The Word Among Us

September 2011 Issue

Someone to Watch over Me

My life changed forever on September 11.

By: Kathleen Genaille

Someone to Watch over Me: My life changed forever on September 11. by Kathleen Genaille

As September 11, 2001, dawned, I was feeling no need for a protector. Young and energetic, I had moved from San Antonio, Texas, to New York City and was loving the adventure of being on my own.

In the process, I had drifted from my strong Catholic upbringing—not because I stopped believing but because other things seemed more important than praying and going to church.

On that radiant Tuesday morning, I tried a new way to my job in Lower Manhattan. Usually, I took the subway and then crossed the World Trade Center plaza to reach the American Express headquarters and my cubicle on the forty-sixth floor. Because I took the bus instead, I was walking into the building—not outside in the plaza—when I heard the BOOM.

Spared and Sustained. Not until I got off the elevator and entered my office did I begin to grasp what had happened. My coworkers were very agitated. They said a plane had flown by—so low and close that they could see its passengers—and had crashed into the North Tower.

“Come look, if you can stomach it,” said my boss, whose office overlooked the scene. None of the TV images I viewed later would capture what I saw—that yawning hole torn into the building, with fire, smoke, and debris pouring out.

I turned away sickened, and called my parents. As I left the room, my coworkers began screaming: Now they were seeing bodies fall. I was spared the sight. And because I took the advice my mom gave me (“make yourself some tea”), I also missed seeing the second plane fly into the South Tower. I returned to the office holding my teacup, only to hear my boss shout, “This is no accident. We’re under attack. Everybody get out!”

Panic swept over me, but somehow I made the decision not to get hysterical. I was filled instead with what I can only describe as a sense of watchful quietness. It was a sustaining presence within me—not only as I got out of the building but during the wrenching weeks and months that followed.

“Why Me, Lord?” One year later, still working for American Express but in a different building, I had occasion to revisit my old office for the first time. It felt surreal to be taking the elevator to Floor 46 once again and to walk into the place where I had seen ordinary life come suddenly apart.

There were the windows from which my coworkers had seen the planes and the people. There was the spot where I had set down my teacup after only one sip. There, overlooking the West Side Highway, a colleague and I had watched the long line of fire trucks rushing toward the inferno that everyone else was trying to escape. And, of course, there in my former boss’s office was the view of what had once been the World Trade Center.

I looked down at the huge rectangular crater. Random memories of the plaza, with all its life and activity, flitted through my mind. The periwinkles, newly planted in the flower beds; the free concerts and farmers’ markets; the Krispy Kreme donut shop; the beautiful fountain, whose large sculpture of a bronze and steel sphere had emerged from the debris, battered but intact. A real place— obliterated. How could that be?

The gaping hole was a huge wound, and from the window, I could see workers and machines trying to fix and heal it. But no amount of activity could bring back what was missing—above all, the people who had perished. Their names and faces still stared out from sidewalk memorials and “Have You Seen Me?” posters on subway walls. Their stories were told everywhere. I had heard many at work, from coworkers who lost loved ones.

As I surveyed that scene of loss and absence, I couldn’t help wondering: Why was I spared? And what should I do with this new life I’ve been given? I already had some idea, because by this time, I had reconnected with God.

Search and Rescue. I still struggle with the mystery of “Why me?” But what I know for sure is that in the guidance and the quietness I experienced on September 11, God was reaching out to me. Before that morning was over, I was reaching out to him.

It happened when I was on the street among the fleeing crowds. Fear and confusion were in the air, when suddenly there came the loudest noise I had ever heard. I turned to see the South Tower collapsing&mdasmdash; an avalanche amid gigantic billows of smoke. We all ran, panic-stricken, to keep ahead of the dust cloud. Half an hour later, I watched the second tower come down, too.

In those moments, I turned to God and asked him for someone to protect me and keep me safe. Not long after that, I met my future husband. I have absolutely no doubt that he is an answer to my prayer and that God chose him for me. It was an especially nice touch that Mark was a military navigator engaged in search and rescue missions.

Essentially, of course, the “search and rescue” concerned my relationship with God. After 9/11, I realized that I needed to put him first. I began praying and attending Mass regularly. With some trepidation, I went to confession for the first time in seven years—one of the best decisions I ever made. The sacrament really is a gift that brings God’s love and mercy very near.

The Oneness of Us. After September 11, I could also see God’s love flowing through the city, revealing itself in acts of kindness and compassion. It was something like when you’re first in love, and that makes everything look different and beautiful. People were looking out for each other—volunteering to help, leaving flowers at fire stations, offering shelter. There was a new sense of appreciation for one another as fellow human beings and children of God. You were happy to see that scary-looking homeless guy, that cab driver, that banker in his threepiece suit. You wanted to embrace them and say, “I’m so glad you’re still here!”

There was a new sense of closeness, too. Especially in a big city, the pain a person suffers is mostly hidden from view. You don’t know that the person you’re passing on the sidewalk may be struggling with her job or going home to a mother with Alzheimer’s. But September 11 was a shared grief that left us all trying to pick up the pieces, make sense of what had happened, and go on with life. It made you want to be kind to everybody, knowing how much both you and they needed compassion.

This is good—remember it, I sensed God showing me as I reflected on this love and unity. And I do remember, often—especially when I’m tempted to judge, be selfish, or focus on myself. I like to think about the oneness of us.

And so, today, ten years after September 11, my heart goes out to those who are still suffering the effects of that horrible day. I pray, too, that those who are still living in its shadow will discover that God has been searching for them, just as he was searching for me. For myself, I can only say: “Thank you, Lord, for a new life. Thank you for the sure knowledge that whatever may lie ahead, you are with me. I am not alone.”

Kathleen Genaille lives in Round Hill, Virginia, with her husband and three children.