9/11 And A Summer Long Ago

USAF photo by Denise Gould

This is not the post that I was planning for today.  In fact, this is actually the post that I debated writing.

The truth is, I have a very difficult time with September 11.  There is a large part of me that actually dreads the date, that wishes we could remove it from the calendar.  And now, on the 10-year anniversary, that feeling has been doubled.  Just talking about September 11, no matter when, brings tears to my eyes — and so I do my best to avoid it.  I have stopped watching the news for the weekend.  I do not want to see memorial services.  I do not want to hear speeches.  I do not want to relive the day through newly released video footage.  Everything I need to know is in my mind.

By day, I am a school social worker, and ten years ago, I was working in a middle school.  I was walking down the hallway when a teacher came out of her room and told me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.  We sat in her classroom and watched the television.  It looked surreal.  Although there was an airplane-shaped hole in the side of the building, I really thought it was an accident.

I left the room and continued my walk, when another teacher said that a plane had crashed into the tower.  “Yes,” I said, “I was just watching the tower on the news.” 

“No,” said the teacher.  “There’s another one.”

I ran to my office and called Joe on the cell phone.  At the time, he was working further east, and I told him what was happening.  Clearly, we were under attack.  My principal wanted me to stay in my office, in case students needed to find me.  My office, though, was in a dead-end hallway: no phone, no PA no students.  I was alone, looking out of the window and at the sky.  The information we had was that at least 9 planes had been hijacked.

Ultimately, I returned to the Main Office, to offer my help there.  I spent the remainder of the day answering phones and assisting parents who had come to the school to take their children home.  One parent, in particular, has stayed with me.  She came up to the school and asked for her son.  I brought him down from class, and I asked if she was signing him out.  She said, “No.  I just wanted to hold him.”  Whenever I explain where I was 10 years ago, those words. . .

At the end of the school day, I drove home.  In fact, I couldn’t wait to get home.  I wanted to be with Joe  in the safety of our cocoon.  I think all of us wanted to be with our families that day.  In order to get home, I drove east on the Long Island Expressway.  The westbound side was closed to traffic, except for the steady procession of Long Island fire trucks and ambulances heading toward Manhattan. 

You may be wondering what this all has to do with gardening. 

Photo courtesy of CNN

In the days following 9/11, I learned that one of the firemen who died was Kevin Donnelly.  I never knew Kevin as a NYC firefighter.  I knew him as a landscaper.  Well before landscaping enterprises became a booming business on Long Island, there was Kevin and his van and his lawncare tools.

At the time, I was a young high school student, confused and unsure about who I was.   Let me correct that.  I knew who I was.  I was different, not athletic, alone, nerdy.  It’s just that in those days, and at that time in my life, “gay” was not a word that I could have even considered.

Kevin, whom my father knew through the volunteer fire department, offered me a summer job.  Every morning, I rode my bike to his house and the two of us, along with his younger brother Brian, spent 12-hour days mowing and raking and sweeping and weeding.  It felt great to be part of a “crew,” and Kevin easily made me feel included.  With work, we were all equal.  His energy and enthusiasm and passion for life and laughter created a camaraderie among us, and work didn’t seem like work at all.  Each night after biking home, every muscle ached — and I couldn’t wait to do the same thing the next day.

To this day, I look back on that summer as one of the most incredible ones in my life.  I was tanned.  I was in shape.  I was a landscaper. 

Each time I mow my own lawn, I think of that summer.  Each time I dream of what I would like to do in the next chapter of  my life, I  think of that summer.  Each September 11, I think of that summer.  And when I think of that summer, I always think of Kevin Donnelly — who gave one young man so much more than a summer job.


33 thoughts on “9/11 And A Summer Long Ago

  1. How can I send to you a story that I am doing on a German Prisoner of War who was in a prison camp near Tuscaloosa, AL in the 1940″s? He had been a gardener/landscaper in Germany before being taken into the service, was in service, captured and ended up here in Ala. He and his family immigrated to the U.S. in 1954.

    Sybil Phillips in Tuscaloosa, AL

  2. I can see why you dread September 11th. I did not know anyone personally who was there but I can still feel all those feelings that I felt that day. From unbelief,horror, heartbreak to anger. I believe everyone remembers just where they were on that day.But for you it is so close everyday and personal. What an amazing story Kevin and a great tribute to the friend you lost.

  3. Dearest Kevin – you’re post is so very touching. I, too, have tears in my eyes. Somehow, I knew Kevin Donnelly, and your summer working with him would be the subject of your post for this anniversary. A very appropriate tribute to a man who touched your life in a wonderful way. I hope your days are filled with sunshine! You have filled my life with sunshine! Love you.

  4. Kev. I asked him if he was hiring. He said no, he had everybody. I thanked him and we parted only to have him stop and turn. He asked “can he hold a rake ?”. I replied, Kevin will do whatever you ask him to do. He said “OK- he starts tommorrow”. That was KD and if I’m correct it was probably the hardest summer that you worked. Even so it was something you enjoyed and it has followed you to this stage of your life. I guess a little of KD rubbed off on you. He was my friend and not a day passes that I don’t think of him.
    Love Dad

    • I know, Dad. Kevin was an amazing person, and I think that’s what is so difficult about 9/11. So many young, amazing people were lost in a flash. A chunk of a generation. September 11 was rough — but September 12 and each day ever since has been just as rough for so many people. Be well, and peace.

  5. Kevin, thanks for inviting me to read this post–if thanks is the right word for a chance to share a particular grief together. I’m sorry for the loss of your friend/mentor–it sounds like he had a talent for giving just the right gift to those who needed it. One of the things that has struck me about the 9/11 posts I’ve read is the sense of immediacy. I’m a little too young to be part of the “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” generation, but now I understand it. Some things have such a strong impact that you always remember them as if they just happened yesterday.

    • I’m glad you stopped by. Not only am I struck by the “Where were you” experience, but there are so many young people who weren’t born in 2001 — and so 9/11 seems like ancient history. They are, however, eager to ask their elders, “Where were you when. . .” Thanks for commenting. Peace.

  6. Hi Kevin
    As usual, I am way behind in my email. This was a beautiful post for 9/11. We need to remember the special qualities of the people we lost and share it with others so that their memory will live on in us and others. Thank you!

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  8. When each person who was alive on 11 September 2001 (and old enough at the time to understand what was happening) is passed away, that day will have the status of any other blandly hideous day out of countless days in the record of human insanity. Bearing in mind that fact, we can, perhaps, more readily understand how it was for all the past, passed, people (who populate our facts-filled History lessons) when they, before we, faced the evil of perverted faith, or of greed, processed into vile cruelty. Impressive piece.

  9. Pingback: Lessons Learned From A 9/11 Survivor by: NittyGrittyDirtMan « GiRRL_Earth

    • Thank you. I think for people in the NY area, 9/11 is always difficult. It’s always there, lingering in the air. There have been memorial services for several days now, and non-stop local news coverage of the memorials and the progress at Ground Zero.

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