conclusion of Chapter 3

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No Surprises: navigating tragedy with faith, family and the FDNY

Chapter 3 Manhattan, Meetings and Memorials  (First draft unedited)

Saturday morning Pastor Steve stopped by to say, “he was going for it.” Translation he was going to speak about salvation, faith, the gospel message. I knew Bruce would have wanted that. This was the time to show in words and actions what we truly believed. This was the “if we truly believe what we say believe it better be different” moment.  The service was scheduled for 2pm. The 15-passenger van came in handy. We picked up my parents and hung out at their house for a little while because we couldn’t arrive too early for the service. Things needed to be in place before we arrived. I, however, just want to get it over with.

When we arrived at Maranatha a huge American flag hung between two fire department ladder trucks. Firefighters were starting to gather. We waited in Pastor Charlie’s office with those who were speaking. When I realized I left my Bible in the van, Pastor Charlie handed me his and I was struck by the realization that he was one for many years who “gave me the Bible” each and every week. There was a sense of profound gratitude and comfort. It was awkward just hanging out waiting to start the service. Everyone had already expressed their condolences and small talk seemed inappropriate.

We were escorted into the sanctuary while Jon Werking played the prelude.  I wanted to look around to see who was there but that seemed improper.

The firefighters who had been waiting outside filed in to take their seats. Almost immediately someone started clapping. Eventually Jon stopped playing as everyone was standing and clapping for the firefighters.  My heart broke for the firefighters as the stress of the last weeks was evident on their faces. The honor guard processed carrying the various flags. The congregation sang “The Church’s One Foundation” led by Pastor Steve and the worship team from my home church. I love that hymn. The words speak such truth and there was a special memory from June 2001 attached to it.  When we attended the Sunday morning worship service at General Assembly for the Church of the Nazarene along with 20,000 other believers, all the words for the choruses had been projected on the screens except for the last song “The Church’s One Foundation.”  The assumption was everyone knew the words to that hymn. It is considered a standard in the church. The only problem was my girls didn’t know it. Bruce and I were shocked.  What do you mean you never heard that song before? We related the story to Pastor Steve who was equally dismayed but also realized that “we” hadn’t been singing those old standards in church that was quickly remedied. Hymns began to appear in the song list on Sundays.

Pastor Steve welcomed everyone saying, “we were here today to remember Richard Bruce Van Hine, who was a husband, father, brother, son, faithful friend, member of the greatest fire department in the world, committed church member and most importantly a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.”  That set the tone for the rest of the service. The clergy who spoke were all those who had spoken truth into our lives through the years. These were men and women who knew Bruce.

Pastor Jerry besides being a pastor had been a member of the FDNY for 30 years. He and Bruce hadn’t been on the department at the same time, but that brotherhood bond was real. He was visibly shaken and said, “I am hurting today.”

Pastor Maureen Garcia, my mentor and friend, shared a George McDonald quote:

 

“…Instead of asking yourself whether you believe or not, ask yourself whether you have this day done one thing because He said, Do it, or once abstained because He said, Do not do it. It is simply absurd to say you believe, or even want to believe, in Him, if you do not do anything He tells you…”

 

Dr. Dale Noel, a gentle and unassuming church friend, who had been a hiking buddy of Bruce’s offered a beautiful prayer. As part of the prayer he quoted 2 Timothy 4:7 – “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Pastor Steve would later mention those same verses and personalize them – “Bruce fought the fight, Bruce finished the race, Bruce kept the faith.”

Charlie and Craig offered words of tribute. Charlie mentioned he had only known Bruce for five years, but it felt like he had always known him. It seemed as they lived parallel lives as they both had started tree businesses in the 1970’s. Charlie spoke of tree work, hiking, firefighting and faith. He got a laugh from stating “in the fire department we say to be abused is to be loved. Bruce was definitely loved.”  Charlie included 1 Thessalonians 4 – “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”  I smiled when I heard him quote those verses as he didn’t know they were a favorite of mine. Sometimes little tattletales need to hear “did you know mind your own business is in the Bible?”

Craig had actually always known Bruce. Bruce’s parents and Craig’s parents had been friends since the 1930’s. Craig and Bruce grew up together. Craig introduced me to Bruce. Craig spoke of Bruce as a loyal friend and a keeper of secrets. If you told Bruce something in confidence Bruce didn’t repeat it.

Then it was my turn to speak, I walked to the platform trying not to make eye contact with anyone. There was a coin imprinted in the podium and rubbing my finger over it felt real, felt solid.

