The VigilanceVoice

Saturday-- February 16, 2002
—Ground Zero Plus 158

Cliff McKenzie
Editor, New York City Combat Correspondent News

        GROUND ZERO, New York City, Feb 16--Men my age die slow, painful deaths.  We mourn our losses, and fight to rejoice in our resurrections.
        I came to realize that yesterday when I got a call that my "soul buddy" had died that morning.  A heart attack.  Alone.  In his apartment.
        I pretended to be happy for him.   I wanted his death to be joyous, not sad.  I knew he died in a good place.  I knew he had shed the shackles of the past, that his "sins" had been faced, that he was on a new road of life, the one all men must face before their deaths if they expect to not cringe at the presence of the Grim Reaper.
       On September 11 I learned that lesson.   Down at Ground Zero as the buildings exploded around us, I clutched a group of women standing beside me and pressed them up against a wall as the debris and dust flew around us.   Voices called out, "we're all going to die...we're all going to die."  The women sobbed.   Somewhere inside me came the strength to say to them as the black cloud of death hung over us:  "If we're going to die, think of something beautiful not sad.  Think of something beautiful!"
        I remember those words boiling up from guts, my soul.   Inside, I wanted to face death with joy, not sadness, with courage not fear, with conviction not intimidation, with action rather than complacently drowning in my tears of remorse and regrets for a life not fully lived.    At that moment, September 11, 2001, I knew I had lived a great life.  I was ready to die.
        I owe part of that feeling, if not a great portion of it, to my "soul buddy" who died yesterday.  His name is Guy.  I cannot speak of him in the past tense.   He's alive now, and will be forever.  He's one of my Sentinel's of Vigilance.   He didn't die to disappear.  He died to live on as a reminder to me that life is beautiful even in the face of death.
       He will be like the Port Authority policeman trapped under the rubble of the World Trade Center with his two buddies.   They had been helping people out of the Towers when it collapsed.  They were crushed under tons of concrete, but miraculously, remained alive due to a stairwell in which they had been standing that served as a small cave.   One was mortally wounded, his chest crushed by a slab of concrete.   He stayed alive, gasping to his buddy next to him:  "Just don't forget, I died trying to save you.  Don't forget, I died trying to save you."   After a few hours he died.   The rescuers found the remaining policeman and dug him out.  
       I think of my buddy, Guy, like that guy with his chest crushed, gasping to me:  "I died so you could live, Cliff.   I died saving your sorry ass!"   And I can see him smiling at me, as men do to one another in desperate times, the heart attack seizing him like a chunk of concrete smashed upon his chest, robbing him of breath, telling him the end was here, giving him time for a couple of quick thoughts before it was all over.
      Years ago I had one.   My life flashed before my eyes as I gasped.   It was like a rapid-fire slide show, starting when I was a little child, and flicking through my entire life as I lay waiting for the paramedics.  I had no control over it.  My body was giving my mind a last look.   But I survived.  Just a "scare," they said.   A reminder of my mortality.    Then, years later, I had colon cancer.   As I was wheeled into the operating room, I froze.  I felt that panic that I might not awaken from the operation.  Again, my life swept past, this time more slowly, this time with more fear because there was no Grim Reaper standing over me swinging his scythe--it was just my fear that raged.  I asked the nurse for a phone to make a quick call and dialed another soul buddy, an old man, who had faced death many times.  He laughed at me.   I laughed at myself back.   Then I went to the operating room, thinking beautiful thoughts.
       I met Guy last year.   He asked me for some help.   He was trying to get his life back.   He knew about my background because I spoke about to a group I attended on weekends where we shared our struggles with life, and how we overcame them.
      Souls spoke there, not people.   We all tried to shed our outsides and let our insides talk.   In a world composed of many masks we all wear, it's hard to pare away the facade of who you think you are and expose who you really are.  But I had been doing it for over a decade, and while by no means an expert, I was no longer afraid to reveal my "secrets," and quick to recognize who I was.
      The group was mostly older men and women--mature is the politically correct word.   Some attorneys, doctors, actors, business people, television newscasters, executives, artists, construction workers, financial analysts, former World War II B-25 pilots, secretaries, even an Indian Chief--well, perhaps not a Chief, but shaman type who worked at the Smithsonian Indian Museum down in Lower Manhattan and, among other things, was in charge of blessing the Indian displays.   There were blacks and whites and Asians and Hispanics--the potpourri of New York Culture.
      The meeting is held on the upper West Side, near Central Park, and I enjoy getting up early and going up to it from the East Village where I live.  I walk through Central Park, enjoying the seasons, opening my mind and soul to life so that during the meeting I could be one with the group, not a fragment sitting there fighting my ego to be "different from" or to "compare myself to," but rather to just immerse myself in a pool of human equality and singleness of purpose--and that was to evolve, to grow beyond who we thought we all were to become who we really are.  That meant emotionally stripping naked and sharing from our guts our fears, our doubts, or intimidations our strengths, our weaknesses, our hopes.
       I became Guy's mentor on his journey.    He asked me to be his "spirit guide," to show him the path that millions of others had walked, and whose footsteps I had found throughout my struggles to evolve over the past dozen years through trying to be honest with myself and others.
