As a wife and mom, church volunteer, and small business owner, Ann Van Hine prided herself on being in control of her life. Until 9/11. Pieces Falling is Ann's story of navigating the very personal loss of her husband, Bruce-a New York City firefighter who died on 9/11- amid the very public tragedy that shocked the world. Her poignant reflections help answer the questions: • How do you cope when life lies in pieces around you? • How do you begin to rebuild in the face of all that has been lost? • How do you commemorate the past while creating space for your future? Ann's journey parallels the evolution of Ground Zero from a place of death and destruction to the moving Memorial Plaza today-and is a beautiful testament to the resilience of a woman, a family, and a nation.
When I owned my studio, December meant pulling out the holiday music and dusting off old choreography. The Nutcracker Suite for ballet classes, Parade of the Wooden Soldiers for tap classes and Bruce Springsteen's Santa Claus is Coming to Town for jazz classes were among the annual favorites. The classic choreography of the Nutcracker was taught as well as similar choreography that the Rockettes were doing at Radio City Music Hall all to help me stay out in front of my students excitement of the approaching holidays. One thing I learned early on in my teaching career was my students were going to be "off the wall" there was no way to avoid that so the trick was to go with it but to also be out in front of it thus the change in music and activity. December 2001 brought a bigger change than I could have ever expected.
Recently I had a conversation with a new friend about her Thanksgiving plans that lead to a discussion about "the old days." She mentioned that when she was first married she and her husband would eat two complete meals -one at her family's house and one at his family's house. I chuckled because I remember Bruce and I doing a similar thing. After a few years we came up with a new plan, odd numbered years at his family and even at mine. As my girls have grown, moved away and established their own families, I have adjusted accordingly. Gathering around the table together whether it is the fourth Thursday of November or any other day is a time to be grateful. And I am. Wishing you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving.
As we sat in the outside seating area on Rector St enjoying your tea and dessert, the reporter from Japan asked "How old was your husband when he died?" I responded "48." She replied "in your book, it says 49." Oops! The mistake has been corrected in the revised version of Pieces Falling but I still marvel that it took a reporter from halfway around the world to notice the error. I appreciated her due diligence. And wondered how family and friends who had read the book missed it but I think I know. The manner of death statement knocks the wind out of your sails.
It's been 22 years years since that fateful day that many still think of as a current event but to the next generation it is history. So how do we approach this day that is in our history books but many know exactly where they were and how they felt when they heard the news of the terrorist attacks. I believe we share the stories of the survivors, the first responders, the downtown residents, the passengers on planes that were rerouted, the New Yorkers who fled across the Hudson on boats both large and small. I believe we talk about the twenty year war that followed, the men and women who fought in that war, the policy changes that have shaped us as a nation since that day. I believe we share the courageous stories, the wow we should have done that different stories, the selfless acts of kindness stories and then we ponder what can be learned.
Five years ago at this time I was in Hiroshima, Japan with friends. We had added a few days before our scheduled 9/11 to 3/11 outreach trip to visit Hiroshima. Our band of four travelers were planners by nature so we had reached out to a translator friend to accompany us, scheduled a tour of the Peace Park/Museum and even been able to arrange a private meeting with a survivor. We arrived ready to learn and experience the unimaginable except our translator couldn't get to Hiroshima because of rain and more rain that lead to flooding. But we were determined so we bought those clear tourist raincoats for over our regular raincoats, we did the walking tour in the pouring rain, visited with the survivor and basically figured it out as we muddled through. To quote my friend, Jeanette "to spend a joyous time with friends in such a historically horrifying space that is now peaceful is one of the highlights of my life's adventure." I couldn't have said it better myself.
Today I am picking up my new car. My current vehicle, a 2016 Subaru Legacy, has 168,000 miles on it. It has delivered me safely to many a location but in recent weeks it has developed an oil leak or two. Nothing really serious but stuff will probably start going bad. My first experience purchasing a new car was after Bruce died. In the last twenty years I have developed a few skills I didn't have back then.
Tomorrow a friend and I are driving to Indianapolis for the Church of the Nazarene's General Assembly - it is the quadrennial business meeting and offers opportunities to attend workshops and worship services. The worldwide church meets in one place and it is amazing. I have been blessed to attend several times and enjoy visiting with friends. The last time I drove to Indianapolis it was a family adventure.
For thirty-five years the second Saturday in June was recital day. Even though I have been retired from teaching dance for eleven years, I still have dreams aka nightmares about recitals. The amount of organization and people involved in an annual production was mind boggling and when that production is a showcase of children look out because anything can and does happen. For instance one year, a music stand fell on a child's foot. The backstage attendant said there was a small pink mark but the child's toe nails were purple. My firefighter husband went to investigate as we paged the parent who informed us the child had painted her nails with a purple marker. You can't make this stuff up.
