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Doing Good

12 Feb

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When the world seems to be falling apart, it is comforting to see the people you love trying to put it back together. One of those people is my son.

He’s a quiet kid. He’s shy and unassuming and once you are lucky enough to get to know him, he’s hilarious and kind and genuine. He still needs to work on the regular teenage stuff like being nicer to his brothers or answering me in a more patient tone. But all in all, he’s a truly fine human being and I am honored to have the privilege of being his mom.

In the fall, my son participated in a Midnight Run. Together with his friends and our synagogue he collected necessary every day items we might take for granted: soap, pillows, a warm jacket. On a cold November night, my son and husband drove into New York City and handed out jackets to the homeless. They helped people find the right size coat, the color they preferred, and ultimately the jacket that would keep them the warmest. They handed out jackets until there were no more jackets to hand out. But there were still people who were cold.

A few weeks later, I saw a segment on the news about a company in Michigan called The Empowerment Plan that was making jackets that converted to sleeping bags. The labor hired to sew these jackets is sourced exclusively from homeless shelters. These women are trained and given skills that will hopefully allow them to find full time employment. It was an incredible story to behold. I told my son about the jackets and he began an online fundraiser via Crowdrise to raise $5240 (the cost of 50 jackets plus shipping to NY), so he could continue to help keep our city’s homeless a little warmer.

With the help of many friends and family, more than $6000 was raised allowing for the purchase of nearly 60 coats. And on a cold January night, our family and my parents loaded the jackets into two trucks and drove to Hebrew Union College in The Village to distribute the coats to those patronizing their soup kitchen.

As we unloaded the coats onto a table and started demonstrating them for the people there, a small crowd began to gather. A very tall man was the first person to take a coat, explaining how happy he was because he has not been able to find a warm jacket that fits him in years.

We met a man named Matteo who sleeps in his van and was grateful to now have some semblance of a bed. He marveled at the utility of the jacket and how it was an item fashioned for those in need with respect for those in need in mind. He thanked my son and began to cry.

When a woman named Fatima saw the jacket, she broke into a wide smile and laughter, confiding that this was something she could really use. Her joy was palpable. She took a jacket and returned 15 minutes later just to talk to my son.

“You did this? How did you do this?”

My son explained his fundraiser. Fatima began to cry.

“I can’t believe you did this. You’re only 16. Do you know what you’ve done?”

And then she asked him for a hug. And they embraced.

When the shift was over only 5 jackets remained which we donated to the soup kitchen. Several hours later, after eating dinner at a local restaurant, we started walking back to our car. On the way, we passed Hebrew Union College. Outside was a man in a lawnchair, laughing with his friends, and wearing one of the jackets we gave him earlier that night.

Things have certainly come full circle. To have begun the Midnight Run program in our synagogue and to have ended this coat drive in the basement of a seminary was a beautiful living brush stroke of tikkun olam: repairing the world.

And the world is indeed in need of repair.While the country’s delicate seams have been mercilessly ripped apart, small acts of kindness, like this one, are the thread we all need to sew us back together. Because regardless of where we live or what we own, people are people are people. And yes, you do things for other people. You do it because it is the right thing to do. You do it because you can. You do it because you can make someone’s life better, even if it is just in the smallest way, like a giving a stranger a fresh bar of soap. But you also do it because it makes you feel better too. And it feels good to do good. It does.

My son may not always be the type who sits on my lap to hug me, or who holds my hand while I’m driving and rests his head on it, or who comes into my room to hug and kiss me as a study break. But I hope he is. I will never be too old to accept any of those expressions of love.

Soon my son will be going off to college. When he leaves the home in which he has grown up, I wonder if he is ready for what the world will throw at him. But mostly I want to know that he is a good person. That I am sending my best work, a really good human being, into the world. That he will love and be loved. That he will be kind. That he will help those who need it. And that he will be good. And he is.

My son is already repairing this world, doing great things, and giving back. He’s going to make his mark on this world. In fact, he already has.

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The Night Before

10 Sep

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The Night Before it was beautiful.

