When the Selfless Acts of Strangers Helped My Family Heal After 9/11


With another 9/11 behind us and the media circus gone until next September, I always think about — and thank — the many people who helped my family heal.

My husband Peter is a very lucky firefighter who came home the night of 9/11. Many of our friends and neighbors did not. They were more than just names to us. Peter shared meals with them, bunked with them. Bocch, who could always make him laugh, Vernon, who could sing like an angel, Vinny who jogged through Prospect Park every day…

None of us had ever experienced anything like it before — loss on such a monumental scale — so we didn’t know how to deal with it. We handled it the best we could: by taking baby steps, by crying like babies, by reaching out to each other. Although the universal grief was overwhelming, it linked us together. It made us stronger. It made us one.

Then something incredible happened. People began reaching out to us, in large and small ways. And slowly, gradually, we began to heal, because of random acts of kindness from total strangers.

This was compassion on a grand scale. School children from Texas sent strings of origami peace cranes to New York City firehouses. Neighbors dropped off home-baked desserts. Local restaurants sent meals and crates of lobster.

The courtesies extended to the families of rescue and recovery workers were endless: golf trips to South Carolina, ski vacations in Vermont, tickets to Walt Disney World, the use of oceanside houses in New Jersey, an invitation to a three-day music festival sponsored by the San Juan Fire Brigade.

family in front of new york city skyline
Cathy, Peter and their son David in front of the New York City skyline, showing where the Twin Towers used to be

People all over the world tried to do something, anything, to ease our grief. So they did the most genuine thing they could — they gave of themselves. And we accepted. Very humbly, we accepted because we realized it was part of their healing process.

When Peter and I heard that an Italian resort company, Meliá Hotels International, had invited firefighters to a complimentary three-night stay at any of their all-inclusive Caribbean resorts, we took them up on their offer. Our first night in the Dominican Republic, Peter and I sat on the patio as our 2-year-old son David slept peacefully in his crib. It was beautiful in Bayahibe. “But you know,” Peter whispered, “I would give this all up if just one more firefighter had survived. Just one. Even someone I didn’t know.”

At the beginning of the summer of 2002, a New Jersey yacht club organized a day of sailing for rescue workers and their families. We were one of a lucky hundred chosen from almost 600. Peter and I immediately felt comfortable with Larry, his wife Ann, their daughter Sam and son Frankie, who hosted us. They even said our energetic toddler was well-behaved and had a little gift for him — a plush teddy bear wearing an American flag sweater. We still have it.

A cooler was packed with food and drinks. The Brown family spent a relaxing day with the Mozingo family on the calm waters of Barnegat Bay, but our thoughts were never far from 9/11.

Larry was a pilot for a major airline. Men like him had been in the cockpit of the jets that tore into the towers that September day — a bright, blue day much like this one —and lost their lives. Larry told us how heartbreaking it had been for him to see the New York City skyline for the first time after 9/11. He’d been grounded in London and was finally flying home, into Newark Liberty Airport. He recalled how the big, empty space in lower Manhattan looked — like a little kid with his front teeth knocked out. We swallowed back the tears.

As the one-year anniversary got closer, Peter realized that he couldn’t spend it in the city. Then he heard about a B&B owner on Cape Cod who was offering rooms to New York City firefighters free of charge on 9/11. We were the only ones who accepted. Bill gave us a charming suite decorated with a bunny rabbit motif which our toddler loved, proudly showed us his collection of red sports cars and arranged for local restaurants to give us complimentary meals. Everywhere we went, everyone said thank you, even when we tried to thank them.

We’d brought our bikes along and decided to ride the beachside path with David in the baby seat. It seemed a fitting way to ring in the first anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, through quiet introspection, in a beautiful place. But then, out of nowhere, came a tiny cemetery. We pulled our bikes off to the side of the road, sat and cried.

Fourteen years after 9/11, the grief has subsided to a deeper place, the tears have become fewer and the fear has become manageable. We’ve slowly begun to heal, partly through the passage of time and partly through the kindness of strangers. Selfless gestures from people who now feel like family. And we still don’t know how to thank them.

mom, dad and toddler in front of ocean
Cathy, Peter and their son David in the Dominican Republic after 9/11

The Mighty is asking its readers the following: Describe the moment a stranger — or someone you don’t know very well — showed you or a loved one incredible love. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.


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