At this time of year as the leaves fill the blank branches of the trees, I am reminded of Bruce's favorite poem Trees by Joyce Kilmer. To be honest it was probably the only poem he had ever read but as an arborist it definitely rang true with him. He actually memorized it. Trees in general and especially the trees at the Memorial bring a smile to my face and memories of Bruce to my mind. "I think that I shall never see A poem lovely as a tree. A tree whose hungry mouth is prest Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast; A tree that looks at God all day, And lifts her leafy arms to pray; A tree that may in Summer wear A nest of robins in her hair; Upon whose bosom snow has lain; Who intimately lives with rain. Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree."
Twenty-eight years ago, I was in England with my British born mum and my daughters. This was the trip I had always wanted to take them on - to show them “the mother country” with their Nanny. We stayed with family who graciously drove us hither and yon through the British countryside. On Wednesday April 19 we had visited Hampton Court and my daughters had participated in the “Jeweled Egg Hunt”, a scavenger hunt designed to make historical places a little more interesting to a 7 and 10-year-old. Upon returning to Auntie Mirrey’s house we were enjoying a cup of tea, when there was breaking news report on the television of a bombing in Oklahoma City. My dad is from Oklahoma. Oklahoma was far away but not foreign to us. A telephone call “home” would give more information, but the sense of disbelief would remain. On that day twenty-eight years ago, I didn’t know that 6.5 years later I would become a member of a select group of people those who have experienced a personal loss in the midst of a national tragedy. I didn’t realize that I would be able to understand in ways I wish I didn’t know what it is like to have a nation remember the anniversary of your loved one’s death. I pray that no one else ever has that distinction.
Bruce bounded up the basement stairs and stood in front of the television. "I can't believe it. I missed the big one." I gave him a puzzled look and was grateful he wasn't on duty. But that's the difference between a firefighter's reaction to the bombing on February 26, 1993 and their spouses. My thoughts and prayers are with those whose life was forever changed that day 30 years ago. Oh and he didn't miss the "big one."
I am pretty sure Bruce didn't know the date of my birthday. Being the day before Valentine's Day it was easy to get it right without knowing it was February 13. He was very thoughtful gift giver – a little last-minute but thoughtful none the less. One year he had been paying bills before he signed my birthday card and absentmindedly signed my card “love your hubby, Bruce Van Hine” I laughed when I read it and asked him “do I have so many husbands that you have to clarify which one.” I still have that card.
Recently my daughter and son-in-law were experiencing car trouble. My daughter's car was in and out of the repair shop. She had joked to the mechanic maybe he could just park it near the road with the keys in it and someone would steal it. Then to add insult to injury a deer ran into my son-in-law's pickup truck. A reliable vehicle is a must when you live in the suburbs. All this car talk reminded me of my car team and my first new car.
Sometimes there is nothing you can say or do to help in a situation. There is no correct thing to say, no brilliant idea to share, or even an efficient form letter to send. Many times taking the time to think and ponder what information you need and how is this situation different from the norm will lessen the stress for everyone. My hope and prayer is that lessons were learned from the September 11 attacks and we aren't still sending forms letters to the family members of victims.
When my Brooklyn apartment had a devastating fire in March 2022, some people commented it was just stuff that was lost. Yes and no. I am grateful that everyone and their pets escaped without harm but the loss of material items is a loss of tangible expressions of our memories. Let me explain. A Bruce coffee mug, wooden tulips, a globe paperweight, a framed puzzle and a Lenox vase were all things that brought a smile to my face when I looked at them. Not because of the item but because of the story they told. Yes, many items can be replaced and memories are held in our minds but there is sense that the replacement isn't the real thing.
The goose-feathered Christmas tree still has a place of honor among my holiday decorations. The one small cardboard house still holds that twenty dollar bill that was so generously folded and placed it there twenty-one years ago. Nina and I would corresponded each Christmas for quite a few years. One Spring I would receive a note from her daughter telling me Nina had died. Her intentional act of kindness is a story I tell and her example is an inspiration for my life.
When you are married to a firefighter, holidays aren't necessarily celebrated on the same day as the calendar marks the event. I learned early on that it is the people, the food, the decorations, and traditions that make it Thanksgiving or Christmas not the date on the calendar. Wishing you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving.
I've always been fascinated by the idea of six degrees of separation. As you probably know six degrees of separation "is the theory that any person on the planet can be connected to any other person on the planet through a chain of acquaintances that has no more than five intermediaries." My own experiences have proven this to be true.
It is hard to believe that The Concert for New York City at Madison Square Garden was twenty-one years ago today. I can remember some parts of that evening so vividly. My Abbott and Costello type exchange with my daughter still makes me smile. I am struck by the fact I would experience that same eerie feeling of quiet streets during the pandemic. NYC and quiet streets don't go together but it does happen.