“To the firefighters, thank you for how you have cared for us. To the firefighters’ wives and girlfriends, we need to sit and have tea, soon. To my friends and family, I want to say I have no regrets. To my church family, thank you and I think I have gained a few pounds. Different thoughts have come to mind as I thought about what I wanted to say but I haven’t written anything down. Here goes. This past June, we went on a family trip to Indianapolis for General Assembly for the Church of the Nazarene. I had the opportunity to go to General Assembly four years ago and I knew if I was afforded the opportunity to go again I wanted all of us to go. So, we decided to make it a family adventure. The only problem became Meghan’s eighth grade graduation was Tuesday and I needed to be in Indianapolis on Wednesday. So, we made it an adventure and drove overnight. I can tell you two things – it was very dark and there are lots of big trucks. I had printed out my schedule and possible schedules for the girls and Bruce. I had a plan. Within hours the girls and Bruce had a different plan. I was disappointed and as I prayed the still small voice of God said “I told you to get them here. I didn’t tell you to plan their days.” So, we decided that dinners and evening service were together.  And we had the best time. I believe the same is true for today Bruce got you here. Personally, I would have preferred a different way to get you here. We showed you God. And what you do with that is your business. God is a gentleman. He will never force his way in. We showed you love. The Bible says God is love. So, you have seen God.”

I returned to my sit during a standing ovation. Pastor Steve would give a sermon entitled “prepared in and out of season” in which he gave a strong Gospel message. One more song and the Benediction concluded the worship service. Pastor Steve invited the two city officials to read the letters from the Mayor and the Governor. I got my wish the mayor wasn’t present. Not because I told him not to come but because there were so many funerals. The two gentlemen I ran into at Squad 41 were present. They were very respectful of our wishes and I appreciated that. Before the colors were retired Captain Vomero of Squad 41, presented Emily with a Memorial Firefighter helmet and Charlie handed Meghan Bruce’s dress hat. Years ago, Meghan had secretly added a piece of paper to the inside of Bruce’s hat so that when he took it off at functions he would see it. It said, “I love you Dad” and was signed Megs.

Captain Vomero instructed the firefighters to file out and again there was a standing ovation and thunderous applause. And then Emily, Meghan and I walked out the side door followed by my family. I felt like I was leading a parade. There was a silence that you could almost hear. As I walked around to the front of the church the firefighters stood in formation, I heard only one sound my heels on the pavement. The firefighters stared straight ahead I offered a weak smile. There were people standing across the street, but the silence was what filled my mind. How can it be so quiet? Midland Avenue is a busy street.  Silence except for my heels on the pavement. There was no bag piper. I decided I couldn’t do the bag piper that would have been the thing that sent me over the cliff. We reentered the church through a downstairs walkway for the reception. Cheesecake from the Bronx and coffee Bruce’s favorites.

Days before the service, Emily, Meghan and I came up with a code phrase just in case things got weird. We didn’t even know what that meant but felt it was a good idea to have a phrase. Our phrase was “Bubble moment.” You know how in comics there is a bubble above the person’s head not the dialogue bubbles, but the what I am really thinking or the what were you thinking when you just said that bubbles. If Emily or Meghan needed my immediate attention no matter where we were or what was happening “Bubble moment” was all they had to say. Thankfully my daughters’ friends from school, camp and church attended to be their support system as I navigated greeting people. There were no bubble moments just amazement at the number of people who attended and the distances they had traveled to be at the service. Friends drove up from South Carolina and were driving back following the service.

The postcards gave us a true sense of who had attended. Many were placed in the basket and many more arrived in the mail for weeks. The fact that people took the time to share stories and encouragement wasn’t lost on us.

The reality that our personal loss was part of something so much bigger was reenforced by the fact excerpts of the Bruce’s memorial service aired on the evening news and were mentioned in the newspaper.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

a little more from Chapter 2 – Sunday – No Surprises: navigating tragedy with faith, family & the FDNY

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Chapter 2 (first draft)

Joy comes in the morning

By Sunday my house was full of people with the best of intentions but it was too much. My friend and pastor, Steve Shomo, stepped in and suggested daily guidelines – Ann doesn’t answer the door or phone, Ann takes a nap every day, Ann eats three meals a day. The time for circling the wagons had come. My baby sister became my protector.  If you wanted to talk to me you would have to get past her unless you were on the list. Yes, there was a pen and paper list of people. Originally the list was people who needed to be contacted and people who I needed to hear from for encouragement. On Sunday, the list became a list of who had access to me.

Within days the list grew into a spiral notebook full of tasks to complete, contact information for the FDNY and NYPD as well as quick resource of numbers for friends and family. I started printing emails and placing them in a three-ring binder so Bruce could see them when he came home. One of those emails was from a young man who had spent the night in our pop-up trailer. Some people bring home stray cats or dogs but Bruce brought home hikers. Appalachian Trail thru hikers to be specific. The Appalachian Trial runs through Greenwood Lake so in the summer time there were hikers invited to sleep in our yard or take a shower or both. Bruce enjoyed hiking and he wanted me to enjoy it too but it wasn’t my thing. I did play a role in his hiking ventures. I was the drop off or pick up person. On ocassion the pick up involved an extra passenger who became a guest for the evening.

