Wednesday, October 3, 2007


Greater love has no one than this,
that he lay down his life for his friends.
John 15:13

At 8:46 a.m. on September 11, 2001, Abe Zelmanowitz, an employee of Blue Cross Blue Shield, was at his job on the 27th floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center when American Airlines flight 11, hijacked by Al-Qaeda terrorists, slammed into the tower. Abe could have escaped the inferno, but he chose to wait in the stairwell with Ed Beyea, his wheelchair-bound, paraplegic coworker and good buddy, who was unable to make the trip down the many flights of stairs. Patiently, Abe stood by his friend’s side as hundreds of people from the upper floors fled past them on their way down, and as rescue workers passed them on their way up to assist with evacuation. In Abe’s last call to his family, he indicated that everything was OK because a firefighter was there. Abe, Ed, and Capt. Burke of Manhattan’s Engine 21 perished together when the tower collapsed at 10:28 a.m.

My stomach lurched and tears stung my eyes as I first heard this story while listening to Barbara Kingsolver’s Small Wonders in my van. Shocked, stunned, and saddened, my first thought was, “Could I be that brave, that sacrificial, and give my life so another human being would not have to perish alone?” For the first time, I was able to actually picture myself trapped in a WTC tower, flooded with adrenalin, panic-stricken, and overwhelmed with fear.
My next thought was a silent, wordless prayer. I depended on God to decipher the gut-full of feelings. Slowly, the thoughts and words took shape. I wondered, do I pray, “Lord, please spare me and my loved ones from ever having to face such agony,” or do I pray, “Lord, if I’m ever in such a situation, give me the courage and strength to not put myself first and abandon someone else”?

I picture me choosing to take care of myself, and I detest and shutter at this ignoble image. If I were to survive, I think I would never be able to forgive myself. “What if it had been me – or one of my loved ones – in that wheel chair?” No. I could never forgive myself.
Years ago, while our family was hiking through a sun-baked riverbed on Manitoulin Island, in Lake Huron, Beth, who was around four at the time, spotted movement among the rocks. Pointing in the direction of the rocky riverbank, her voice laced with fear and curiosity, she called our attention to what she had seen. Rex began removing the rocks to reveal the lurking presence – of a big, black snake. I abhor snakes and immediately turned and began to put as much distance between me and that horrible reptile as I could. Then, just as quickly, I remembered Beth and rushed back to get her.

How could I have forgotten to protect my child? How could I have thought only of myself? “Terrible mother!” “Bad mother!” the voices in my head screeched and howled. Rex’s assurance that the snake was harmless did nothing to assuage my guilt. It didn’t matter that the situation turned out to be benign. I had just proven myself a disgrace as a mother. If my maternal instinct to protect my child was so easily preempted by my own instinct for self-preservation, I can’t imagine myself behaving any more honorably on behalf of a stranger or acquaintance. If a snake could instill such fear in me that I would abandon my own child, how much greater would be my fear and cowardice in the face of unimaginable danger!

“Oh, Lord, please spare me and my loved ones from ever having to face such agony,” and, “Lord, if I’m ever in such a situation, give me the courage and strength to not put myself first and abandon someone else.”

Of this I am certain: If I am courageous, and die, Grace will be present; if I am courageous and survive, Grace will be there; and if I flee in fear and self-preservation, Grace will seek me out and be with me in my shame and inability to forgive myself. Grace will be there.

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