Yesterday a former student invited me to a meet the author event. I was the author her friends were meeting over bagels and coffee. It was delightful to reconnect with her in person after so many years. She graduated in June 2001 so she wasn't in that group of dancers I greeted on my first day back to teaching in October 2001. Social media does have its problems but allowing us to stay connected is a gift.
When Bruce died in the line of duty on September 11, 2001, our daughters were 14 and 17 years old. One the many thoughts we experienced at that time was what will happen when they get married? It wasn't an immediate concern but it was there. When the time came God showed us the way. Each of my daughters handled it differently. Today marks 16 years since Emily and Scott's wedding. Happy Anniversary.
Each year just about this time, mid July, the email arrives. Then a few days later a paper copy arrives in the mail. Yesterday right on schedule that yearly email announcing the National September 11th Memorial Museum's plans for September 11, 2022 arrived. This year there will be an in person ceremony on Sunday September 11. I won't be attending because this year I will be in Beaufort, SC participating in a community service to honor first responders.
When my girls were little, our family vacations weren't fancy but they were adventures. Whether it was the five-week camping trip from NY to Colorado or the houseboat trip up the Champlain Canal, family vacation was a special time to explore new places and enjoy time together. Much as changed since those family vacations with Bruce, but I am grateful that my girls, their guys and the littles aka my grandkids still try to vacation together. There is no better time than time spent together.
May 30, 2022 will mark twenty years since the recovery mission after the September 11, 2001 attacks ended - eight months and nineteen days after the towers fell. The National September 11th Museum and Memorial will host a ceremony to commemorate and honor the efforts of all who worked and volunteered during those 261 days. I would personally like to say thank you to the FDNY, NYPD, PAPD, steel workers, FBI, sanitation workers and thousands of volunteers. Thank you. Well done.
April 29, 2022 marks 13 years since I had the medi-port removed. Thirteen years of being cancer free. Thirteen years ago, it was a day to celebrate that I no longer needed the port and a day to remember the journey to get to that point. But today as I think back I am ever grateful to my doctors, my friends and my faith that got me through my cancer journey. I am also glad that a even more special memory can be added to April 29 - it is my grandson's birthday and this year he turns seven. There truly is a time for everything under the sun.
I love observing nature transition from Winter to Spring. First the flowering trees bloom as the bigger trees start to gain their leaves. There is a saying that spring never skips its turn. Spring always gives me such a sense of hope. I felt that same sense of hope that sense of life when the trees were moved to the national September 11th Memorial.
Developing our friendships outside of the time we spent volunteering together is such a blessing. During the first year of the pandemic (2021) we had a weekly Zoom meeting where we discussed everything and anything. We laughed, we cried, we worried, we wondered that scheduled time was a lifeline during the uncertainty of 2021. Tomorrow we are actually doing a be a tourist in our own city adventure followed by lunch - I am so looking for to being with my fellow docents in person.
The recovering of Bruce's body six months after the collapse the Twin Towers was a bizarre and painful time. My daughters and I have spoken about whether accepting the invitation to go to Paris was the right thing to do. So much of that first year after Bruce's line-of-duty death was experienced in a fog - on auto-pilot. I do believe that through it all I never compromised my core believes.
On Monday March 14, 2022, the apartment I shared with my daughter, Emily, and son-in-law, Scott was destroyed in a fire in Brooklyn. If you live in NYC you may have seen that five alarm fire reported on the evening news. Monday night, Emily and Scott were able to go into the building with a Fire Marshall to retrieve medications and important papers. Emily grabbed her fire proof box and her daddy's memorial helmet that is mentioned in the excerpt of Pieces Falling:navigating 9/11 with faith, family and the FDNY featured in the bubble.
March 17, 2022 Last evening I had another FaceBook message from Ryan to tell me that Van Hine, the dog, recently passed away. He served as a TSA dog and then a Texas State Trooper drug dog. Whenever I am on the National September Memorial Plaza or in an airport and see working dogs a smile comes to my face as I think of Van Hine. I know those smiles will continue.
Loss is loss, whether it is a family member or a home. Loss is universal, as is hope. On 3/11/11 a record 9.0 magnitude earthquake in the Pacific Ocean caused a deadly tsunami that took the lives of nearly 20,000 people with over 6,000 injured and at least 2,500 people missing. In 2012, I had the honor of joining a team from Mount Sinai to travel to Japan with one simple mission - to share hope. That first trip, and the others that have followed, have always reminded me that God doesn’t waste anything - if we are willing, He will use our story to encourage others. Our tragedies may have been different, but experiencing loss of any kind ties us together. Today I am continuing to hold the people of Japan in my heart as they remember those whose lives were irrevocably changed on 3/11/11.
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