I often find myself thinking about my cousin Michael Brennan. He was a firefighter assigned to the Pride of Midtown firehouse in Manhattan. I first met him in 1990 soon after I arrived in New York City and was immediately impressed with his wonderful sense of humor and the way he made me feel truly welcome. He had the unique qualities of physical strength coupled with childlike gentleness. I sensed a good soul. Always jovial, he had a ready smile and a sharp wit. His greatest desire was to become a firefighter. When he finally realized his ambition his sense of pride was all consuming. He seemed to walk just a little taller and his stride appeared to be a little bit longer. On the morning of Sept.11 2001 he responded to the call of duty like so many of his comrades, and made his way back to Manhattan. He never came back home.
I stepped out from my apartment on a glorious August morning and was greeted by the aroma of the plants and shrubs in the flower beds that ran the length of the Avenue. The heady scent took my breath away, as it always did. The trees were in full leaf and the sun was warm. I waved to Jim the doorman and motioned for him to straighten his hat. Jim was a good doorman but had a habit of wearing his hat pushed back on his head and slightly tilted, which is a no-no for a Park Avenue doorman. As I walked to the corner I barely noticed the blare of the two way traffic or the impatient honking of the cab drivers as I stood there enjoying the moment. The low rumble of a Metro North train heading uptown underneath the avenue barely caught my attention. I was thinking how fortunate I was to be living in that great neighborhood. The sanctuary of Central Park was not more than two blocks away and from the moment I stepped inside, the city disappeared, the noise faded and the magic would begin. I normally used the entrance beside the Metropolitan Museum and would make the Egyptian obelisk the first stop on my rambles.
Suddenly, my reverie was interrupted when I was grabbed from behind in a bear hug, lifted up in the air and told, “Aha! I’ve got you now you Irish Mick.” I knew right away that it was Michael as bear hugging was his favorite method of greeting. I would not have been surprised if he hugged real bears, he was burly enough and I am sure he had many opportunities to do so as he loved the outdoors lifestyle.
"Sorry to wake you up," he said laughing and when he finally decided to put me down we talked for a while like old friends. He spoke about his uncle Joe who had recently returned to Ireland and we talked about our Irish heritage and of course women. I cracked an old, familiar joke about how ‘fast women and slow horses’ had always been my downfall and he roared laughing and added, "Don't forget the bad whiskey." Isn't it strange the things that we remember later?
He always laughed at that joke even though I must have told it a hundred times. He was like that. We chatted for more than an hour and as he was about to leave I asked him a question that had been on my mind for some time but never got around to asking. I said, “Michael, of all the careers at your fingertips why on earth did you pick one of the most dangerous when you could have chosen the one that the rest of the family follows?” I was referring to the fact that many of his relatives, including me, were building managers. He paused for a split second, looked me directly in the eye and with matter of fact seriousness answered, “Cousin, maybe one day I will have to come into your building and carry you out.” His answer simple yet so profound, confirmed everything that made Michael one of those special beings we are fortunate to meet in this lifetime. He was one of those rare breeds who would, literally, lay down their lives to save others. He truly did lead by example and showed us all that actions do indeed speak loudest.
Three weeks after that black day in September, I was sitting on my couch with my daughter who was staying with me for a few days. The topic of conversation was Michael. His body had not yet been found and we were waiting anxiously for news. Ever since the dark, fateful day of his disappearance I kept a lighted candle on my coffee table. It was an old Irish custom meant to welcome home anyone parted from their loved ones. As we sat there talking quietly, a sudden blast of cold air swept across the room and extinguished the candle flame. Joanne and I noticed it at the same time and quickly looked at each other with open mouthed surprise. No more than two minutes later the phone rang. The voice on the other end informed me that Michaels’ remains had been recovered from the rubble of the twin towers.
I am so glad that I got to meet Michael and get to know him, if only for a few short years. If I hadn’t, I’m certain that it would have been one of those regrets my father had warned me about all those long years ago.