Today marks the 18th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. Like each of you, I am sure, I will never forget the horror of that day, the sadness that followed, and the bravery of so many. It is one of those iconic events that every single person that was alive on that day can tell you exactly where they were when they learned the news.
This summer, I had the opportunity to attend a play, inspired by the events following the 9/11 attacks, that had a tremendous impact on me. It was beautiful. It was fabulous. It was inspiring. And its message felt awfully familiar.
“Come From Away” is a one act Broadway musical based on the true story of Gander, Newfoundland in the days following the September 11th attacks.
The facts are (no spoilers, this is a true and well documented story) Gander, Newfoundland boasted the largest airport in the world that was THE place for airplanes to refuel as they crossed the Atlantic. When jet planes were invented, refueling became unnecessary and the airport became mostly obsolete. It is a “village” of approximately 9000 residents who have a unique sense of local pride.
As the events of the morning of September 11th unfolded, the United States government shut down the U.S. air space in an unprecedented action. All the planes currently in flight had to land somewhere, safely and quickly.
Thirty-eight jet airplanes were diverted to land in Gander, Newfoundland. Thirty-eight jet planes full of 6700 passengers descended upon this community. 6700 men, women, and children, from around the world, who had no idea they would end up on this island and, for so many hours, no idea why.
It was an ordinary day for the people in Gander until they heard the news and time stopped. For the plane people, affectionately known as “come from aways” they were losing their minds being stuck on their planes for, in some cases, over 20 hours. Many did not know what had happened at all. They were desperate to get off the planes until they realized they were in a dark and strange place that they never expected to be. One of the many beautiful songs in the show is “Lead Us out of the Darkness”, sung as the “come from aways” are disembarking and are greeted by Gander’s Salvation Army. In Gander International Airport, there is a TV with the showing the footage of the attack and there is a map that has a red circle and says, “You are here.”
You are here. Have you ever landed somewhere and been told “you are here” when you never imagined you would be? A diagnosis. A loss. You seem to be surrounded by strangers and you were desperate to learn what was happening, only to yearn for the five minutes before when you didn’t know. You are here. You have cancer. He is gone. There was an accident.
You are here.
Who will lead you out of the darkness?
In the case of the come from aways, they are greeted by compassion and warmth. The people in Gander anticipated needs and responded with kindness. And it didn’t take long for most of those who didn’t want to be “here” to acclimate.
Have you ever been to a chemo infusion center? A bereavement support group? An Al-anon meeting? These places are populated much like the town of Gander in those days in September 2001: half full of terrified come from aways but very often led and directed by people who understand and know how to help.
The passengers on the plane were not able to get their luggage, so once in Gander, the townspeople lend them clothes and try to get to know their visitors. The come from aways sing about feeling like they are at a strange costume party. Nothing seems familiar and many things feel awkward in this strange place “Who am I if I don’t feel like the me from yesterday?”
Who am I now that I am here? Who am I without hair? Without a spouse? With a wheelchair?
The musical’s most beautiful scene, in my opinion, comes with a song called “Prayer”. One of the passengers recalls music that he heard in a dream that came to him on his cot in Gander. He sings, “Make me a channel of your peace, where there is hatred let me bring your love, where there is injury, your pardon, Lord, and where there is doubt, true faith in You.” He continues the song but is joined by a rabbi singing about Shalom in Hebrew and then a Muslim chanting along.
“Where there is despair in life, let me bring hope…” Every day that I work in hospice and palliative care, meeting wonderful people in horrible circumstances, this is my prayer. When there is pain or fear from disease or grief, those of us that respond, personally or professionally share this sentiment. And for these displaced people surviving the days after the horrific terrorist attack, all faiths pray the same prayer. It reminds each of us that even in unthinkable circumstance, in places we never imagined we’d be, our needs are not so different at all.
Finally, the come from aways are granted permission to return home. Due to the incoming hurricane (!), the 38 planes leave quickly and all passengers cheer when they cross the border into the USA. They celebrate with each other and share the amazing experiences they had in Gander. It is on one of the planes that a collection is begun to thank the people who hosted them. (That collection began what is now a large annual scholarship worth over a million dollars).
Meanwhile, in Gander, the mood is less jovial. Those who turned themselves inside out for the come from aways finally have a moment to think about what has happened and who they’ll deeply miss. More somber feelings are felt when the plane people actually get home and realize the world will never be the same again.
For one character, this is where she learns what she has feared. Her firefighter son was killed at the World Trade Center. There is chilling silence as she weeps.
This portion of the play is a perfect depiction of survivorship. “We made it!” “That’s over” turns into “Not everybody was as fortunate”. Thankfully, many decide “let’s give back” and “let’s never forget” and then quietly they learn that this episode is a permanent part of their life story. Surviving this ordeal, enduring the hardship they faced, will continue to shape the narrative of their lives going forward.
The play concludes with a fabulous joyful scene celebrating the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks in Gander. The “come from aways” return and are greeted warmly by their old friends with whom they’ve kept in close touch. It is on this day that the city of Gander is gifted with the only piece of steel from the World Trade Center for a memorial. One of the plane people announces that every year on September 11th he closes his office and gives each of his employees $100 to use for random acts of kindness. It is his way of remembering.
The mayor of Gander, in closing, states, “Tonight, we honor what was lost but we also commemorate what we found.”
Can I get an Amen?
Today, #neverforget is trending- appropriately so. We can never EVER forget the attacks of this day 18 years ago, but we should also never forget the uprising of humanity and outpouring of kindness that occured in the days following. Too often, each one of us can be a “come from away” asking to be led out of the darkness. We find ourself in a place we never thought we’d be, trying to assimilate, and learning that our world is now forever changed. We can also be the islanders who offer kindness and empathy. We can be channels of peace for those in need. And if we never forget those plain truths, I think we do honor the victims of 9/11.