It was September. It was the 10th. It was my brother’s birthday. We went to dinner at an Italian restaurant on Third Avenue. I ordered Penne Pomodoro after learning that the Spaghetti Bolognese I really wanted was made with veal and pork. We sat at a table for 9 people that included my parents, my husband, my cousin, my aunt, my uncle, my brother. My husband and I were only a family of 3 at the time and we toted our toddler son everywhere. It was a non-event. And yet, it was monumental because it was The Night Before the world changed.

We stood on the sidewalk of Third Avenue, looking up at the sky. It was painted with pinks and purples, and tones of burnt orange. It was still warm outside even though it was mid-September in New York. We all remarked on the perfection of the evening.

And then it was gone.

We remember the most meaningless details of time because they precede those that are the most horrific. That birthday dinner is etched in my mind, its details engrained, the seating chart and round table at the back right corner, still vivid. That small stretch of time we all looked up at the sky. We record moments of normalcy because they ground us, because we yearn to get them back, because we wish to just exist in a time when things are so routine we remember choosing Penne Pomodoro over Spaghetti Bolognese in what might otherwise be another tiny decision to forget over a lifetime of countless tiny decisions. And we want that night, that moment, that simplicity back.

The next day the sky was cloudless, clear, blue, until it turned thick and acrid from jet fuel, airplane debris, and the unthinkable spontaneous combustion of two buildings that graced New York City’s skyline for my entire life, their contents, and the lives of nearly 3000 people and their families. It went on like this for days, the smoke downtown visible from the park in the East 70s where I pushed my son on a swing. He had no idea how his life had changed slightly after 8 am just days before. He had no idea he was about to inherit a world I had never contemplated. His sky was still blue.

Perhaps our children are better for not knowing The Night Before, what they are missing, what simplicity might have graced their days. My sons sleep soundly in the world they inhabit, not aware of What Might Be and What Might Have Been. I wish it was different. But it is not. The best I can hope for are meaningless moments, simplicity, and a lifetime of clear, beautiful skies.

An Open Letter To My Son

19 Mar

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My Sweet Son,

I know there are things you are anxious to try: things that your friends might be doing; things that are wrong. Please wait.

You may not realize it but you are still a child. You have your whole life ahead of you to do grown-up things. I know you may think you’re ready for these things. You are not. You only get one childhood. You should live it as a child.

I wonder if you also know how dangerous some seemingly innocuous things might be. Perhaps even lethal. There are multiple reasons why some activities have minimum legal age limits. One good reason is because your mind and body are not mature enough to handle them. You should respect that. And while we’re on the subject, you should respect girls too. Listen to what they say and remember to be kind always.

It is ok to say “no.” Don’t let anyone ever make you feel like you are lesser than they because you won’t try something stupid. If you say no and that person gives you a hard time, you should lose them as a friend because they are not your “friend.” A true friend would never do that.

I know you are bound to make mistakes in life and it is my job to let you fail and make them. It is the only way you can learn. But you are too young to make some mistakes you may be contemplating. You are too young to pay the price of such errors. You are too young to learn these lessons. Trust me. I am your mom.

Most important, if you do make some wrong decisions, or if your friends do, your father and I will always be here. We respect honesty and will always have your best interests at heart. If for any reason you feel you or a friend is in jeopardy, please call us at once, even if you are unsure. I am more concerned about the safety of you or a friend than lecturing you on a rule you may have broken. I promise.

I’m not going to tell you about the innocent days of my youth when none of this existed and everyone just rode their bikes around until they left for college. That did not happen. There were plenty of ways for kids to get into trouble, just like there are now. And I’m not going to tell you about the car accidents, hospital admissions, and deaths of people I knew who made such decisions. They speak for themselves.

I’m just going to tell you that I get it. That I’ve been there.

Life is full of crossroads. No matter which ones you may reach, I am always here to guide you and to love you, even if you make wrong turns along the way. But please, do not make those turns just yet.

Love always,
Mom

September 11, 2001: A Day in My Life

11 Sep

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It was a magnificent day until it wasn’t.

