting, watching. There was a certain comfort in being
mesmerized. I snapped out of it and tried again to be useful, but there were only a
few around me to console. I remember thinking, “Caregivers are those who care for
others in order to care for themselves.”
As I passed through the auditorium, there was a feeling of excitement and
impatience. Everyone was ready, but the “guests” weren’t arriving. The excitement
began to wane as it slowly became apparent that survivors were few. In our minds,
we all began to realize that there was not going to be a huge intake of patients, only
a few. My God, only . . . a . . . very few.
I felt a wave of sorrow sweep over me and immediately pushed it away.
Buddhism would teach to “be the sorrow,” but I had things to do. Being the sorrow
would have to be put on hold for later. “Later” was three weeks after that.
I returned to the chaplaincy office requesting further solid instructions. I
asked if I should head uptown to the north branch of the hospital. I was the only
chaplain at that hospital, and I wondered if they could use me more than downtown.
I was told to do just that and to stay connected by phone if possible. The phones
were presently tied-up. CB was busily involved answering phones and taking
I walked out to the bus stop where just two hours before I had witnessed the
tail of the first plane. Now it was an ominous ashen smoke that swirled in and
around where the buildings had been. The air smelled of death and burnt rubber. I
tried to breathe shallowly, wanting to inhale in as little as possible. I focused on the
practical, and wondered if I would have trouble getting uptown. I was prepared to
walk the 70 blocks, but to my surprise a bus appeared. I felt normalized as if doing
what I always do: bus stops, get on, grab a seat, stare out the window, reflect.
Everyone was informing those who hadn’t heard. The stories were similar, but the
What was I feeling? Surely I must feel something. I replayed what I heard and
what I saw, but there was no feeling, only a crib-note summary. I commended
myself for being able to function in a crisis, but that didn’t get rid of the gnawing
feeling in my stomach. I flashed to a Twilight Zone story of an ordinary man who
tried to convince the stewardess that there was a horrible creature eating the
fuselage of the plane, but everyone thought he was crazy. How could I help? The
blind leading the blind. Hey, stop that talk. I have training and experience. I will
need to take my authority. I felt called by duty, but my insides were calling for
Off the bus. Most of the uptown street people seemed unaware that the world
had dramatically changed. I went into the hospital, and dropped my bag off in the
office. I listened to the sixteen messages and didn’t dare tune into my e-mail. Some
messages were from previous students who were volunteering to help. I felt
relieved that there was so much that I needed to do to respond to these calls. I
remember thinking that chaplaincy was what was needed more than anything else,
and this would put us on the “hospital map.” I remember feeling that my responses
to the situation seemed distant and cold, and that I should be feeling such and such. I should be responding more like—Like what? Like what? No answer was coming
I ran down to the ER. Incredible quiet. I visited the few patients, and we all
seemed to go over the scene again and again. Questions buzzed around: Did you
know anyone who worked there? Did they discover who was behind this? It was
on leaving the ER that I first thought of my own family. My husband was upstate.
Did he even know? He would think that I was uptown and out of trouble. Damn.
My brother-in-law works in those towers! I later found out that he had called in for
a teleconference meeting at 9:00 A.M. and was uptown when it happened. He was
in phone communication with his staff as the plane hit, hearing the last cries for
help from some of his staff. The emotional anguish of this burns continuously.
My mind jumped to a far away memory of an old friend of mine who worked
on the ninety-ninth floor as a psychotherapist. Doing some fast calculations, I came
to the decision that he must have retired years ago. Even so, was he alive? I hadn’t
thought of him for years. No, I don’t want to call and find out.
It’s amazing to watch the interconnecting links in the mind. How one thought
triggers so many others, and how one loss connects to all our losses. This was
happening to the patients too. They were connecting to all their previous fears and
anxieties, and I listened and concentrated on being there for them as a chaplain.
Some were comforted in a strange way by this catastrophe, which seemed to put
their present predicament into perspective; others thought the world was ending,
that Armageddon had finally arrived. Others hypnotically watched the TV sets
hanging from their ceilings. The repeated nightmares of these events played over
and over as I traveled from room to room.
