The morning of September 11, 2001 I was 10 months pregnant and 5 days from my due date. I had 4 days left to go as a teacher before going on maternity leave and was only working half days so I didn't need to be in until 11am that day. MacGyver had a 7am work call and was in the shower when my alarm went off. I remember smacking the snooze button on the radio and through the haze of sleep, I heard the DJ say "a plane has hit the Pentagon.".
I woke up. Quickly.
I turned the radio back on and sat bolt upright in bed as I listened. It took me a minute to wrap my brain around what I was hearing. In that time, MacGyver finished his shower and turned off the water. I got up and out of bed as fast as my pregnant belly would let me and knocked on the door. He answered and I told him he needed to go downstairs and turn on the TV.
How many people uttered those words that day?
Everyone I talk to, every story I hear involves those words. "You need to go and turn on the TV."
We went downstairs and stood, gaping, at the television. We couldn't even cry. We were too shocked. I think the first tower fell while we were watching and that must have sparked MacGvyer to move. He bolted upstairs, threw on his BDUs, grabbed his overnight bag and some food, kissed me goodbye, and left. Still, there were no tears. I didn't know if I would see him again. In my mind, he would deploy. I don't know where I thought he was going or what I expected him to be doing but I did not expect him to come home. Mentally I was trying to steel myself to have this baby alone. And I was ok with that. Hell, after thinking about what the people in New York, DC, and Pennsylvania were going through, having a baby on my own was nothing compared to that.
Still, there were no tears.
I went to school. It was chaos and sadness all at the same time. We didn't get anything done that day (or for a few days after). We all sat and watched TV. And talked. And worried. And prayed. Yes, we prayed in a public school. Seemed like the thing to do at the time.
But still, no tears.
And then I came home. And I sat down and watched TV. And I saw this...
And, for some reason, that image stuck with me. Moreso than any other image I saw that day or any other day. I had read about Father Mychal Judge a while back. I knew who he was. I remember reading about how he tended to the families of the victims of TWA flight 800 when it crashed off Long Island and thinking what an incredible man he was.
When I realized who it was that they were carrying out of the rubble, my heart broke. And I cried.
Father Mike was so many things to so many people. A Catholic priest. A recovering alcoholic. A gay man. A friend to the firefighting community and a pillar of the community. Larger than life.
His funeral was reported to have the makings of one hell of a good joke. A priest, a lawyer, and an Irishman walk into a bar . . . Who else could have brought together a room full of people from every spectrum of life?
But his LIFE was so much more than how he died. His work as a priest and as a friend touched thousands of lives. He firmly believed in the concept of Alcoholics Anonymous, calling it "America's greatest contribution to spirituality." The day he died marked his 23rd year of sobriety. He believed that the creators of AA did more for humanity than even Mother Teresa.
He ministered to AIDS patients back in the 80s when society was terrified of the disease and those afflicted. He treated AIDS patients with the dignity that each of us deserves from our fellow humans. He was a shining example to us in that.
He ministered to the families of the victims of TWA flight 800 in 1996 when it exploded and crashed off the coast of Long Island.
Father Mychal Judge would become a familiar presence among family members mourning lost passengers. He made the drive daily, for weeks, spending 12 hours a day consoling friends and families who had lost loved ones. He also celebrated Mass every other day, participated in counseling sessions for people of all denominations and organized ecumenical memorial prayer services for the victims' families and TWA personnel.
"When that call came through it was the Lord calling me somehow," he told a reporter during a visit to his third-floor room at the friary. "I went out there that night and I stayed there for all hours of the morning, talking to people from all over the country and all over the world."
Father Mychal helped to organize services on the beach for the Flight 800 families. A news photograph of him at one such service, wearing his brown robe and gazing out to sea, was distributed around the country.
"The water becomes sacred to them," he said of the families.
Those family members became part of his ever-expanding parish.
He remained involved in some of their lives until his death at the World Trade Center.
A Los Angeles Times reporter researching an article on support services for families of air crash victims interviewed Father Mychal in 2000, and he spoke of his efforts to be a healing presence for people whose lives had been torn apart.
"In seminary, you can get all the theology and Scripture in the world, and you land in your first parish, and you find out it's you-- the personality and the gifts that God gave you," said Mychal Judge.
"He was absolutely hands-on. Religion didn't make any difference for him-- he was the same toward everyone, regardless of their beliefs," said Hans Ephraimson-Abt, a New Jersey businessman and longtime advocate for families of air crash victims.
"The TWA families considered him a saint."
- from The Life of Father Mychal Judge
I sure would have loved to have had the privilege of meeting him in person. Guess I'm going to have to wait a bit.
At the memorial, McCourt told the mourners about his own fantasy. Judge, he says, dies and is momentarily disoriented, because after leading such a simple life, he suddenly finds himself in a place with large marble hallways. A figure approaches.
"Can I help you?"
"Well, I don't know where I am."
"What's your name?"
"Judge. First name Mychal."
"Really? Some people call me Judge, too."
"Oh? And what's your first name?"
"Almighty. What kind of work would you like here, Mychal?"
"I'd like to be someplace where there are fires."
"We don't have any fires here. The only one we know about is very far away, and that burns eternally, because all the firefighters are here, and we don't tell them about it, because otherwise they'd be down there fighting it."
"Well, could I go there and give some people a hand?"
"No, Mychal. Because if you go there, you have to be a sinner, you see? And you're a saint."
"Could I have a temporary pass to go there, then? Could I be an honorary sinner?"
"Yes. But please don't bring back any conservatives."
At that point, the crowd, already laughing, started to howl. McCourt paused to let everyone collect himself. "And away he goes," he finally said. "That's my fantasy about Mychal. He keeps working. He never stops. He's trying to get all of us out of hell."
- from The Fireman's Friar
Father Mychal Judge was so much more than the priest whose death certificate bears the number 00001 - the first official casualty of the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He was a man - flawed yet repentant - who did his best to serve God and his fellow man.
Learning more about him in the days and weeks that followed September 11 gave me hope in a time where hope was hard to find. Those of us who had babies right around that time I am sure had doubts as to what kind of world we were bringing our babies into. But knowing that a man such as Father Mike sits up in Heaven reassures me that there is hope and that we will be ok.
I will NEVER FORGET Father Mike. Never.
For a list of participants in the 2,996 project and their honorees, GO HERE.