Above my right ear was a long purple feather, above my left, orange; around my neck, a white plastic lei over a raspberry boa.
Deb, 12, coal black eyes set deep under auburn hair, studied my ridiculous presence with the loitering eye of an artist. I was the veracious mannequin that she unconsciously packed with… vaporous imagery? She’d back-filled me during the preceding week.
We were in the Kid’s Korner.
Fluorescent lights in the cavernous pier castled uneasy shadows while painting us in a skittish pale glow, a glow that whispered, “something’s wrong here…something’s wrong.”
Yes, something was certainly very wrong, Pearl Harbor wrong.
It was the third week of September 2001 and it was my first day having moved from volunteer to supervisor. The first paid job, though part-time, I’d held since force-retired in ‘95 because of disastrous pain. But several surgeries later, I could work again, even if very part-time.
We were located at the litter slogged foot of 51st street in the north end of one of Manhattan’s cavernous piers on the Hudson River. The piers were huge low slung metal structures hunkered along the river rented out at top dollar by the city for industry shows of all sorts.
It was mid-morning with knurled grey clouds troubling the river and washing family after family against the guarded gates on 11th street.
Trauma, too fresh, haunted the serpentine line.
Sitting on a child’s chair I held still as instructed by my 12 year old artist. As a child therapist, I performed as directed.
The Korner was a part of the vast Family Center run by the city, state and feds to provide relief for those families and individuals whose lives were blown loose by Bin Laden’s cataclysmic reach.
People who came for help dropped off their kids with us while they gathered in new lines for services to stitch their lives back together.
The Korner wasn’t just a day care center. We had volunteers experienced in working in a variety of ways with kids while being good at relating to children who were stuck in traumatic circumstances.
It was my job to advise the volunteers on how to work with spooked kids and how to relate to their over stressed parents.
I also taught them on how to recognize the accumulating stress in themselves in reaction to what they were seeing and hearing. I advised them about secondary post traumatic stress disorder and let them know when it was time to leave the work behind and care for themselves.
When a volunteer identified a child she or he thought might be in trouble they referred the child to me as I had specialized in post traumatic stress disorder.
After Deb was referred to me, I observed her play for a time with the volunteer with the idea of either advising the volunteer, or, if needed, gradually enter, as I did, her play sphere and gradually take over.
As I got to know her, Deb included me ever more deeply in her art work. Fortunately, this didn’t require much physical work from me as my body in those early months at ground zero was still rattling around at its.
Mostly, it was the pain that would several years later be diagnosed as arachnoiditis in my lower spine as well as the degenerative disease in my cervical vertebrae in addition to fibro.
All Deb required of me was my quiet, still presence in a small wooden school chair where she could apply all of her artistic talents to express who knew what as applied all manner of gewgaws to my head, doing so in a manner that everyone could see me.
The rest of my body, my pain, disappeared.
I was simply her medium, a medium feeling its way deeper into the presence of an unexpressed horror, an unnamed agony.
But always the accouterments were attached ever nearer my eyes gradually tunneling my vision forcing me to see…what?
Each hour spent with Deb was like spending an hour in a anesthesia chamber where I was bathed in an opioid mist: I felt no pain as my vision tunneled ever more narrowly. As her agony brushed its cold fingers across my heart my pain receded further.
After two weeks her parents told me she’d lost interest in school and was fighting uncharacteristically with her younger brother. She’d been alone watching the attacks from their apartment just south of the towers but had never spoke of what she’d witnessed.
After building trust over several weeks I asked Deb to tell me about that morning.
Alone in the back of the Korner, sitting across from me preternaturally still holding my eyes with hers, draining me of all awareness of my pain, Deb spoke in a low steady voice.
Instead of slowly circling her story, she stepped directly into it’s center as if she’d been waiting all along for me.
“They jump. I watch them all the way down. Some jump from the flames…together holding hands.” With no change in emotion, Deb added, “It sounds like giant pumpkins exploding…when they hit the street, I mean.” Her pupils pinpoint.
My heart stilled: present tense. PTSD.
After a long pause: “The worst?” I asked, holding her cold hand.
I could feel her tears pulse where no child should have to feel what she saw.
My body ceased except for my tears piling waves against my watery eyes.
“Hanging on the street lamps,” she whispered.
Time had collapsed for Deb.
She paused, dreamy, eyes falling away.
“Meat,” she whispered hoarsely, “meat.”
I held her hands, her hands, hands…
I didn’t feel my body until late the next morning.
Connecting with the depth of the emotion of another is the best anesthesia.
I’m not special, we can all try this.
It changes what and who we are.
Volunteering if we can, on suicide or other hotlines is among the best anesthetics. The anesthetizing effects lasts hours, the effects on who we are, longer.
So, so much longer when we reach deeply beyond ourselves.