On Father’s Day 2001, Bruce invited two young men to spend the night in our pop-up trailer, enjoy a hot shower and a home cooked meal. We were in the process of selling the pop-up so it was already set up in our driveway. In our conversation over dinner we learned that the one young man, David, was a doctoral candidate who was trying to finish the AT before beginning his studies and the other was his cousin who had agreed to accompany him for a portion of the journey. The dinner conversation would also reveal that we were reading the same book – The Prayer of Jabez by Bruce Wilkerson. A tiny little book that had caused a big stir in Christian circles. Interesting discussion followed. Bruce prayed for safe journey as they continued their hike and David prayed for us. After dinner that evening, television news reports would reveal a horrific fire in NYC in which three firefighters died in the line of duty.

Bruce attended the funeral of one of the firefighters on the Tuesday which was also Meghan’s eighth grade graduation. He was running late and called to see if Meghan was okay with him wearing his uniform to her graduation. Little did we know how precious the photos of Bruce in his uniform and Meghan in her cap and gown would become. The receipt of a simple email brought all those memories to mind.

Valentine Roses

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On the first Valentine’s Day after September 11, 2001, Bruce’s firehouse, Squad 41, sent me one dozen long stem red roses. They send a dozen roses to each of six widows from Squad 41. It was an amazing gesture.

I cried because of their kindness.

I also laughed because those were the first Valentine’s roses I ever received.

For each of the twenty-one years we were married, I told Bruce “don’t buy me roses on Valentine’s Day. They are too expensive. The price is inflated. Buy me flowers any other day but not Valentine’s Day.”

He did buy me flowers on random days.

And I am grateful 🙂

 

 

Read any good books lately?

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I love books. I think I have a book gene. Bookstores are one of my favorite places. Libraries also rank high on my list of great places to be. The first time both of my daughters were in school full time and I didn’t have to work I went to the library by myself. I know that is sad but it was exciting to me. My Dad had an extensive library with books on many different topics. Many of his books had post-it notes attached to the pages. His soft covered books had sentences or entire paragraphs underlined in pencil with notes written in the margins. Sorting through his books when he died was a huge undertaking but my sister and I did it. More than once in our frustration we commented we were never going to buy another book. Of course that didn’t happen. I mean how could it?

I read real books but I also read e-books. I enjoy highlighting paragraphs using the various colors or looking up the definition of a word with a tap of my finger. I haven’t mastered finding things after I underlined them but I think that is my lack of me being techno savvy.

The little bookmark icon in e-books is helpful and cute. I have used store receipts, clothing tags and even a tissue when I can’t find a bookmark for a print book. Folding the corner over isn’t something I do. My favorite bookmark is one that belonged to my Dad. I actually gave it to him. It is currently marking my place in my guilty pleasure book by James Patterson – The People vs Alex Cross.  There is nothing worst than when your bookmark falls out. Well, dropping your book in the bathtub or leaving it somewhere isn’t great either. Really not good if it is a library book.

Over the past few years, I have talked about writing a book. Since last fall I stopped talking and started writing. Below is a brief summary of my work in progress:

Once a month, my firefighter husband and I sat down with our calendars to coordinate life. We negotiated, adjusted and agreed on our schedules. Each month, I ended that conversation with “No Surprises, let me know if it isn’t going to work but no surprises.” Most mornings I reminded Bruce and our daughters of the plan. Then one day it all changed.

No Surprises is the story of my husband’s line of duty death and my journey as I navigate a national tragedy with faith, family and the FDNY. The book is set within the framework of The Pile, The Pit and The Plaza – the names of the World Trade Center since September 11, 2001. The WTC and I traveled together on remarkable journey which I believe offers a context for many of life’s experiences. First there is the incident. The incident that sets your life in a direction you never expected –  a diagnose, an accident, words spoken in haste, job lost, betrayal, death of a loved one, a terrorist attack. The event that shakes you to the core. In the aftermath there is a massive pile. A pile of things that need to be dealt with – options for treatments, decisions about the everyday, paperwork to be completed, plans to be canceled or rearranged, funerals to be planned, keepsakes to be shared, memories to be cherished. Where do you start? The immediate replaces the important or maybe the important replaces the immediate. Eventually maybe after days or months or even years the pile is gone, and you recognize there is a pit. A void left by what was taken, a hole left by finally sorting through the pile. Now what? How do you fill the hole to make it whole? How do you move forward now that the pile is gone? How do you move from the pit to the plaza?

Blog posts have been few and far between because of my work in progress but I hope to share sections of the work in progress and other thoughts right here so stay tuned.