It was the one morning I was watching the Today Show, instead of Sesame Street, while my 16 month old son played quietly in his room. By this time, I would typically have been in my office in New York City’s financial district, but because I had a court appearance in the Bronx, I was still home.

A plane flew into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. There was no further information except the image of a smoking tower amid a cloudless, sunny morning.

I called my husband whose office was in the World Financial Center, a building attached to the WTC by a footpath. I left a message.

I sat down on my bed, still wet from a shower, still thinking this was just a tragic case of pilot error.

A plane flew into the second tower. Another one flew into the Pentagon. A 4th plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.

The world was falling apart.

I  never went to court that day and the people that made it to my office were shattered and scattered and shellshocked. One work friend was literally thrown by the sheer force of the explosion, landing on the sidewalk, several feet from where she was standing, shoeless and covered in jet fuel. She spent the rest of the day walking back to her apartment, barefoot, and would later  permanently wrap her clothes in a bag, unable to wear them again, yet unable to discard them.

I still did not hear back from my husband, who, at the time the first tower was hit, had emerged from the bathroom to stare at a gaping hole in the WTC; a tower literally eviscerated. He and his co-workers watched coverage of the attack on a TV at work and when the second plane hit, he immediately left the building only to witness people jumping to their deaths on the sidewalk below. He overheard one woman next to him asking “they’re all going to be all right, though, right?” He turned away and started to walk from the bottom of Manhattan to the top, where we lived on East 75th Street.

I called him, repeatedly. I paged him. I beeped him. I used every form of communication available in 2001. I could not find him.

After an hour of circling my apartment, glued to the TV coverage with the babysitter–who had simply arrived for another day of caring for my son but instead found herself watching history unfold with me–my husband finally called.

“I’m ok. I have to go, there’s a long line at the payphone, but I’m on my way home.”

I watched as the first tower imploded, like a graceful horror show, a choreographed demolition, taking with it the thousands of lives inside. The second tower followed. And then there was nothing but white dust, debris, shredded and whole sheets of paper floating aimlessly, mayhem, sorrow, and tragedy.

My husband did not arrive at our apartment until that afternoon by which time we received calls from as far as Switzerland, wanting to know that he was ok. That he made it. Because, as you know, so many did not.

“The towers are gone!”

“No, you mean they’re damaged. But they’re still there. I saw them.”

“No. They’re gone. Completely. Gone.”

I still can’t believe it.

My father showed up on the shore of Long Island, to perform triage duty for all the anticipated survivors they would have to dispatch for fear New York City’s hospitals would not be able to handle the swell of patients. Not one person arrived for treatment.

For days we could still smell the destruction as far away as our 75th Street apartment. I could see smoke all the way downtown, from the park on York Avenue, as I pushed my son in a swing. I recall the eerie quiet and palpable fear attendant with my first post 9/11 subway ride. There was a large bang and the entire train car screamed. It turned about to be nothing, of course, but New York was not herself. Nothing was.

For weeks I would watch from my office window, barges carrying the destroyed remains of the familiar WTC facade up the East River, like a long somber funeral procession. For months after that, life was constantly interrupted by memorial services for NY’s courageous first responders that lost their lives. Traffic stopped, bagpipes played, it was, so very sadly, endless.

I want you to know, more than anything, that this is a good story. My husband came home to me and our son while so many others did not. The amount of families broken and heartbroken by 9/11 is staggering. I know several people who never returned to their wife’s embrace, their mother’s smile, their child’s laughter. There is no end to the amount of horrific stories this awful day in history created. I forced myself, as a start, to read all of them profiled by the New York Times in the months that followed. But those were just blurbs among lifetimes and families and love; not enough.

September 11, 2001 scarred New York City, New York, and the United States of America. That skyline, which I have loved my whole life, which relentlessly draws awe and emotion, was forever altered. It is and always will be beautiful. But it will never look right to me again. There’s a small piece of New York there that’s missing. That can’t be replaced. Or forgotten.