NEW YORK -- We came here to celebrate Vita Marino's life, and America's. They are linked forever now. Vita was working on the 104th floor of the second World Trade Center building when the first tower was attacked Sept. 11. She called her mother, and she called her husband, to tell them she was all right. Outside her office window, the Statue of Liberty glistened in the morning sun. And then, before she could run to safety, the second terrorist plane arrived from the heart of human darkness.
Vita never got out. She is one of the 4,000 or so whose lives were taken for the crime of living in America. She left behind two elementary school girls, Monica and Claudia, and her husband of 18 years, Jonathan Dodge, who walked down the aisle of the Church of the Blessed Sacrament on Saturday morning, a few moments before memorial services here, and stood all alone, sagging visibly, before a big color photograph of his wife.
Vita's smiling in the picture, but the light's reflecting off her cheek so that it might be a tear falling. It would be one of many. For now, as the big church filled to overflowing and the strains of "Amazing Grace" filled the air, there arrived an honor guard of about 50 uniformed New York City cops. Two by two they marched down the aisle, and as they stood before Vita's photo, they stopped and saluted.
If it didn't break your heart, nothing will. The police, and the firefighters, and postal workers, stir us as never before. We used to see them as symbols of strength and authority, and now we see their vulnerability as reflections of our own.
Vita was my wife Suzy's first cousin through marriage. Suzy's mother and Jonathan's mother were sisters who grew up in West Baltimore. And then, in the crazy quilt that is American life, Jonathan's mother married and moved to the Midwest to raise a family.
"Vita and I came from very different backgrounds," Jonathan said Saturday from the church pulpit. Seven weeks after the attacks, he had composed himself enough to deliver his wife's eulogy.
"I am a Russian Jew from an overwhelmingly Protestant community in Kansas City," he said. "Vita grew up as Sicilian and Roman Catholic in a largely Jewish community on Long Island. I tend to be laid-back, liberal and easygoing. Vita was passionate, opinionated and a perfectionist about everything. I am a registered Democrat. Vita was a registered Republican -- one of the few in Manhattan."
The line made the big crowd laugh. In times like these, the religious rituals give us numbing comfort to get us through the dark hours. But laughter reminds us of the good times. Living in Manhattan, Vita and Jonathan met on a blind date. He was a lawyer, and she was finishing school and headed for a career as a financial analyst. In the early years of their marriage they traveled the world -- including Arab countries.
In Turkey and Egypt, when they heard the muezzin utter their calls to prayer, Vita would say, "Isn't that beautiful?" Jonathan's voice cracked at the irony.
"We always stopped and listened to that call whenever we were in a Muslim country," he said. "Allahu Akbar -- God is great. In our home, we have wall hangings containing intricate calligraphy from the Quran that we bought in Egypt."
He spoke slowly now, maybe to compose himself, and maybe just to make sure the words sank in. "The evil people who did this to us no more represent Islam than the Spanish Inquisition represented Roman Catholicism or the right-wing terrorists in Israel represent Judaism."
It was a brave and important thing to say. We are bound together as Americans as never before -- but we are, as ever, susceptible to those who would divide us by religion, by turning faith in one God into grotesqueries of belief.
So we comforted ourselves in memories of Vita -- "brilliant, yes, but more important, she cared for everyone," said the Rev. Frank Nelson -- and with the notion of the American family: We cross lines, we do not insist that everyone see the world through the same eyes.
"Vita was passionate about religion," Jonathan said. "She went to Mass every Sunday, even when we were on vacation. She believed in God. She believed in an afterlife. She made sure that the girls were receiving Catholic religious instruction. She even went to synagogue with me on the infrequent occasions when I attended.
"She never asked me to convert to Catholicism. I never asked her to convert to Judaism. Both of us were comfortable in our faiths. We both believed that religion should not divide people and that its purpose was to make us better people and develop a relationship with God."
That's all. In the American ideal, we do not merely tolerate each other's cultures. We appreciate them, and learn from them, and thus enrich ourselves beyond our own traditions. Vita's little girls, so saddened by their mother's death, will find themselves sustained by the outpouring of affection from all corners of the American mosaic.
They are part of history now -- and part of a legacy passed down from the first in their parents' families who came to America for all the right reasons.
"I want to close with this thought," Jonathan Dodge said Saturday. "It is not about Vita specifically, but it is something that we often talked about. My grandfather Ben came to this country as a boy from Russia, a young Jew unable to speak English. Vita's grandfather James came to this country as a boy from Sicily, a Roman Catholic, also unable to speak English.
"They were very different men from very different backgrounds. Coincidentally, they both had the same favorite song, which they both told me on several occasions. That song was 'The Star-Spangled Banner.'"