I was paged to a staff member who had just found out that her fiancé—they
were to be married the following week—was on the floor that was hit. She was lost
in grief, and I stayed with her till she was able to get medical help. I tried to feel
what it must have been like for her to realize that—but I couldn’t go there, not now.
I had too much to do.
The rest of the afternoon was spent in a wave of various visits, all melted into
one thick and horrendous stew. I finally went back to the office, felt the door close
behind me, and sat down, looking blankly out the window at the buildings. The sun
was still bright; the air still clear. I felt that my mind was trying to hold onto an
overwhelming amount of paradoxes. Zen Buddhism had prepared me for this:
“Don’t get caught in the words and ideas that describe it…be the”—No! No time
to “be the.” Things still needed to be done.
But things were quieting, and I felt weary. I called downtown, and JS
recommended that I go home. What else could be done? I didn’t argue. I felt a
desperate need to escape from the hospital, from my responsibility as a chaplain,
from myself, and from the truth of all that I’d seen and heard and been part of. I
felt guilty about leaving. “If not me, then who?” rang in my ears, but I answered,
“Someone else, please!”
The ride home felt very long. I had images of Auschwitz and of war movies,
and Godzilla was still furiously destroying buildings. I don’t think I saw anything
out the window. People must have been killed. How? Burnt alive? Jumping to their
death? Blown up? Asphyxiated? I went through a variety of possibilities, trying to
put myself in their shoes, but to no avail. I was glad to be away from the hospital
and relieved when I turned the key into my sanctuary. My room was filled with
religious objects and paintings. These “things” comforted me. After a while, I sat
by the phone wondering why no one from the hospital was calling me. I felt myself
get annoyed that I wasn’t being asked to return. Feelings revolved around wanting
to get away and wanting to be called. The sound of a jet out the window was
deafening my ears. I wanted my husband to be with me. I wanted to be taken care
of. I wanted to be soothed. There was no one, and the lines were dead. I fell into a
Next day at the hospital, I had a meeting with social work. A special service
was to be prepared for Friday. I galvanized my energies. I wanted to offer a good
service, to bring us together as a community in pain. I worked hard on this service
trying to lift up the fears we had, as well as our hopes in prayer, candles, music, and
song. It seemed that the whole hospital came out for this. I continued to offer a
service each week for a dwindling number of the staff. The priests from St. Joseph’s
were wonderful, and the community found solace in the services. I offered staff
support groups, which felt especially helpful for dissolving some of the fears and
tensions that were around. There had recently been staff cuts, which made
September 11 recede for a while in the difficulties of present events and worries.
My own existence seemed to be one of perpetually responding to others until
a night about three weeks later, when I was at the Zen temple located on Varick and
Houston. Enkyo Sensei was offering a “Mondo”—interactive questions and
responses to a given theme, which this particular evening was September 11. I
remember sitting and listening to the personal stories of that day from different
members of the community and learning about the deaths of their various friends
and relatives, most of whom lived around that neighborhood. As I sat there on the
floor, I felt my body become tense; fear and panic arose as if I couldn’t listen to
another story. I had reached my limit! I started to sweat, and, if I hadn’t been so
disciplined, I would have bolted out of the room. Each new voice made my need to
escape that much more pressing. Right after saying the last vow, to “save all
sentient beings,” I rushed out.
I made my way through bodies as I rushed towards the door. A woman whom I had cared for as she had journeyed through the death of her partner stopped me at the door and asked if I was O.K. I broke down crying, saying that I couldn’t take another story. It was all too much. I collapsed into her arms, and she consoled me as I had consoled her just a few months earlier. It was the first time I had let myself feel, and I cried and cried. When I was composed
enough, I took the subway home.
On the train there, were two scrawny looking down-and-out guys singing,
“This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.” They stared out into faces that
were half receptive and half indifferent to their presence, but I heard them. Then
they said, “Come on. It doesn’t hurt to smile. Does it?” And I smiled and gave the
men some change.