Sister Eileen witnessed the attacks. Old enough to have been my mother, Eileen Storey (known to me in high school as Sister Marie Joseph) had taught me French. A native New Yorker and a Sister of Charity, she was a genteel woman, a college chaplain who lived in the Village, in a neighborhood of brick row houses on the north side of Washington Square. Over the years, visiting her had meant stepping over sacks of canned food, donations she took to Iraq for victims of war and the U.N. embargo. She radiated serenity and gentleness along with great reserve — a calm that belied much suffering. In the summer of 2000, she endured a stroke from which she made a remarkable recovery. Although her step was hesitant, her words were as lucid and wise as ever. On the day of our visit, she looked beautiful. Her dark eyes were lit in a lovely, angular face, and she wore a faint smile, as if she found death and its claim to power amusing and a little silly. She was at peace with her momentary triumph.
There’s a story from my school days which foreshadowed the troubled moments after 9/11, one which says everything you need to know about Eileen. Two bright students with too much free time — myself and my crony Jeannette — asked her to be the audience for a short, two-person show. The subject was nuclear insanity. Jeanie narrated while I stood at the blackboard and drew an evolutionist’s cartoon of “the man of the future” — a cretin with a pea-sized brain and a outsized trigger finger. Eileen, clad in the severe black habit and bonnet of her order, watched us as she sat at a student desk at the back of the room.
She listened with an intensity that I could feel, even as I scrawled at the blackboard with my back turned. She didn’t interrupt. When we were done, she was silent for a moment, and I suppose we wondered if two Catholic girls cavorting in the school uniform might get a scolding. When at last Eileen spoke, she told us that in joking, we often reveal more about the depth of our feelings than we realize. It was the first adult response I’d ever had to my ill-concealed anxieties about the world, and for a lonely, introspective teenager, this was a life-changing moment.
Years later, when I reminded Eileen of this incident, she replied that the concept of obedience had its root in the Latin audiens, the state of listening. It was out of such inner attentiveness that she’d spoken to us that day. It was in such silence that she taught her best lessons.
When we went to see her after 9/11, I held in my heart the pensive nun in black, the audience of one who sat and received a small truth from two students who trusted her, who were terrified by the world’s madness. Now some of the horror of that truth had come to pass. It would be our turn to listen.
On the morning of September 11th, Eileen was standing in front of a window looking south over Washington Square. There she witnessed the first plane hitting the north tower of the World Trade Center. Since she’d suffered a stroke, it didn’t seem right that she should have to absorb that shock. Yet her dignity bloomed in the face of this insult. The story flowed from her with the serenity that her tone of voice conferred on everything and everyone — the same qualities of patience and forbearance that I’d found so welcome as a student. She was still teaching, and her attentive telling drew us into that moment, allowing us to witness what she’d seen. Yet the Sister Joseph of the dark habit had been gone since the Vatican Council reforms of the Sixties. In its place was someone yet unknown.
A former name is a clock, and it tells us of a particular time. Eileen’s name in religion had nothing to do with our present moment. Sister Joseph’s eyes were those that sparkled or looked razor-stern or amused with an edge of exasperation. This was the teacher I carried in memory, and the minute she told me that she’d witnessed the attacks, I no longer knew who she was. I had to meet her in the present moment, the only one we had.
On that day, we became friends.
Eileen gave me a photo, one a priest had taken of the ashen pile at Ground Zero. It called to mind those holy cards we used to get in Catholic school, the ones with prayers and symbols meant for special observances. This felt appropriate. I was about to visit a hallowed place, one that has nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with who made news while others watched it.