Wednesday, October 14, 2009

JERSEY; Clinging to a Sliver of a Loved One's Life

By Debra Galant Published: Sunday, October 7, 2001 Link JERSEY;

RON CLIFFORD, who lives in my town of Glen Ridge, is an Irishman, and he has the legendary Irish gift for gab. One story leads to another. Coincidence winds through his tales like a silver thread, until a dozen different people each become part of a great shimmering spider web of connections.

But he has never had a story to rival the one he has about Sept. 11.

Ron escaped from the Marriott in the World Trade Center -- after stopping to help a woman who had been burned head to foot -- but his sister, Ruth McCourt, and his niece Juliana, 4, were in the second plane, which hit the south tower of the World Trade Center. Compounding the horror, Ruth's best friend was on the first plane. Both were going to a spirituality conference in California, but flew in separate planes because Ruth wanted to use her frequent flier miles.

Many of the victims have become larger than life in their death, but Ruth McCourt seems to have been larger than life even in life. She lived in a magnificent house, with three beaches, built on the foundation of an old casino in New London, Conn. She had a meditation garden and owned a day spa in Boston. She was intimately involved with the details of Ron's life, telling him what tie he should wear for a business meeting on Sept. 11, which was -- in another amazing coincidence -- scheduled at the Marriott Marquis in Midtown, but moved to the World Trade Center at the last moment.

Ruth's memorial service was attended by 1,200 people, and afterward 700 people came back for a meal on her front lawn. Ruth's survivors did their best to make it the kind of gathering Ruth would have approved of.

''Her memorial had to be exactly how she would plan a party,'' Ron said. ''Ruth wouldn't, for any event, have plastic. It had to be silverware.''

Ruth was certain of the rightness of her convictions, and so was everybody else. She often began her proclamations with the words, ''In the life'' -- an Irish expression that means ''in this life.'' Juliana was beginning to turn into something of a force herself. One morning, about a week before the tragedy, Ruth told Juliana to eat her Cheerios.

''And Juliana turned around and said, 'Yes, your highness,' '' Ron said. ''Ruth called me right away and said, 'Where is she getting this?' ''

In the middle of our interview, Ron pulled something from his pocket.

It was a piece of glass, tinted black, irregularly shaped, but smooth on the edges. It was a piece of the World Trade Center, and now Ron carries it all the time. He held the glass, about two inches long, and turned it over and over in his hand.

''It gives me some solace to have something,'' Ron said. ''Some remembrance. It's tempered glass. You can hold it as tight as you can and it's not going to cut you.''

The glass was given to him by a New York City policeman who went back to ground zero to retrieve some ashes for Ron to send back to a brother in Ireland. Ron had once done a major favor for the policeman's mother, and in return her son, Tommy the cop, got the ashes and the piece of glass for Ron.

And yet the favor turned itself inside out, and Tommy found people clapping and waving for him as he left ground zero with his package for Ron.

''I've had people kick me, spit at me, call me every name under the sun,'' he told Ron. ''And now, for the first time in my life, I'm feeling human.''

More coincidences: the weekend before the attack, Ron met a maintenance engineer from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, recently retired, who told him story after story about the 1993 bombing. And on Sept. 11, Ron's daughter Monica turned 11.

The amazing thing is, Ron still smiles. Ron still laughs. He is having trouble sleeping, but he has gone out on his sailboat. His house is full of flowers and cookies that neighbors have brought or sent. Nobody can visit Ron without an offer of cookies.

''Do we have cookies!'' he says with a laugh.

Years ago, Ron and Ruth had a conversation about death. They agreed that focusing too much on grief would prevent a loved one's soul from getting to the next life. Instead, Ron came up then with the concept of good thoughts called ''rads'' -- he had been reading about Madame Curie -- that would send a loved one on.

Ron plans to take have his piece of glass engraved. On one side it will say, ''What a sister.'' On the other, ''In the life.''

Drawing (Nancy Doniger)

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