So to answer my own question, read any good books lately?

Yes!

  • Circling the Sun by Paula McLain
  • Judas by Amos Oz

 

How about you?

Life in 3 scenes

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Scene: Bruce sitting at kitchen table in small apartment looking through classified ads circa 1980.

Ann – “what did you always want to be when you grew up.”

Bruce – “a firefighter, a real firefighter”

Ann – “what’s a real firefighter.”

Bruce- “a New York City firefighter!”

Ann – “then go do that.”

 

Fast forward 21 years. Ann & Bruce live in small house with 2 daughters and a big dog.

Scene: Sunday September 9 Ann laying in bed as Bruce getting dressed for 24 tour plus another tour on Tuesday.

Bruce: “I am so blessed”

Ann: “Why.”

Bruce: “I’m married to Miss Ann. We have two great girls and we got the camper.”

Ann: “Some people won’t consider being married to me a perk. Yes, the girls are great. Yes, we had a wonderful summer.”

Stage direction -Bruce gives Ann a kiss and exits room.

 

Scene: Tuesday September 11 a beautiful late summer day.

Midnight – a knock on door.

 

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  John 15:13

 

“Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.”  Dr Seuss

 

Removed

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This is a reprint from last year. 
 

I haven’t walked down the stairs in the shoes of the business person fleeing the building.
I haven’t climbed up the stairs in the boots of the firefighters arriving to rescue and aid.
I haven’t run away in my bare feet towards the Hudson River to find safety.
I haven’t stood in my black uniform shoes directing thousands to safety.
I haven’t knelt on the ground to treat the injured.
I haven’t said a prayer over a dead body.
I haven’t dived under a car or into a building to seek safety.
In one way I was removed from the September 11, 2001 attacks, I wasn’t there.
I was 50 miles away listening, watching, praying…
And then
I walked in the shoes of a FDNY widow.
I walked in the shoes of a 9/11 Tribute Center docent.
I walked in the shoes of a keeper of the story.
 
I challenge each of us to remember that September 11 is an international tragedy but to many and not just those who lost someone it is very personal. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to yours.

It’s coming…

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It seems to lurk in the shadows but I always know when it is coming. I bet you didn’t know that it  falls on the same day of the week as Christmas. So in January when I look at the calendar to confirm what day of the week Christmas is, I know what day of the week September 11 is. This year it is a Monday. Next year it is a Tuesday. Those years are practically hard because September 11, 2001 was a Tuesday and it is too easy to relive the moments as they fall on the same day of the week as they fell in 2001.

As the first anniversary approached there was a sense of what was the right thing to do, what were the expectations, my dear friend Carol said “do what you want to do?” That was the best advice anyone could have given me. In the first years that meant Emily, Meghan and I were together just the three of us. In the years since “do what you want to do?” is still my standard. I don’t go to the National Memorial on that day because personally I don’t think I can take on the grief of all those people. This year first thing in the morning, I am speaking at a Jewish school in Manhattan, then venturing up to the Bronx to Squad 41 for the memorial mass and then home for Greenwood Lake Fire Department’s yearly ceremony. All of those are things I want to do, all of those things seem like the right thing to do.

There was a time when the anniversary felt like a large dark being waiting to pounce on me. I came to realize what I was fearing was a shadow. Bruce dying in the line of duty couldn’t happen again because it already happened on September 11, 2001. I also came to understand that if I was looking at September 11 the sun/Son were behind me so the shadow was in front of me but if I looked at the sun/Son the shadow was behind me. Walt Whitman expresses it this way:

“Keep your face always toward the sunshine – and shadows will fall behind you.”

Since I have been volunteering with the 9/11 Tribute Museum, the weeks and days leading up to the anniversary are a time I worry for lack of a better word about my fellow docents. Those that had experiences that I can’t imagine. Those that saw things no one was ever supposed see. I hold them and their stories close. I pray for peace, rest and healing for friends whom I never would have known if it hadn’t been for September 11, 2001 and our determining to tell our stories. In the Broadway show, Come From Away, there is a line towards the end that states how I now view September 11, 2001:

“We honor what we loss, but we commemorate what we found.”

On September 11, 2001 “we” lost many people and many dreams but “we” found that together “we” could go on. In the past week or so the people of Houston have lost much but they have found each other. At this time in our nation we need to find our way back to being “we” instead of us and them. So as September 11, 2017 approaches, could we honor what has been lost (opportunities, lives, dreams) in our country and strive to find a way to move forward together not as clones or mindless beings but as human beings who disagree on issues, who look different, who believe different things but stand together to educate our children, feed the hungry, aid the sick, shelter the homeless and at least offer a cup of water or a listening ear as needed.

I ask you to never forget and always remember the way we treated each other after September 11, 2001. My apologies to those who were not treated well even then but I believe we can do better.