Sarah Gillespie, a chaplain for Androscoggin Home Healthcare & Hospice in Lewiston, saw her life change its trajectory after 9/11 as she says, “I knew I wanted to be of service to the world.” Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Before the dust had settled over Manhattan on that awful morning two decades ago, the ricocheting patterns of American life had been jumbled in ways nobody could have imagined.

Too many families mourned loved ones lost when terrorists struck on Sept. 11, 2001, including some in Maine. Others hunkered in fear, worried about a future that seemed unsettled and scary.

Some signed up for military service, determined to help track down those responsible for the death of nearly 3,000 Americans at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and on the planes that carried innocent passengers to their doom.

But for most, the changes were more subtle, harder to pin down and yet still profound. Life altered for a great many Americans, including a high school senior in suburban New Jersey named Sarah Gillespie.

Today, she ministers to the dying in Lewiston, but at the time Gillespie lived in Cranford, a pretty little town 14 miles southwest of New York City, close enough for parents to commute to work and far enough for big-city problems to seem distant.

As her senior year got underway, Gillespie looked forward to celebrating her 18th birthday with her family and a couple of close friends in a few weeks.

They planned to have a nice dinner at a luxurious restaurant called Windows on the World on the top floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, which had an unbeatable view of the Manhattan skyline and a sophisticated menu.

Sarah Gillespie’s senior picture in her Cranford High School yearbook. Cranford Public Library

On the Tuesday of the attack, Gillespie went to school as usual, walking with a friend who lived nearby. It was a lovely morning with a startling blue sky.

In English class, Gillespie said, something strange happened: an administrator came by and asked her friend Beth to come to the office.

“I had no idea what it meant,” Gillespie said.

Soon enough, though, word had spread through the school that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. More details seeped through despite teacher efforts to shield students from the increasingly dire news.

Gillespie said her friend’s father worked in one of the towers. When they fell, she said, the presumption was that he didn’t make it.

As it turned out, Beth’s dad was hustling down a stairwell when the second plane hit and managed to get out safely, but they didn’t know that for hours.

Meanwhile, students all through the school were trying to reach their parents, worried about what might have happened. Classes ground to a halt. Chaos reigned.

Gillespie, too, fretted. Her father, who had a job in finance, “worked all over the place” from day to day. He probably wasn’t in the trade center, she knew, but then again, he might have been.

They called her to the office at lunchtime, she said, and she learned from her mother that he was OK, that he hadn’t even gone to New York City that day.

“I just felt relieved,” she said.

When he came to pick her up, Gillespie said, “I just cried and hugged him.”

Everybody in Cranford knew people who had been in the buildings when the planes hit. Six men from her town of about 22,000 died that day, trapped in elevators or sitting at their desks or caught in upper floors from which they could not escape.

Gillespie knew of children who lost both their mother and their father.

In short, it was a moment where “the frailty of the world” became stunningly obvious.

That it all happened as Gillespie began her senior year made it sharper.

She was already “at the brink of everything,” she said, and that day she could stand in her hometown and see the huge blooms of smoke hanging in the sky to the northeast, the ash from a toppled American icon.

A 9/11 memorial in Cranford, N.J. Google Streetview

As a high school student, Gillespie thought of herself as a theater and music kid, a self-described nerd who hadn’t thought too much about what comes next.

But as she contemplated the attacks that upended her community, she said she realized that “I need to learn more about the world.”

Gillespie said she wanted to understand why this happened and how something that had “never entered my mind” could have occurred.

“What was important to me just changed” in a flash, she said, and a different outlook transformed her.

“I got more conscious of the world,” Gillespie said, and she contemplated her place in it in a way she never had before. “It was a huge turning point for me.”

That fall, she only applied to colleges in Boston, New York and Washington because she wanted to be in a big city where world events are not distant or inexplicable but somehow part of the beating heart of the place.

A few weeks after 9/11, she ventured into New York City for the first time since the attack, to see a play with her godmother. They looked at the blocks near ground zero, where workers were picking away at huge piles of crushed concrete and bent steel beams in a careful, painful search for the remains of the dead.

“It was just like a war zone,” Gillespie recalled, “with all these pictures” of the missing “on every fence post, every wall covered.”

That so many were just gone could not fail to make an impression on a questioning young woman.

“I didn’t want to be naïve,” she said.

Gillespie wasn’t the only one trying to figure out what 9/11 meant.

Her high school yearbook said the horror of that morning “clung to us, invaded our thoughts, ruined our sleep, and left us to battle stress and fear. Social events were canceled or postponed. In their place, benefits, candlelight vigils and prayer services provided a welcomed opportunity to connect with families and friends, and helped our country get back on its feet.”

“At Cranford High School, we were indelibly marked by the uncommon, unthinkable, cold events of September, and knew instinctively we would never be the same,” the yearbook noted.

Gillespie headed the following year to George Washington University, just up the street from the U.S. Department of State, where she studied international affairs and minored in religion. She’d always been “a religious kid,” she said, growing up in the Methodist church.

She didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do with her life. But, she said, she wanted to examine the world, to understand it better, to make sense of what can seem incomprehensible.

In short, Gillespie said, “I knew I wanted to be of service to the world.”

That “real sacred time” on 9/11 and the days that followed left a deep mark, she said, because that experience brought home the reality that you never know what’s coming.

She ultimately wound up studying in a seminary and became an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister who now works tending the spiritual needs of those at Androscoggin Home Healthcare & Hospice in Lewiston, a place where she tries to comfort the dying and support their loved ones.

There is “so much loneliness and sadness and isolation” in what can be a hard, cold world, Gillespie said, but there is also joy, even at the worst times, the most awful moments.

For the dying, she said, the world gets stripped down to its essentials. There isn’t time to waste.

As they “approach this unknowable thing,” Gillespie said, what’s most important for people is that “you don’t have to be alone.”

On 9/11, Gillespie watched everything unfold from a distance, curious and appalled like most everyone. What she took away from it is the idea that we’re all in this together, that we need to understand one another, that we need to embrace those we love and search for a better world.

Gillespie said her story pales beside what 9/11 did to so many others.

“I’m very much on the fringe of it having an impact on my life,” she said.

And yet, there she is, a theater kid who now comforts the dying and looks back on that memorable day, trying to make sense of it.

“I still just don’t always believe it,” Gillespie said.


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