The Man in the Bomber Jacket

Until I saw his picture flash across my TV screen a few days after 9/11, I had no idea that Mike was a priest, or that he had died in the terror attacks.

Like most of us who lived and worked in New York City, those first few days and weeks were a blur. Shocked that our city had actually been attacked, terrified that other attacks were imminent, dazed by all the posters of missing people, numbed by the endless repeat on TV of planes crashing, flames shooting into the sky, buildings collapsing.

From that TV report, I learned that Mike was actually Mychal Judge, a Franciscan friar, chaplain for the NY Fire Department, and Victim #1 on September 11th.

To me, though, he was the handsome, unassuming guy in jeans and bomber jacket who always sat in the front row at the noon A.A. meeting I attended at St. Francis of Assisi church in midtown. It was a great meeting right in the center of the Garment District, filled with businessmen and women who took time out of their day to take care of themselves in the way that recovering alcoholics do best – by sharing their daily lives and challenges with other recovering alcoholics.

I didn’t know Mike well, but I was always moved by his honesty when he shared about his drinking past, and the challenges he faced every day. And I did notice that he always reached out to the people at meetings who seemed to be hurting the most.

One day that person was me. It was 1998. I had just learned that the baby I had been carrying for 14 weeks would not survive and my anguish came pouring out at the meeting. Mike came up to me afterwards, put his arms around me and told me how sorry he was that I was going through this.

When I then became pregnant with my twin daughters a year later, he embraced me again and told me he was a twin and how his mother didn’t even know she was having twins until his sister, Dymphna, arrived nearly a day after he was born.

Mike rushed to the trade center in his capacity as the fire chaplain on 9/11 and died of an apparent heart attack shortly after he arrived. He was 68 years old.

Much has been written about Mike by people who knew him far better than me. New York reporter Michael Daly wrote The Book of Mychal about him, and I recently listened to an excerpt of the beautiful eulogy from his funeral on StoryCorps.

I didn’t attend his funeral. In those shattering days and weeks after the attacks, I was torn between taking care of my 1-year-old twin girls, grieving for my city and for the loss of safety in a world that seemed to have gone mad, and feeling that I needed to show up for work to try to regain some sense of normalcy.

I didn’t go to his funeral, but I did show up at the AA meeting the morning it was held. And cried as nearly everyone in that room talked about Mike and how he had touched their lives.

There is already a push for the church to make Mike a saint. If they do, it will be well-deserved. To me, though, he will always be that unassuming guy in the bomber jacket, front row, ready with a smile or a hug to ease another sufferer’s pain.