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.
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.