Saturday-- February 16, 2002—Ground
Zero Plus 158
DEATH OF A SOUL BUDDY
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
I will miss him.
To Feb. 15--The Terror Of Taxation