Lent 2006 -- Reflection
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Issue Date:  March 3, 2006

In the ashes of Sept. 11

A writer reflects on Ash Wednesday and her brother's death in the Twin Towers


-- ZUMA Press/Dan Herrick

Ashes cover the streets of downtown Manhattan on Sept. 12, 2001.

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. I cannot speak of Ash Wednesday without speaking of ashes and dust. I cannot speak of how my brother, William Kelly Jr., was killed at the World Trade Center, without speaking of ashes and dust.

On the night of Sept. 11, 2001, just before midnight, I took the subway train into Manhattan. My mother had called several times throughout the day and evening, asking me to go look for my brother -- to see if he was in a hospital, unconscious or unable to communicate. She was asking me for some sort of proof that Billy was OK, that he was alive and had somehow made it out of the Towers. So a friend and I arrived at Grand Central Station, now a ghost town. As we then walked from hospital to hospital, I could not help but notice the ashes and dust in the air. They were in my mouth, a bitter taste. They were in my lungs … my eyes. I often had to stop walking and blink for several seconds just to clear my vision. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The words I had heard all my life each Ash Wednesday took on a new and special meaning.

On some level, I knew that night that my brother had died. The emergency rooms were empty. The medical staff was waiting. But there simply were no survivors of the falling towers. And on some level, even today, I’m realizing that the ash and dust floating through the air that night was my brother too. This may truly be all we ever have left of him. As strange as it may sound, it gives me great comfort to know that in the early hours of Sept. 12, a part of my brother became a part of me. He was in my eyes. He was in my lungs. He was, and always will be, especially in my heart.

About 10 days later, I went to see a good friend, Fr. Dan Berrigan. I was consumed by sorrow and shock. One theme, one word in particular was bothering me … forgiveness. See, all I could think of was Jesus’ words on the cross that Good Friday more than 2,000 years ago. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I needed to talk to someone about this. Here was Jesus, asking God to forgive his murderers because “they know not what they do.” Well I couldn’t say the same for my brother’s murderers. They knew exactly what they were doing. It was a well-thought-out plan. It was premeditated. They knew they would kill thousands of innocent people. Fr. Berrigan, with his humble wisdom, spoke to me of the terrorists and their loss of humanness. They had lost the very essence of what it means to be human. They had lost their conscience. They had lost all connectedness to God.

In many ways, these words were very helpful to me. I could relate them to all the times I myself had lost my connectedness to God, certainly not on the magnitude of the hijackers, but as all of us in our own personal ways lose our humanity, our connectedness to our loving Savior now and again.

Isn’t that what Lent, then, is all about -- remembering those times in our lives when we have turned away from God and rejected our connectedness with all other humanity?

But the powerful good news is this: Our lives don’t end with the ashes. Our hope didn’t die in the dust of Sept. 11 or on Good Friday. There’s something more. We begin our Lenten journey toward the cross with this: the promise of resurrection, the chance of forgiveness and reconciliation, with faith that our connectedness to God, especially in suffering and sorrow, will become ever more complete.

Colleen Kelly is a member of Peaceful Tomorrows, an organization founded by family members of those killed on Sept. 11, 2001. The above was part of a reflection given at an Ash Wednesday Mass held at Fordham University Chapel in N.Y., on Feb. 13, 2002.

National Catholic Reporter, March 3, 2006

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