A Journey That Changed My Life

Guest blog by Janet Stevens

In the middle of the night on December 11, 2001, I began a journey that would change my life. At that time of night, it took only an hour and ten minutes to get from Danbury, CT, to St. Paul's Chapel in NYC, where I began volunteering one night a week as a massage therapist for the World Trace Center workers, taking care of my private practice during the balance of the week. 

Immediately, a few misperceptions were cleared up - there was a more diverse population at the site than the media had described. There were men and women, young and not so young, from every conceivable background and culture. They were plumbers, electricians, carpenters, teamsters (truck drivers), construction workers, operating engineers, iron workers, National Guards, Coast Guards, construction subway operators (didn't know there was such a thing), sanitation workers, transportation workers, Red Cross volunteers, EMT's and paramedics. And then there were the people that we heard about in the media - the NYPD, PAPD and FDNY. And, yes, sometimes they bickered and fought - brothers and sisters do that, especially when there is the amount of stress that they encountered. These people weren't perfect…however, for the most part, they were good, hard working individuals who had been thrown together for one incredible purpose. And, as best they could, they worked together toward that purpose - to bring closure to those who survived the disaster.

We would feed them and patch them up physically and emotionally as best we could, and they would turn around and go back, sometimes quietly asking a chaplain to walk down with them. We were serving food to about 1,500-3,000 workers every 24 hours, several sleeping in the pews, on cots and mattresses on the floor in the sanctuary and in the balcony. One meal wound into another meal which wound into the next and the next (oh, bacon - it must be morning)…cleaning going on around the exhausted bodies. One would get up and another would slump into the warm bed. One January morning I saw two female construction workers take the only vacant cot in the sanctuary, one sleeping at each end, looking like what I imagine twins would look like in the womb. This little Episcopal chapel held services to honor the many cultures that were represented - Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Native American, Buddhist. For nine months, it was one long day in the chapel. 

One of the O.S.H.A. representatives came in daily on his 15-minutes breaks and would play the piano for his own relief and for the enjoyment of anyone who happened to be there at the time. I sometimes napped for a couple of hours in the balcony after my shift ended at 8 a.m. so that I wouldn't fall asleep at the wheel driving back up to CT. I woke up one morning to hear a police officer who stopped for a couple of minutes and accompanied the piano to "Amazing Grace" - she had a beautiful, gospel voice. One night a musician strolled in at 2:30 a.m., quietly took out his guitar, sat in front of the altar and played for over an hour, packed up and just as quietly strolled out.

The lesson? Just a few feet from where the most evil of what mankind could do burned and groaned were the quiet ministrations of what the most loving of mankind could provide…not perfect, but the best that was inside each of us. We all went into the reservoir deeply and went outside of and past ourselves. It was not for everyone, and no one who went there was left unaffected. And we became an extremely close-knit family. This was appropriately called "radical hospitality".

I didn't dream that I would suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) because I wasn't in the city on 9/11th. However, as we came closer to ending the relief effort, I found myself crying often, sometimes prompted by a construction site in the CT area and sometimes prompted by nothing. As much as I grieved for those who lost their lives that day, my grief was for the workers. I knew what they had seen, the smell that would never be erased, the pain that they were having trouble relieving. Fortunately, I recognized what was happening. I had done simple things to care for myself from the beginning, pampering myself when I would get home from the city on Thursday mornings, talking to a friend who knew just to listen and not to question, getting massage on a regular basis. At times, I felt guilty doing these things for myself when "my guys" were down at the site 12-14 hrs. a day, 7 days a week. But I knew that I couldn't help them best if I wasn't helping myself. 

When the official work ended, I took a couple of months off to rest and get myself together emotionally and physically - and then I began to continue with volunteer relief work on my own. I go in to some of the firehouses once in a while to provide relief for the men there and for some of the workers, police and fire fighters in my own practice in Ridgefield, CT. I am not trying to save the world…I am taking care of myself and treating a number of people who want to be well. I am seeing to my own recovery by now drawing some of the scenes that I saw while I worked in the chapel and writing a book of the stories of what took place there. 

Once in a while, when I host the relief exhibit now taking place at St. Paul's Chapel, a massage therapist I have never met, who also volunteered there, will come in to revisit, and we'll meet for the first time. We'll embrace and weep, smile and talk about what a privilege, an honor, it was to come past the security at the front gate, walk up those front steps and hear someone say, "I knew you'd be here…thanks."