Linked by tales of altered world
© St. Petersburg Times,
ST. PETERSBURG -- Olive Farrell propped the saxophone wreath by the door of her flower shop, stepped back for a final inspection. The arrangement was 4 feet tall, carved from green plastic foam, blooming with 150 golden mums. It was for a funeral at Bay Pines National Cemetery.
"When the man came in here asking for a saxophone, I thought he was kidding," she said. "Then he told me how much his friend had liked jazz. So I said I would try."
Farrell is from Ireland. She and her husband moved to Florida in 1979 and brought up three children here. For a few minutes on Sept. 11, she was so shocked and so sorry for the thousands of strangers dying in New York that she didn't remember that her children live there now too.
Then her husband reminded her. The next five hours seemed like five years. Frantically, she kept trying to call New York, getting only a busy signal -- and more upset.
Farrell's children got through to her that afternoon, crying about the friends and neighbors they lost. Her parents are still calling from Ireland, worrying about anthrax in Florida and what might happen next.
"Maybe it's time to move back to Ireland. America doesn't seem like such a safe place anymore," Farrell said, straightening a mum on the saxophone's bell.
"Okay, Carolann," she said to the woman behind the counter. "I guess this wreath is ready."
It was 10:20 Thursday morning, exactly one month since the terrorist attacks, and Farrell was still dealing with the aftermath. So were Carolann the delivery person, and the funeral director Carolann gave the flowers to, and the woman whose father the funeral director was burying, and the minister who said the prayer over the deceased, and the young man who will miss his father-in-law.
Following a string of people through the day, each connected in some way to the next, made it clear everyone has been affected by Sept. 11.
And you got the sense that, if you kept going, you would find that every life has been touched, changed, re-evaluated in the last month. Everyone has a story.
Tracy has never been scared of heights. Now, she's terrified to deliver flowers at the high-rise Bank of America building downtown. Every time she gets in the elevators, she envisions an airplane crashing into the building. "I thought about taking the stairs, just so I could get out if I had to," she said. "But you can't carry flower arrangements up all those stairs."
She has been working hard lately. At Olivia's Flowers, business has picked up 20 percent. Men are stopping in after work, buying roses for their wives, sending carnations for their mothers -- just because. Women are buying daisies for their friends, cut flowers for their dinner tables.
"I know I've been hugging on my boys more," Tracy said, slowing down outside Anderson-McQueen Funeral Home. "I think I'm going to take advantage of these low air fares and take my boys to see the fall leaves in North Carolina. I'd just like to spend some special time with them."
She carried the saxophone wreath into the funeral home, where a dozen other arrangements already were waiting. "This one's for the Kennedy service," she said.
Todd McBride was handling that funeral. He moved the wreath to a side room, checked his watch. 11:10 a.m. Plenty of time.
"We've had a big increase in volume here this last month," said McBride, 33. "I wonder if the stress from all this war stuff is affecting the older community, causing more deaths. They didn't think they'd live to see anything like this again.
"There's also been a lot more emotion lately, at all our funerals," he continued. "When somebody dies, it's an open door to grieve. Even men have an excuse to cry."
Some of the tears, McBride is sure, are for the victims of the terrorist attacks, for the country, instead of the deceased. Funerals give people a release for all kinds of feelings. "It's hard sometimes to focus on one death, one person that seemed so important, when you just watched 6,000 people die," he said.
McBride used to cherish quiet mornings. As he dressed for work, drank his coffee, he savored the calm. It helped him prepare to deal with grieving families.
Now, he wakes with two words burning his brain: bin Laden. He clicks on CNN before he showers. "I kind of wonder what it's doing to me, starting every day with all this bad stuff. But I can't help it."
At night, McBride and his wife drive to Blockbuster and pick out the silliest movies they can find. "Stupid stuff, comedies, Joe Dirt. I would never freaking rent Joe Dirt," he said. "Me, Myself and Irene. I don't even like Jim Carrey. But we can't stand having that TV on all the time. We had to do something to get our minds off this, something to make us laugh."
On a table in the funeral home lobby, three candles were burning beneath a framed poster: red, white and blue -- in remembrance of Sept. 11. The poster, which was there before the tragedy, said: "How will I heal after this loss?"
McBride drove to Bay Pines, picked up a mahogany urn of ashes on the way. At 1:10 p.m., he pulled into the cemetery. A blond woman in black sunglasses was standing by her car.
