Tag Archives: 911

9/11– The Survivor Tree

As featured on the front page of the Huffington Post 50 on 9/11/13 

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I’ll admit it: I have been afraid to go to Ground Zero. Since 9/11/01 I’ve probably been to New York City ten times. I have no excuse but just what I’ve said– Fear. Fear of what? The horror? Empathy? Sympathy? My imagination? The human heart? That there would be an element of voyeurism? That somehow it wouldn’t be memorialized in a way that felt reverent?

Then I met Christie Coombs.

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One World Trade Center– the day they put the antenna atop the building

She came to one of my Haven writing retreats in Montana. I started Haven in an effort to be of some sort of service in this beautiful and heartbreaking thing called life. Writing is the primary way I know how to process life. I write as a lifeline, as a seeker, and to understand. People who come on my retreats are made of the same heart language– kindreds who are often in a time of transition, longing to not be emotional victims in response to the pain that has come their way; longing to heal through creative self-expression. For Christie, that pain began on that fateful day when her husband, Jeff Coombs, died on Flight 11 from Boston, bound for LA, only to meet with a destiny that forever changed the world. And Christie is writing about it. We need her to. It gives us permission to see further into what we experienced that day in person, on TV, or radio, or in newspapers and magazines across the globe. We need the personal stories of the people who lost the most. To know what it was like microscopically, then and now, and she is not afraid to do just that.

She started the Jeff Coombs Foundation and works tirelessly to honor his memory through giving back to families who have suffered great loss and are rebuilding their future. She has turned pain into answering the most powerful question I know: what can I create? And she answers it every day.

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The Survivor Tree

A few months ago, I was in New York on business, and Christie invited me to come to the 9/11 Memorial. She offered to drive down from Boston, and to show me around, including the temporary museum which holds personal effects and photos salvaged from the site, as well as the church down the street which served as a community gathering place and held first responders as they did their brave and unconscionable work. And she showed me the “Survivor Tree,” a pear tree, which she explained miraculously made it through both the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, as well as 9/11.

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As we stood at the memorial, staring at the cascading waters that run down the footprints of each tower, and the bottomless, yet re-generating square hole in the middle…sending water back up and down, flanked by the names of the dead…I was breathless. I didn’t know what to feel or what to say or what to do with my hands or how to even stand there. I just went on overwhelm, watching people embrace and weep, but mostly watching Christie for cues.

She told me the stories of the people on Flight 11, whose family members she now holds dear. She humanized it– told me the way it went down from the pieces they have all put together, paired with the facts from the airlines. It’s gruesome and brave and terrifying…and it just…doesn’t…make…any sense. Not at all. I’ve never wanted to make sense of something more, standing at that memorial, looking at Jeff’s name carved in metal alongside the other fallen from Flight 11.

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I looked at her, running her hand over his name. Should I intrude upon the sacred moment between the two of them? Should I leave her alone? What was she feeling? Did I have any words that might help? Of course not.

She saved me: “There’s no sense to be made of it, so don’t try,” she said somehow smiling as I let the tears go.

“You give us permission,” I said.

When we finished our time in what I believe is the most reverent place I’ve ever been, she said, “I want to show you something cool.”

Cool, I thought? How could there be something cool in any of this? And she took me to the gift shop. There, she showed me a necklace–leaves from the Survivor Tree cast in metal. “I’d like to get this for you,” she said, bringing it to the counter.

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Christie and me in NYC

It meant the world to me in that moment. I have it over my desk as I write. We can all bloom, no matter what’s going on in our lives.

Life doesn’t make sense. But the action of paying homage to the pain, creating something that builds community and reverence out of the inevitable ashes of life, feels essential in our healing.

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Nobody wants to earn this VIP ticket, but Christie uses her “membership” to the memorial park with a sense of belonging; pride even, but always wishing she didn’t have to learn this lesson. She is a master at finding and building community in tragic loss, and the day we spent together at the 9/11 memorial changed my life. Thank you, Christie, for showing us how to survive…even in this.

To all those who lost loved ones in 9/11, I send you love from Montana.

