September 11th: Chris’s Story
I, like almost everyone over a certain age, know where I was on September 11, 2001, when the airplanes slammed into the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and the Pennsylvania field. I woke at my place, shook the cobwebs out of my brain, and turned the television on. The morning news showed smoke pouring out of one of the twin towers. The announcer mentioned something about an airplane.
I didn’t think much about it. I read that the new Spider-Man movie was to have a scene where the superhero spun a giant web between the two buildings to stop an airplane or a helicopter or something. I just assumed the morning news was featuring a preview to promote the movie. I took the dog for a walk around the yard, showered, changed clothes, and came back into the room just as the second plane slammed into the South Tower. I was stunned. It was like the floor opened up beneath me because I knew it was real, not some special effect created in Hollywood.
It looked like it hit my friend Pat Meeks’ window. I grew up with Pat. A few years older, he lived in a house across from my dad’s business. In many ways he was such a part of my parents’ household, he was another older brother to me. It saddened me when he left the Midwest to move to New York City for a fresh start.
I was positive the window that jet screamed into was his and that he was surely dead. I grabbed my phone, dialed his number, and left an incoherent message on his voice mail. I tried again a few minutes later but the line was dead. What I did not know was, for the first time in his life, he had overslept and been late for work. He was just coming out of the subway when the second plane flew over his head into the building. He remembered the rain of paper and ash around him and, strangely, the shoes that also fell from the sky. No feet. No limbs. Just shoes.
He stood there thinking everyone he knew was dead. They closed the subway. The only way back to his Brooklyn apartment was a long walk across the bridge in his dress shoes. Later that night I got the message that he was safe. Like Jesus’ parable of the lost coin, the news of him somehow surviving that awful event is etched in my mind forever. What I did not know is, as Pat was walking home across the Brooklyn Bridge, another friend I grew up with was rushing towards the rubble and chaos.
I did not even know that Christopher Hofer was living in New York City at the time. He was a couple of classes beneath me in school. At the time, he was more just another kid in school, someone I passed in the hallway on my way to class. I was in a couple of plays with him and maybe grunting a couple of words at him a time or two. I would later discover he was a good human being. I wish that I had kept track of him. I would have known that two years earlier he had moved east in a U-Haul with his spouse, Kerry, their dog, Quentin, and a cat named Puck to attend The General Theological Seminary in Manhattan. He was studying to be an Episcopal priest.
On that September day, he was one of the people that rushed towards those buildings. He took the ethic of Jesus seriously and that was where he thought he should be, where God called him to be. We rightly honor the firemen and policemen who risked their lives and health in those moments. Rarely are the ministers, rabbis, and clerics who hold hands with the survivors, stand silently with the families who search for loved ones that will never come home, and listen to the rescue workers’ stories, thought of. Day after day, he was one of the clergy that went to Ground Zero because that was what their hearts told them to do.
I know a lot of things about that day, where I was and what happened. I can even tell you what I ate and wore. When Chris was in the midst of that wreckage and twisted metal, I, like thousands of other Americans, was giving blood and tried to think of ways that I could help. I cannot tell you where I was the first time Chris coughed or when the first headache hit him. Nor do I know what I was doing when the doctor prescribed Halcyon to help him sleep or when the psychiatrist informed him that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
I am not sure what cities I was in the various times that Kerry found him in the fetal position in his sleep crying like a baby and muttering incomprehensible things. Dreams of gunfights, car explosions, and being chased were the crosses he bore. It must be horrible for Kerry to see someone loved suffer like that and have to wake him up to calm down and wonder when and if these nightmares would ever stop.
I am clueless where I was the numerous times Chris battled depression, anxiety, and the psychological costs of the trauma he witnessed, the feeling of helplessness in the wake of the evil brought on by men who had forgotten the most important part of their faith.
It would be like guessing a number between one and a thousand for me to tell you what I was doing the first time Chris went into the hospital with pneumonia, let alone the second. It would be a stab in the dark to even give you the years. I could not even guess the dozens of times it felt to him that he was suffocating. What he was enduring is popularly known as 9/11 lung. And two cancer scares. And other illnesses and aliments too numerous to mention. Certain days even walking was a monumental task for him.
With all figurative thorns in his flesh, it is amazing how Christopher somehow maintained his job as the Rector of the Church of St. Jude in Wantagh, New York since 2004. I wish I knew where I was when he finally had to go on short-term disability and step away from the parish he loved so much. Or the day Kerry lost his job due to missing work taking care of Chris. Those were private, painful moments never televised for the entire world to see.
They were going to retire in a decade-and-a-half and live somewhere in the New York area that they had come to call home. Instead, short-term disability became long-term disability, and eventually, it will probably phase into permanent disability. Christopher was forced to resign from the job he loved, too. They found themselves having to make new plans regarding where and what they would do with the rest of their lives.
I hope I never have to wonder where I was if that painful day eighteen years ago decides to put on its bloody boots and take another victim too soon, especially if it is Christopher. We claimed at the time that we would never forget. But a lot of the most important parts of that day we have. We are seemingly more divided now than ever. That feeling that we are all in the same boat has slipped through our fingers and disappeared down the drain.
It was never a battle of one faith vs. another. Rather, it was hate, which hijacked a faith and a viewpoint, pitted against love on that September day in 2001. The entire world stood shoulder-to-shoulder and hand-in-hand with us. Everyone gave blood, money or whatever he or she could. It did not matter if you were black or brown or whatever color of the rainbow you claimed to be. How can we rediscover that love? That answer can be found in the broken body of a former priest somewhere in the Cleveland area.
Trevor Soderstrum is a Story City native who has been writing columns for about 10 years or so. He’s been all over the world, and attended the summer session of The Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He loves to share his stories.