"Hi, Traci. You all right?"
She nodded, tried to smile. But she was not really ready to bury her dad.
All last month, while the rest of the country grieved for New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, Traci Kennedy Ross stood by her father's bed at a Clearwater nursing home, holding his hand, trying to read his lips.
James E. Kennedy had suffered from rheumatoid arthritis for years. Six weeks ago, he started going downhill. He could barely breathe. The ventilator made it almost impossible to talk.
On Sept. 11, when Ross visited him, he kept struggling to say something. He was worried about her, about his other children, about his son-in-law, who is in the National Guard. "Here he was, dying, and all he wanted to talk about was how concerned he was for us, our safety," she said, dabbing her eyes with a crumpled Kleenex. "He was worried because we live near MacDill Air Force Base. He was worried he wouldn't be around to keep us all safe."
Ross feels guilty that she hasn't worried more about the world around her. She has been so wrapped up with her dad, she has barely even thought about the war.
"I feel so shallow," she said. "The company I work for is in Manhattan. All my co-workers up there knew someone who died, someone who is missing. But for me, it didn't really touch me directly. At least not in any way that would have mattered while I was losing my parent."
Her dad had joined the Marines while still in high school, served three years, then gone on to college. He moved to Florida in 1976 and became senior vice president of credit policy for Barnett Bank. He had one son, three daughters and one granddaughter. He wanted everyone to have a party when he died, and later that day they did. With jazz.
"We gather here this afternoon because of the death of Jim Kennedy," the Rev. Richard Landeen said under a gazebo at Bay Pines. "We thank you, Lord, for giving him to us to know and to love. . . . Jim's death at 61 reminds us of the limited time we all have here on earth. As this last month has reminded us all, none of us know how long we have to live in this world."
Landeen, a chaplain for the Hospice of the Florida Suncoast, met Kennedy only twice. He prayed with him in the nursing home as he was fading away.
Nursing home residents are taking the war hard, Landeen said.
"Several of them said they wish it had been them who died instead of all those young people in New York," he said. "They've lived their lives. They really feel bad for the people whose lives were just getting started."
So for the past month, Landeen has been trying to console people who are ready to die -- but can't -- and cope with the deaths of people who shouldn't have died -- but did.
"I'm not a violent person. I'm a man of forgiveness. And I'm sure, somehow, God already has forgiven the terrorists who did this," Landeen said. "But it's going to take the rest of us a long, long time."
After the funeral, mourners filed past the minister on their way to the grave site. Anton Berendsen, 27, walked behind his wife, Jennifer Kennedy Berendsen. Jim Kennedy was his father-in-law. Berendsen loved him like a dad.
"He was so proud of me, of the things I had done," Berendsen said. "He never really talked about what he did, about his own life. He never complained about his illness, about his suffering."
Berendsen was in the Army Rangers battalion that was sent to Somalia in 1993. He and 400 other soldiers were trying to capture Gen. Mohamed Farrah Aidid, who had attacked Pakistani peacekeepers. Bin Laden is believed to have supported Aidid.
Berendsen, who was 19 at the time, climbed a rope out of a helicopter, a rifle strapped to his back. The raid failed. Berendsen watched his team leader get shot and killed. Seventeen other American military men died.
On Wednesday night, Berendsen was interviewed on MSNBC about his part in that battle -- and what America learned that might help in this war. "We had no support anywhere back then. We also learned we need better intelligence, more communication."
Berendsen got out of the Army in 1997 but is still active in the National Guard. He runs a fire and flood restoration business in St. Petersburg. "If it weren't for that business, I'd have already volunteered to go for the Guard. Out of our unit of 120, at least 18 people already have been called up to patrol airports," he said. "But if I go, the business dies. I'm married now. What would that do to Jennifer?"
For the last month, Berendsen said, he has been trying to be better to his wife, his family, even strangers. In a weird way, he said, he's almost glad we're at war now.
"We, as Americans, no longer have a sense of complacency. Maybe we won't all take things for granted anymore," he said. "Now people have a common purpose. They're more interested in the big picture, instead of just themselves. They're more patriotic. They're being nicer to each other.
"Everyone says we should go on with our normal lives. But I don't think we should," Berendsen said after family members carried the saxophone wreath back to the car. "Nothing is normal anymore."
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