For Surely They Touched the Face of G-d–Remembering Jeffrey on 9/11

10 Sep

 In March, Culture Husband and I celebrated our anniversary with a night in a posh hotel near Battery Park City.  We ended our trip with a visit to the 9/11 Memorial. Somehow it seemed appropriate, even necessary, to visit the memorial and remember even as we celebrated.

The atmosphere was eerily like the memorials on the beaches of Normandy–all obvious signs of the destruction, horror, and blood are gone. But there is something in the air and light, in the way other visitors walk slowly and whisper, in the quiet, respectful aura of this place despite the hustle and noise of the surrounding city that took our breath away.

We thought we knew what to expect, at least in terms of what the memorials would look like. We’d read about the waterfalls flowing into holes placed where the foundations of the towers were. But nothing can truly prepare you for the sense of loss, and of hope, that the falling water and the seemingly endless hole convey.  I was reminded of a recurring nightmare I had as a child, in which I was alone in all-white room and a hole in the ground opened up, pulling me in somehow. The 9/11 Memorial pulled me in differently–the water was calming and soothing. The open hole is deep enough as to seem infinite. And, looming behind us the symbol of our resilience, the new ONe WTC or the “Freedom Tower.”

As we entered the sacred space of the memorial park, we stopped to listen to a guide talk about the Survivor Tree. Originally planted in the 1970s, this Callery pear tree had grown to about eight feet tall by the beginning of this century. It was found in the rubble of the crumbled towers, its limbs burnt and leafless, its trunk charred, and its roots exposed. A rescue team removed the tree to a Parks Department nursery where it was nursed back to life. In December 2010, the tree was returned to Ground Zero, to a place of prominence in the park.  It shows the scars of its trauma. But it has grown to nearly 30 feet tall in the past 11 years and it blooms each year. If you look closely you can see the new growth emerging from the damage. There is no question that this tree is a living metaphor for rebirth and resilience. That this tree survived what steel and stone could not stopped us in our tracks. The power of nature to heal reminds us that we are made of the same living cells as this tree and we too can heal.

In that spirit, we continued our visit to its intended destination, the memorial to my friend Jeffrey Gardner.

Each year for a long time I’ve posted an essay about Jeffrey, about what his life and death meant to me.

As the politicians continue to fight over the completion of the 9/11 Museum, leaving the memorial and legacy painfully, shamefully unfinished, I ask you to please take the time to read my essay and remember that while “America was under attack,” as Andrew Card famously told President Bush 7 years ago, very real people were being injured and murdered. The ripple effect of their loss cannot ever be forgotten.

(Originally written on 9/11/2006)

Jeffrey B. Gardner died 5 years ago today when the World Trade Towers collapsed. I had known Jeffrey for as long as I can remember, growing up in the same town (Livingston, NJ) and attending religious school at B’nai Jeshurun together.

More than a boy I grew up with, Jeffrey was a dear friend throughout my high school and college years. We were both socially conscious teenagers and active in our temple youth group and in JFTY, the Jersey Federation of Temple Youth.

Like all of the people who have signed his guest book, I can attest to Jeffrey’s special qualities–his goodness, kindness, wisdom, and sense of fun. I can also recall his pride as he listened to his father sing in the temple choir on the high holy days, his clear affection for his siblings, and his love for his mother.
Jeffrey and I, along with 20 other Jewish teens, spent a special summer together in 1982. As part of the JFTY Urban Mitzvah Corps, we lived in a fraternity house at Rutgers (later Jeffrey’s alma mater) and volunteered for various organizations in the New Brunswick area. We worked with the elderly, disadvantaged children, and the disabled. In the evenings we studied and played, enriching our Judaism and bonding as a group in a way that is immeasurable. Jeffrey lived his Jewish values and he taught us how much fun (and mischief) we could have within the limits of a moral, thoughtful life.
My father had a special place in his heart for Jeffrey. Not just because they were in the same business, but because Jeffrey was respectful, forthcoming, and friendly. In business, my father could count on Jeffrey, just as I could count on him as a friend.
Since Jeffrey’s death, I’ve learned that he continued to live those values for the rest of his far-too-short life. He read the Christian Bible and the Koran in order to understand other people’s belief systems. He volunteered with Habitat for Humanity throughout the hemisphere. He worked hard at his career and prospered.
In his obituary, his sister Amy noted that he had a sun tatooed on his ankle because “a good day was as bad as it got. ” Jeffrey shone like that sun. Even when we weren’t in touch for a long time (we hadn’t spoken for about 3 years before his death), I felt his presence and the mark that he made on my life.
On that perfect sunny September morning, a day eerily like today in Chicago, hatred killed Jeffrey. The irony that intolerance killed a soul who embodied tolerance is not lost on me.
I dedicate today to Jeffrey–as sad as I am for his loss, I strive to live a life of which he would have been proud, to be tolerant and kind and strong as a tribute to his memory.
Rest in peace, dear friend. You are indeed Z”L (Zichrono Livracha), of blessed memory.

Postscript, 9/11/2012: I think Jeffrey would have liked the Survivor Tree. He might have said that hatred cannot destroy what G-d has made, no matter what G-d you believe in. I know it made me smile on that sunny day in March, as I placed a stone on Jeffrey’s name to let him know I’d been there, wiped away my tears, and left with Culture Husband to face the city.


2 Responses to “For Surely They Touched the Face of G-d–Remembering Jeffrey on 9/11”

  1. Culture Bean September 10, 2012 at 11:53 pm #

    Reblogged this on Charlotte's Journey Home and commented:

    Important enough, I think, to post twice.


  1. Remembering Jeffrey Gardner on 9/11 | Culture Bean - September 10, 2013

    […] I wrote last September, even in the cold of December, atmosphere was eerily like the memorials on the beaches of […]

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