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I woke up early in the morning and ran directly to the corner bodega to buy a carton of milk for breakfast. On my way back, my neighbor, just on his way out of the building to walk his two coonhounds, looked up to the sky and said to me as we passed, “Man, that plane is flying low.”
That’s how my morning began on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, in New York City. I still fight back tears trying to describe and understand the misery that unfolded that day, and the long days and weeks that followed.
Most of lower Manhattan was cordoned off. You needed proper ID to show that you lived in the neighborhoods below 14th Street. The lines for giving blood were long with nowhere for the donated blood to go. No more volunteers were being taken in anywhere. The smell in the air at times became unbearable and burned your eyes and throat, so everyone wore masks. People sat on benches outside coffee shops and restaurants for hours on end in the East Village, with nowhere to go and nothing to do but share stories. The streets were devoid of any traffic, cleared for emergency vehicles only. Traffic signals changed in an exercise of futility.
I heard about a few friends that were actually able to get down to Ground Zero to help out in any way they could. My friend, Ignacio, brought an entire garbage bag full of socks that he had collected from neighbors in his building, for the rescuers' feet (layering socks was said to help prevent fatigue and blistering). Whiledown there, he started organizing supplies and donations as they came in. Another friend of mine, Kari, jumped onto a passing emergency vehicle that was heading downtown and administered massage therapy treatments to recovery teams. I, like many others, continued to sit in my apartment, slumped on my couch, glued to the television set wondering what I could possibly do to help.
The same news images played over and over again in a nonstop loop. Live shots from St. Vincent's Hospital. Live from Bellevue Hospital. Live from the Armory Building. Abby, my five year-old Bernese Mountain dog, after waking from a nap, began nudging me under the arm, asking to be taken out for her afternoon walk. That’s when it dawned on me. I looked her in the eyes and asked, “Are you ready to go to work?”
Two years prior to September 11, Abby and I volunteered with Chenny Troupe Therapy Assistance Dogs in South Chicago, working with clients who were rehabilitating from heart attacks, strokes, spinal cord injuries, gun shots, burns, and abuse. Research dating from the 1960s has shown that a therapy animal can lower a human’s blood pressure and improve recovery from heart disease, not to mention boost psychological well-being and self-esteem.
At the Schwab Rehabilitation Center, we’d set up a dog agility course indoors and taught the clients how to take our dogs through the course. Though it was mostly meant for fun, patients would focus so much on the tasks at hand that they’d take their minds off their own ailments. Because of my work with Chenny Troupe, it only made sense for me to dress Abby up in her vest and see if I could offer my services to St. Vincent's Hospital in the West Village, where some of the wounded from the World Trade Center collapse were being treated.
I called the hospital beforehand to let them know that I would be stopping by with my trained therapy dog and asked if there was someone there I could talk to about providing some assistance. They told me that there was, though when I arrived and met with the head nurse in the lobby of St. Vincent’s Hospital, she said, “They’ve cancelled any dog visiting programs because of the circumstances and events.”
I saw the exhaustion on her face, and in her eyes. We stared at each other in silence for a few seconds, when I finally said, "You realize that makes no sense at all. We don't do this work when people are well."
Just then four other nurses with the same looks of exhaustion came towards us, crowded around, and laid their hands on Abby, fawning over her. They asked me questions, wanting to know more about the work Chenny Troupe did with its dogs and handlers. I showed them a handful of Abby’s tricks that I taught her over the years—your basic sits, and stays, downs, rollovers, giving paws, retrieving objects, etc. I then taught the nurses how to use the same commands that I used with her, explaining how patients would benefit from working hands-on with therapy dogs like Abby. “It’s not just tricks,” I said. “A lot of it is just being present.” The head nurse said she would call me at a later date and that maybe in the future we could try something like this. Though I knew she appreciated us coming in there that day, I had little confidence that she would follow through on her promise. She seemed too mired in the demands of dealing with this crisis, unable to appreciate how Abby and I could help.
I tried to hide the frustration on my face, as Abby and I left. We paused in front of the Wall of Prayer, where people had come to hang pictures of their friends and loved ones who had gone missing since the towers fell. I stared blankly at the sea of faces, unable to fully comprehend the loss of so many lives.
All these people are gone... just, gone. How can that be? I mean that's his wedding day. That's her on vacation. That guy is having dinner with his friends in that picture.
And that's when the idea came to me. I phoned my friends Cathy and John from Chenny Troupe. I explained that I planned on taking Abby to the Armory, to Union Square, and to the firehouses wherever grieving families and friends were gathering, simply to be there with them. I had absolutely no idea what I was proposing, but I knew it wouldn’t just involve doing tricks and running an obstacle course. I asked for their support because I knew I was going to have to go at this on my own and make up my own rules as I went along. They assured me that they had my back and that they could offer advice and would act as a liaison if I needed it.
Wherever we’d go to work, Abby and I would just stand in place and people would come from everywhere. All we had to do was to be present for them.
Outside of the Armory and around Union Square, Abby greeted everyone with a smile on her face, a lean in her body and a gentle wag in her tail. She performed this very simple task tirelessly, for hours on end. A few people were curious and asked questions about what kind of work she did and what it meant to be a therapy dog. I said, “Sometimes just this.”
Others sat with her and cried, holding on to Abby tightly for a long private moment and then quietly they would get up and leave. Some just acknowledged us with a warm smile and whispered, “Thank you for your work.”
I finally felt as if I was participating with — and helping, at least in some small measure — my community. All it took was merely showing up, but the feeling was so invigorating and empowering. I felt less alone, less isolated, and more uniquely bonded with Abby than ever before.
The images, the sounds, and the lingering acrid smell that hung in the city air remained with me a few months after. Whenever I'd get consumed with the events and images of September 11, I'd close my eyes, take a deep breath, turn to Abby and ask, “Are you ready to go to work?”
And we'd walk to one of our local firehouses for a visit.
Abby’s presence and being, her rules and work ethic, were not convoluted with a lot of language. There was no red tape blah, blah, blah. The rules were simple. Just be. Her ability to simply be present is what helped her start the healing.
Written in memory of Abby. Photos courtesy of John Grady.