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Jeff Coombs

The Jeffrey Coombs Memorial Foundation:
Welcome to the Jeffrey Coombs Memorial Foundation website. The Jeff Coombs Foundation was formed to assist families who are in financial need because of a death, illness or other situation that challenges the family budget. It also provides emotional support to families by funding special outings and fun events. Committed to education, the foundation helps fund enrichment programs in the Abington Schools, and awards scholarships to graduating college-bound seniors and students in private high schools.

The foundation was created in response to the incredible outpouring of support Jeff’s family received after he was killed on Flight 11 in the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks. Christie, Jeff’s wife, and their kids, Matthew, Meaghan, and Julia, wanted a way to “pay it forward.” They began raising money to help others in November, 2001. Since then, the Foundation has raised and distributed about $50,000 a year in Jeff’s memory.

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The Fire-fighter and the Grizzly Bear

firefighter

Laura A. Munson

The Firefighter and the Grizzly Bear
by Laura A. Munson

I sat next to a New York City firefighter this morning, at the café in town. He was visiting Montana; here to fish.
“Were you—you know…there?” I said.
He talked about it for a little while. I shook my head, speechless.
“So, where’d you go fishing?” I asked, trying to change the subject, for his sake, really.
“Someplace called Polebridge.”
“Oh. Up the North Fork. Beautiful. Did you have any luck?” I said, expecting the usual North Fork-sized grin.
“Are you kidding? I didn’t fish. With the grizzly bears? No way. I hardly got out of my car. Ended up at the saloon. I think I met the Unibomber’s twin brother.”
“Oh.”
His earlier words rang in my ears: fingers with wedding bands, briefcases with kid’s drawings perfectly in tact, melted running shoes… I lifted my coffee cup up in front of my mouth. “Well, the river is huge this time of year with the run off, anyway. Not the best time to fish. Did you get up to the lakes, though? Bowman? Kintla? They’re amazing with the mountains still snowy.”
“Well I had to go somewhere. There was a grizzly bear right behind my cabin. Believe me, I was outta there.” Then he pantomimed his rendition of a mauling. “But when I got to the lake, some guy told me there had been a wolf sighting, so I stayed in my car. And when I got to the next lake, there was a bear sighting, so I ate my sandwich, and headed back to the saloon.”
No, I begged into the arch that surely linked the two of our human brains together, somehow. Please don’t take that back with you to New York. Tell them you saw a grizzly bear and it was grand. Tell them it was just there, behind your cabin, munching on some grass. Tell them that for one instant everything came clear for you and you realized that not everything bigger than we are needs to be conquered, controlled, isolated. Tell them you felt in that moment, holy. That he did not attack you. And you knew, just for a flash, that there is grace in the world, that we cannot worship fear, that the hell you were apart of at Ground Zero, was washed in the hulk of this creature, that just wants to live. Just like you.
But I stayed silent, finishing my coffee. Maybe you can’t afford to see danger in beauty after you clean up after one man’s total betrayal of love. Maybe, after that, it’s one thing to see the man-made world for what it is, but another thing entirely to see the natural world for what it is.
“There were people actually riding their bikes around,” he said. “One guy was jogging! They’re nuts, man.”
I caved. “Those folks would probably say that taking a bike ride through bear country is a lot less dangerous than going to work in the Bronx every day, taking the subway, fighting fires.”
“Gotta do what ya gotta do.”
“I think those folks would say the same thing.”
“Yeah but you don’t have to do that stuff.”
“I know what you mean. When I first moved here I was scared to hike in bear country. And when I mustered up the nerve, I was always looking over my shoulder. Then I had a baby, and I used that as my excuse. But after sitting in my back yard all summer, knowing that Glacier National Park was only twenty miles away, I couldn’t stand it any longer. Now, I consider it a great honor to see a bear. When I lived in the city, I took the subway home late at night after work. Sometimes it was scary. But there are inherent dangers in everything we do. I guess I’d say that I have to be out there now. Bears and all.”
“I think that’s freakin’ crazy.”
“There are those who say they would rather be killed by a grizzly bear than in a drive-by shooting,” I said.
He just shook his head. “I got kids. It’s not worth it.”
“Me too. And I promise you that it is.”

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