      Guy was a few years younger than I.  He was 54.   He lived alone.  He was the private chauffeur for one of the world's most famous publishers.   He had  the job for nearly three decades and worked 24/7, at the beck and call of his boss who had become his family.
      He was disenfranchised from his brother--a rift that went back many years.  He had a wife for a short time, and a child, a daughter.   Over the years Guy had become an isolator.  He lived in his apartment, turning into himself when not working.  Alone.   Seeking ways to escape who he was, what he wasn't or hadn't become.  The demons of his past crawled over him until one day they drove him to seek help or to die.
      I knew the story well.  I had been there.  All of us who sought to grow beyond our demons had been there.   We had all died.   Our souls had been turned black by some quirk of nature, some hammering of our self-worth imposed upon us by forces that no one could pinpoint, for we came from such vast backgrounds that there was no single gene that might be attributed to "our kind."
      In a way, we were like aliens.   We were forced to breath a new way of life or die on this earth of suffocation.   We got our oxygen from each other.   We needed one another to repair the giant tears in our souls, to erase the blackness that smothered our will to live--that drove us to the edges of self-destruction and smashed our élan vital as one's heel might a slug on 5th Avenue's busy sidewalks.
      Guy and I became very close.   He called me every day.  We talked about life.  We talked about the "resurrection of the soul," not from religious viewpoints, but from "spiritual" ones.   We often said "religion is for people who are afraid to go to hell--spirituality is for people who never want to go back!"
      Neither of us wanted to go back.
      I worked with Guy on the Humility Steps, a series of them that have their origins from thousands of years ago, used by the religious to smash the ego, to find a way to surrender to a power greater than themselves.    The process is like whittling a malformed stick with a butter knife.  It takes great time and countless frustrations to expose the beauty that lies beneath the bark, the knots, the twists of the limbs.   You have to train yourself to "see within," to not focus on the "ugliness" but on the "beauty" that will appear once the carving is done.
      Guy understood the process.
      We talked about the soul a lot.   We talked about its worthiness that extended far beyond what we might think of ourselves.    To expose it, we had to let parts of us die.   We had to bury the ugliness of our feelings of self-loathing and self-debasement that "our kind" seemed to carry like a great yoke driving us to defeat rather than victory.
      That's why the group was so important.   Around us were many who had walked the path ahead, who had whittled their sticks of self, and exposed themselves without harm.  They were our beacons.
      Part of me that had died was my energy to live.   I found myself walking in circles, looking for answers to a life I felt had left me empty handed.   It was my demons talking to me, but often their Voices sing louder than the truth.    I had wanted to renew my writing, to spend the rest of my life as a writer. I had started life's journey as a writer, but gave it up in a false search for money, power and prestige.  That quest almost killed me.
      Guy was one of my biggest fans.  He read my writings voraciously, telling me how good they were.  He offered to show my book I was working on to his boss, the publisher.   I didn't see how a magazine publisher could help me publish a book.  He wasn't into that kid of writing.  But I decided to take him up on the offer.
      He gave my manuscript to the publisher and asked him to send it to the editor of the magazine to see if he might know of a good agent.  The editor read my book and called and bought an excerpt from one of the chapters, The Body Bag Catholic.
      I hadn't expected it.   When I got the call I felt a surge of excitement.   Guy's faith in my writing went beyond accolades.  He got it before the judge's eyes.  And the judge liked it.
      Guy put me back on a path.   He didn't have to do it.   He did it out of love of my words.   He put me back in the publishing game.  He infused me with the belief I wasn't dead, that my words were alive with passions I had buried.   And, I got a nice fat check.
      But the joy of Guy was his evolution as a man.   I watched him grow over the year I knew him from a frightened, weary man beaten down so low you had to scrape him off the sidewalk, to a proud, dignified human being who walked with his head held high, convinced he was more worthy than unworthy, more human than inhumane, more alive than dead.
      He would call me with countless questions.   He read materials on the subject of human evolution of the soul as a child might a storybook, and when he came to something that either confused or enlightened him, he called to share it with me.
      Each time, I knew the old Guy was dying and new Guy was being reborn.   I could hear it in his Voice, see it in his gleaming eyes, feel it in his enthusiasm.
      Last week we met to overcome one of the huge obstacles to human growth--to get honest about the past.   We talked for hours about some exercises he had done, and reviewed his life, and all the pains and resentments that had accumulated until his plate was clean.
      When we finished, I was exhausted.   We had carried his bag of crap to the edge of the cliff and dumped it.  He was free.
      This week he died.
      But I know he died a happy death.  I just know it.   No matter what the pain of his physical self as he writhed in the throes of his heart attack, I know he was painless in his soul.  His body was cleaving from his soul.  He was being released, as we all are eventually, to enter into another world either with a frown or a smile.
      I know Guy has a smile, wherever he is.
      I will miss him.  


     Go To Feb. 15--The Terror Of Taxation

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