I used to pray for blue-sky days.
(I grew up in central NY - a great place to be "from" but, also, unfortunately, a place of short Summers and marathon Winters where a "sunny day" is a rarity.)
I made many changes to my life in 2001 one of which was a move to the great blue-skies state of Virginia. I was there, at home on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay, when the landscape of our world and our lives was changed forever.
Shortly after the attacks, the sounds of jets and helicopters filled the air and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge/Tunnel closed as Naval ships and carriers left the Bay for safer waters out to sea. I was living in a Navy town and it was all too clear that the tragedy of Pearl Harbor was fresh in the minds of those at the helm. Hampton Roads (Norfolk/Virginia Beach) was on lock down.
Observing the activity in the Bay, I remember writing to my sister that morning, "We're at war, we just don't know it yet".
The attacks of September 11, 2001 brought our nation together as one (for a time) yet the lives of victims' families were torn apart forever.
"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel" - Maya Angelou
While victims struggled to exit the buildings that morning, heroes rushed in to help. One such hero was NY Fire Fighter McMahon:
Robert "Bobby" McMahon died in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 while risking his life to save others. He was 35 years young.
I didn't know Bobby, I wish I had. During the course of my research for this tribute, I've come to know that Bobby McMahon was the kind of person so many of us hope to know - or aspire to be.
Shortly after the attacks, I was given a ballcap which had been purchased as part of a fundraising effort. The front of the cap is embroidered, "NYFF", the back "FF McMahon".
Over the many years and a handful of moves, I've honored the cap and the memory of FF McMahon with a special place on the shelf. Today, cap in full view, I honor the man.
From those who knew him:
When he wasn't busy battling flames, Robert McMahon, whom everyone called Bobby, liked to make things. He built a haunted house for children with cancer. He painted landscapes and loved photography. He could turn mute lumber into furniture of distinction. Over at the Gate, a bar in Park Slope, Brooklyn, there is a set of benches that he created for a friend, "beautiful, church-like benches", said Julie McMahon, his wife and the mother of their two sons, Matthew and Patrick.
After the younger brother of a friend died of leukemia, Bobby volunteered as a counselor at Happiness Is Camping, a special camp for kids with cancer, in Blairstown, N.J. There, he met Julie, a pediatric cancer nurse at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, who quickly won his heart. Bobby and Julie continued to volunteer at the camp and, over the years, and to this day, campers and staff remember and thank them for the help and time they shared.
Bobby had just finished renovating the family home in preparation for the birth of their second child. Julie was five and a half months pregnant with their second child, Patrick, when Bobby died.
"He put so many things in his life of 35 years that most people will never put into 70 years," said Julie.
And indeed he had.
At his firehouse, Ladder Company 20 on Lafayette Street, he was the one who set up the Christmas tree every year, stringing it with lights. He was a good cook, too, which meant clean plates and gratitude all around. He could put together a company-size pan of lasagna so impressive that somebody once slipped the recipe to GQ magazine which ran it as a "guy food" feature.
"You've got to use fresh Italian parsley, " he told GQ. "It's the fresh ingredients women love."
"I used to call him "MacGyver," said his friend Mike Hopkins, who worked with him for eight years, "because he pretty much could do anything. If he didn't know how to do something, he would do it anyway, and he would do it really well."
Bobby McMahon will be remembered by many people in many special ways.
One friend named his newborn son Robert after Bobby McMahon. And when NYC Mayor Bloomberg signed into law the naming of 97 streets in the City, Bobby received his own street in Brooklyn; Bobby McMahon Way.
I find poetry and wisdom in that street name.
There is a place of shattered brokenness in us from that blue-sky Tuesday morning eight years ago. We feel we'll never be the same. For so many, a loss of innocence.
Still numb by the loss, Ground Zero marks the very center of our being. Life goes on, yet we're changed in so many ways; broken on the inside, vulnerable from without.
Anne Finger once wrote, "Part of getting over it is knowing that you will never get over it".
Perhaps that's the emotional roadmap - the only way out and through the horror of 09/11/01; acceptance. But, in order to do so, when so many parts of our being want to hold on to the angst, scream, shout and be angry, we must not close our hearts and minds.
Just as the victims and heroes of that day believed in the possibility of escape, rescue and survival, so, too, must we hold tight to the hope of a better tomorrow.
September 11, 2001 must be a story of openness. We must let the darkest day bring new Light. To be open is to recognize the possibilities of bringing peace into our world; into the midst of noise and distraction when we are overwhelmed.
Choosing openness enables us to bring mercy and compassion into our lives and to the many lives we touch because, as with the many lives touched by Bobby McMahon, "...people will never forget how you made them feel".
That's the Bobby McMahon way.
I don't pray for blue-sky days anymore. I pray for days.
Perhaps the best way to remember and honor the 2996 victims and heroes of 9/11 is to remember and honor the people, places and passions of their lives:
Happiness Is Camping (a free Summer camp for kids with cancer) has built a new Gym and Recreation Building in honor of Bobby McMahon. "Rainy days at camp are now filled with sunshine".
If you would like to make a contribution in Bobby's honor: http://www.happinessiscamping.org/
My personal thanks to the following for providing informational support for this project; legacy.com/Sept11, nyc.gov, HappinessIsCamping.org, bravestmemorial.net