We’ve had the chance in these days leading up to the tenth anniversary of 9/11 to remember heroes and victims in New York, Washington, and Shanksville. We’re hearing once again amazing stories of courage gained and innocence lost.
One of the poignant stories to emerge from the ashes of 9/11 is one you’re not likely to know. It happened in the intensive care unit at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, Mo.
I was the chaplain assigned to the neurosurgical ICU. It was in a corner of the hospital, set off by itself. The day or so after 9/11, a new patient arrived having taken a trip that started first with a private jet, the final miles by ambulance. The patient was a hometown KC boy who had been in lower Manhattan on business for a Transit Authority project. When the first plane hit the World Trade Center, he called his wife in Missouri to say he was okay. The second plane hit, but he didn’t make a second call. He couldn’t. Debris struck him in the head, leaving him unconscious from a bleeding brain and numerous other injuries. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
He was part of one of those big Irish Catholic families of 13 children that have lived and grown and expanded in Kansas City for generations. His wife and their parents, a grandparent or two, plus siblings, aunts, uncles, 34 nieces and nephews with uncountable cousins sat vigil in the St. Luke’s waiting room. The family was hopeful, but the prognosis didn’t give them much to support such optimism.
Father John* had a stroke close to 9/11. He’d been brought to the neurosurgical ICU, first for quick response, then for recovery. He was in his late 60s, his eyes full of priestly wisdom. He was a slight man, at least he appeared so in the his hospital bed; then again, many people were dwarfed in comparison to hospital beds, looking waifish in hospital gowns and covered in blue cotton blankets, looking vulnerable in the shadow of monitors, IV drips and tubes.
The priest with the soft creases around his eyes and dark brows lay quietly, day by day. The stroke made it impossible for him to speak, but that didn’t stop him from communicating. Our visits were brief because I was uncomfortable holding a one-way monologue, especially as a Protestant chaplain with a Roman Catholic priest.
There had been little I could do for the young man, at least directly. My care, such as it was, centered on the family. For them, pastoral care and a chaplain meant a single male in a black suit with a white clerical collar who answered to the name “Father.” A forty-year-old woman didn’t really meet their expectations or needs. A few of the young man’s family, mostly women near my age, asked me to pray with them around the bedside from time to time, probably figuring it couldn’t hurt. But I suspected that they believed the real work of God could only be done by a Roman Catholic priest. Maybe they were right.
I never saw visitors in Father John’s room. When I stopped by each day, he seemed content. One afternoon about a week after 9/11, he nodded towards his neighbor. He indicated in his silent way that he was praying for the young man, his wife and the entire family. As I “listened” to him speak so eloquently by nods, limited gestures and eye movements, I was profoundly touched by this man who was in need of God’s healing touch himself, but who was focused on his neighbor – literally facing the wall the separated them and praying around the clock.
Father John was living out his priestly vocation, even from his own hospital bed and without the power of speech and the gift of words. He lay motionless, yet he was as active in his work as if he’d been busy with typical parish work. For an intense period of time his parish was one man and his family. God did not abandon him in his need, nor did he remove his call, even temporarily, while he was ill. Instead, it was as if God fulfilled Father John’s priestly call and expanded his vocation in that hospital bed.
On the other side of the story, was, of course, God’s graciousness by providing a Roman Catholic priest to a Roman Catholic family, just when they needed one most. God was there in our midst; that could never be doubted that for a second. I was awestruck at God’s creativity, at his kindness and mercy.
It’s not that I think God caused either the young man’s accident at the World Trade Center or the older priest’s stroke. But I think it’s remarkable that God put them in adjacent rooms as he worked out his healing in their lives – Father John to a full recovery and a return to his other parish, the young man to another sort of healing on the other side of death.
Who lived and who died isn’t the point of the story. In the awfulness of each situation – a young man a victim along with several thousands of others, and an older man facing an unknown future with a body that could no longer be counted on to work as it always had. God was present. He showed up humbly and creatively. Who else would randomly put a priest next to a Catholic during his last days? Who else would fulfill a priest’s calling, despite the absence of all that had been relied upon to communicate the Gospel, to celebrate the sacraments of the Church?
*Father John is not the priest’s real name.