A Tight Rope

Sample Chapter: The Mockingbird’s Song by Curt Iles

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Chapter Eight: A Tight Rope Held by a Tight Friend

World Trade Center North Tower New York City September 11, 2001

Stairway 27C of the North Tower of the World Trade Center was a space of both life and death on the morning of September 11, 2001 after the first hijacked plane struck this tower. As terrified office workers, many burned or injured hurried down, courageous firefighters passed by on their way up to the impact zone around the 98th floor.

Many of those coming down recalled the faces of two men who were at this stairwell of the 27th floor: Ed Beyea, an employee of Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield, sat in his motorized wheelchair awaiting the assistance of firefighters or rescuers to carry him down. Beside him stood co-worker and friend Abe Zelmanowitz.

Exhausted firefighters, weighed down with heavy equipment and safety clothing, assured the wheelchair-bound man that help was coming up soon. As Ed Beyea patiently waited, he understood that these passing firemen must get to the top to rescue any trapped near the scene of the impact.
Later as the unending flow of workers coming down became a trickle, a concerned firefighter, stopping to catch his breath, pulled Abe Zelmanowitz away from standing beside his seated friend and whispered to the office worker, “Why don’t you go?”
“No, I’m staying with my friend” was the quiet but sure reply of Abraham Zelmanowitz.

Newsom Cabin Bayou Chicot, Louisiana Spring 2002
. . . That type of loyal friendship as shown by Abe toward his friend Ed is what I thought of as I cradled the telephone in my now trembling hands. My hands were shaking and sweaty due to the words of my friend on the other end of the connection. His words were measured and filled with fatigue, “I’m calling to tell you goodbye. I’ve had enough. I’ve hit bottom and I can’t take anymore.”
Suddenly the telephone in my hand felt as if it weighed a thousand pounds. Here I was, over an hour away and physically unable to help this dear friend who was deep in the darkness of depression. I was staying at a cabin in the woods finishing a book manuscript when his call came. Normally a cell phone wouldn’t pick up here in the woods, but somehow my friend had found me.

How do you respond to a person on the telephone who is so deep in depression that suicide seems a possible and plausible answer? I knew my words over the next few minutes might make the difference between life and death. I breathed a prayer and began listening.
Because I had been with this friend many times over the last few weeks, I knew he wasn’t kidding or bluffing with his statement about checking out. He had reached the deepest and darkest part in “the valley of the shadow of death.” In no direction could he sense any light or relief. Not behind him, around him, and surely not ahead of him. I knew all of this because I had been there myself only a few short years before. I am a depression survivor. I’ve been to the bottom and come back out of the darkness.
My prayer that day at the cabin was: Lord, how can I communicate to my friend that there is light, hope, and gladness ahead if he will just hang on?
Listening, I tried to think of what to say. Suddenly an idea came to my mind. Looking back now, I believe it was God who answered my prayer and gave me this question. I asked my friend, “If our roles were reversed and it was me on the phone calling to say goodbye, what would you do?” There was a long silence that seemed even longer than it actually was. My friend replied in a short statement that has been a mantra of my ministry since that day, “Why Curt, I’d tie a rope around you and pull you close so you couldn’t get away.” .

And that is exactly what I did with my friend. I’m relieved to say that he came through this difficult time. Instead of ending his life, he decided to stay around and walk through the darkness. As all depression survivors know, there is always light ahead in the darkness if you just keep walking.

If you’ve read any of my four previous books, you are probably familiar with the name of Kevin Willis. Kevin is my brother in the Lord, close friend, and hunting partner. He is a big, “larger than life” character who just loves people and the Lord. During my months of being at home sick with depression, Kevin would call every night. He never talked long but simply checked on me and prayed for me. Kevin “tied on the rope” and refused to lose contact with me. That is what we should do to our friends who are hurting.

Back to the World Trade Center
The soul-touching story of Abe and Ed Beyea is gleaned from the excellent book, 102 Minutes, by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn.[i]

2,749 people died in the New York attacks on September 11, 2001. They each had a story and a life. Large numbers don’t stay with us. But when those numbers were changed into names and faces, each came to mean something personal and emotionally touched us.

Let me continue to the story of two of those thousands who were in the Trade Center on that day – one who could not escape – and one who chose not to escape.

Ed Beyea was on the 27th floor when the first plane hit his building at 8:46 am. Ed was a quadriplegic who had become paralyzed in a diving accident twenty years earlier. He was escorted to work each day at Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield by his aide Irma Fuller. She had hung up his jacket and set him up with the mouth stick he used to type. Irma then left and rode up to the 47th floor cafeteria to order breakfast.

As Irma came down after the initial plane crashed into their building, she found Ed in his wheelchair at the stairwell for the 27th floor. By now the mass evacuation of the North Tower was in full force. With the elevators evidently being out of service, the stairs were the only way out.

With Ed’s size (he weighed 280 pounds due to kidney problems) and his heavy motorized chair, it would take four or five big men to carry him down.

