Subject: An Angel in the Mist

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    An Angel in the Mist
    By Joyce C. Mills, Ph.D. 

    Each year I feel it important to share this story in honor of those who gave so much on September 11, 2001 and for those who continue to do so much for our lives. If you have read it before, perhaps while reading it again you will be reminded of those who touch your heart in ways of memory, valor and appreciation.


    Have you ever met someone that changed your life in a split second? Meeting Tim, a Fireman one of Brooklyn’s finest, provided such an experience for me.

    It was early evening on Sunday, January 6th, when I first saw Tim. I had been hired as a consultant and program developer on a special project with a team of trauma experts designed to help the children and families that were affected by the tragedy of 9/11. My contribution to the team was based on a three-part healing project I created nine years earlier for the children and families on the remote west side of the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i in response to the devastation experienced by Hurricane Iniki. Ironically, the hurricane hit the island on September 11, 1992. Rather than the typical forms of debriefing, the program was based on natural healing abilities and resilience.

    After nonstop days and sleep-deprived nights of eating Dunkin’ Donuts, drinking coffee, and taking “Emer’gen-C” vitamins, while developing, redeveloping, and refining this special program, I knew that I had to go to Ground Zero to meditate and pray. There would be no way I could work with the families and children without visiting and paying my respects prior to our first meeting. And so, on January 6th, my dear friend and colleague, CharlesEtta (Charlee) Sutton bundled up and I drove into New York from New Jersey to the site of Ground Zero.

    As we drove, Charlee and I talked about our feelings of sadness coupled with fears related to what we were expecting to see or feel. When we arrived, the lines of people waiting to go onto the platform set up to view the actual site were endless. One police officer told us that the wait to walk onto the platform was over three hours. Knowing we were unable to wait that long, we decided to walk on the sidewalk around the site and pay respects in another way. I had brought a braid of sweetgrass with me, which is a Native American sacred herb used for healing and prayer.

    Tears filled our eyes as we silently walked by the thousands of letters, cards, pictures, posters, candles, flowers, teddy bears, and religious articles that were left by people from all over the world. Each had visited to pay their respects and offer prayers to those thousands of innocent relatives and friends, whose precious lives had been so senselessly and tragically taken in a violent act of terrorism. For some reason, I still did not find the area where I wanted to place the sweetgrass.

    It was getting darker, when Charlee and I decided to walk down Church Street and offer prayers by a barricade which blocked one of the entrances to the site. Just as we got there, Charlee got paged and had to answer this important call. Because of the noise coming from the huge cranes still working at the site, Charlee moved away to make her call. I remained standing by the barricade to wait for her just gazing at the on-going work that was ensuing through the curtain of dusky light. It was during this very quiet and private moment, that I saw “him.” As if an angel in the mists, a tall, dust-cloaked firefighter in full gear slowly lumbered his way across the fallen debris towards the opening in the barricade.

    As he approached, I wondered if it would be appropriate to talk with him at this time. He looked so tired and worn from his daunting task. As he turned to leave the site, I saw his name written on the back of his jacket. Reflexively, and almost in a whisper, I exhaled his name, He immediately turned and slowly walked towards me. I extended my hand and introduced myself. “Good evening, my name is Joyce Mills, and I am very happy to meet you.” I then reassured him that I wouldn’t take up much of his time, because I knew he was probably exhausted and wanted to get home. With a warm smile and an Irish-twinkle in his blue-grey eyes, he took off his work-worn, dust covered glove and extended his right hand. “Tim,” he said.

    It was then that I knew why I had brought the sweetgrass and to whom it was to be given. Reaching inside my purse, I took out the braid and told Tim that I had brought it from Phoenix to be offered in prayer for all of those who have been lost in the attack and in honor of those who are working so hard to help. I told him that we were not able to get onto the platform, but that I now knew why. It was because I was to give the sweetgrass to him. While still holding it, I explained that sweetgrass is considered to be a sacred healing herb by many Native American tribes, that it was braided together in mind, body, and spirit. I suggested that he should use it to help himself, his family, and his buddies through these many challenging times. He asked if I was Native American, and I told him no, that I am a Jewish kid born in the Bronx, but that I am a spiritual relative to many Native American People for many years and now live in Phoenix.

    Tim smiled and extended his hands, palms up, to receive the small gift. He gently handled the braid, almost as if one would hold a newborn baby for the first time. Tim asked more questions about how to use it. I told him that I have been taught by Native people to use it to bring a sense of sweetness into life. It is also used to purify a place when something painful happens. I went on to say that there are many places he could use the sweetgrass; such as in his fire truck, at the fire station, in his own car, truck, or home. I explained that he could keep it the way it is, or burn it from time to time. The sweet smell can help remind him of the sweetness in life even when there is tragedy. Tim said that he would definitely use it and thanked me for bringing it so far. I told him that it is he who needs to be thanked for all of the work he is doing.

    Tim then started talking about his buddies who died and the many others killed. Tim’s eyes were soft and tender as he shared his story. He was clearly not in a hurry to leave. Tim said that firefighters usually “get in and get out of a site rather quickly, but this was different.” With conviction in his voice, Tim said that he and his buddies were not leaving until every bit of debris was cleared. He said there were over 3,000 bodies including 125 firefighters, somewhere in there, and that he was going to do what he could to recover whatever or whomever possible.

    Tim talked for some time, while I stood and listened. I knew that meeting Tim was the reason I was there. He was the human platform from which I could view the site and offer prayers. While just one person with great humility, Tim embodied the strength, sensitivity, fortitude, and courage of every person who was working to help.

    As I write this story, I question what is it that Tim came to teach me that night? Perhaps it is about finding the inner strength and courage to go on when life strikes the most challenging of blows. For each of us the challenges will be different. For some it will be the loss of a loved one, for others it may be the loss of a job, or a personal confrontation with illness. We must each search our hearts in the quest for healing. Like Tim, it is in the service of a greater whole do we find the inner strength and meaning to face the fears and find healing. 

    "Inspire hope, embrace change"
    Joyce C. Mills PhD, LMFT, LLC

    602.923.2704 | 6609 N. Scottsdale Rd. Bldg. G-103, Scottsdale, AZ 85250 
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