By Rick Hamlin
When a Hug Was a Prayer
I’ve come to think of it as 9/11 weather, the same crisp clear air with stunningly blue sky we had that day in the Northeast 11 years ago. You could see forever, which made it all the more poignant. In happier circumstances you would have been glad to have the day off, just to savor the sun and the air. As it was, the subway elevator operator had the right epitaph (when the trains were running again). “A sad day in New York,” he said to a subdued and silent crowd. “God bless,” someone murmured.
Not long after, when the sirens of police cars and ambulances still set us on edge, when the streetlamp poles and sides of phone booths were still plastered with black-and-white copied posters of the missing saying “Have you seen?” or “Please let me know if you have any information on...” I was crossing 33rd Street. The woman walking in front of me was clearly grieving, paying no attention to where her feet were taking her, meandering in a fog. Without knowing it, she ran directly into a cop on the corner.
I took a deep breath. A New York cop is not someone to mess with, certainly not to run into. He held out his arms, though, holding her gently by the shoulders and looked her in the eye as if to say, “You going to be all right? You lose a loved one too? We’ll get through this, OK?” Then he did something remarkable: He gave her a gentle hug, patting her on the back, before they separated and she moved on. If ever a hug was a prayer, there it was. Barriers had dropped, compassion took over protocol, love spoke.
It’s what I remember most about those sad days, the lesson I still take with me on the streets of New York. Watch out, look up, someone’s sure to be aching or grieving. Be ready to care. Be ready to reach out. A hug can be a prayer.