Irma saw another co-worker standing by Ed Beyea’s chair. His name was Abe Zelmanowitz, another Blue Cross employee. He worked one cubicle over from Ed and they shared a very close friendship. These two men had worked together for twelve years. In spite of great differences – physical, cultural, religious, and age – wise they shared a special friendship that extended beyond work hours.

Ed Beyea was Catholic and Abe Zelmanowitz was an Orthodox Jew. Beyea was thirteen years younger and twice the size of the thinner Zelmanowitz. While the wheelchair-bound Beyea talked and laughed loudly, his friend Abe was soft-spoken and unassuming.
As is so often the case in life, their friendship extended across these differences and the bond of their relationship was strong. This connection they shared was to be tested and sealed in the coming hour.

Irma Fuller came upon these two men as she walked onto the stairwell landing at 27C. Everyone was moving in the stairwell – all those above getting out and a now steady stream of rescue workers coming up, headed for the impact zone far above. By now everyone had began to sense how serious the situation was.

This included Ed, Abe and Irma. Abe Zelmanowitz told Irma to go, “I’ll stay with Ed.” Beyea also insisted that she leave. They both told her to find someone downstairs to come up and help.
As Irma Fuller rejoined the long procession of workers snaking their wa
y down, Zelmanowitz hollered, “Irma, we are on 27C.”

In the coming hour hundreds, if not thousands, passed by the landing at 27C on their way down to safety. Many told of passing the wheelchair-bound Ed with his friend Abe standing beside him.
As you’ve probably guessed, both Ed Beyea and Abe Zelmanowitz died when the North Tower collapsed at 10:28 am.
No one carried Ed Beyea down to safety. He probably could have begged rescuers to stop their upward climb to bring him down but evidently he didn’t.
Even more remarkably, Abe Zelmanowitz could have easily walked down the 27 flights of stairs to safety and went home that day. But he didn’t. Instead he chose to stay with his friend. He made a conscious choice to remain with his friend – win, lose, or draw. It would be easy to say he lost. But I’m not so sure that is how he would define his decision. An earlier Jewish philosopher named Solomon stated it this way, “There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24).

Abe was that kind of friend to his Gentile friend. He lost his life that day, but no man who demonstrates that kind of friendship can ever be called a loser.

The words of another Jewish teacher come to my mind. Jesus, whom I follow as Lord of my life, stated, “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

That great love is the type that was exhibited on that horrible day on floor 27 of the North Tower.

We’ll never know about the last minutes of conversation between these two men–one who couldn’t escape and the other who chose not to. Reading the details of the last minutes of both towers (the South tower, although struck second, fell twenty-nine minutes before the North Tower) informs us that those inside knew something terrible was occurring as the building shook, groaned, and vibrated in its death throes just previous to total collapse.

I can see Ed Beyea telling Abe Zelmanowitz to leave… run… flee… He still might have time to get out. The stairways were now clear and a man Abe’s age, flooded with adrenaline, could quickly cover many flights of stairs going down.

But Abe had decided to stay with his friend… no matter what. No matter the cost. I’m sure that Ed eventually realized that Abe would not, and could not, leave.

It is not carrying it too far to imagine these two friends calmly talking at the end, reliving work stories and meals enjoyed together. I can hear Ed Beyea saying, “Abe, thanks for staying.”
And his soft-spoken friend’s reply, “Don’t mention it. You’re welcome.”

A friend named Abe who tied a tight rope on his friend Ed and refused to let go of the rope. Who kept a tight grip on his friendship when he could have instead fled and saved his own life.
We face this same challenge when someone we love is in the terrible grip of depression. As difficult as it may be, don’t abandon them during this time. Love them in spite of their condition. Keep that rope tied close and keep them close to your heart.
Remember the story of friends Ed and Abe:
Two men,
Friends in life and work.
Two men,
Joined together by the tight rope of friendship.
Joined together even in death,
To always be remembered.
Greater love has no man …

This book you are now holding, The Mockingbird’s Song, is meant to tie a rope tightly around your heart. You may be in the midnight blackness of depression, ready to check out. If so, my prayer is that these stories will help you believe there is light ahead … and joy … and healing.
Maybe you are reading this book because someone you love is suffering through depression. I hope these essays help you understand them a little better. Being the loved one and caregiver for a depressed person is hard work and at times extremely frustrating. I pray these pages will help you “pull the rope tighter in love” around that person.
Finally, you may have lost a loved one through depression. If so, may the words of The Mockingbird’s Song bring you comfort, understanding, closure, and peace.
As depression survivors, we are obligated to reach out to others as we share our stories. Though I may never meet you, our hearts are now tied together – connected together and pulled close by that rope that is these written pages.
There is a code from the Arabian Desert called “the sin of the desert.” It details about a binding tribal code that is still adhered to in this arid and dry area of the world. The sin of the desert is this: To find where water is located in the desert, yet not tell others.
I am still a fellow struggler along the road of depression. I do not have it all figured out. However, I have learned much, and been taught greatly by God, through my journey. This small book you hold is simply my attempt to avoid the sin of the desert.
It is my story. As you grasp the rope and pull closer, my wish and prayer is that this story may also become yours.

[i] Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn 102 Minutes, (New York: Times Books copyright 2005) 43, 178.

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