(from SEIU/1199 News November 2001, online version: http://www.1199seiu.org/articles/article.cfm?ID=4645)
The Long Road Back
Widowed CNA struggles to rebuild life.
After Shawn's death, Powell temporarily moved into the apartment of her mother-in-law, Ruth Powell, with her five-year-old son, Joshua. She spoke with 1199 News in the apartment several days after Shawn's funeral Nov. 10 at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Brooklyn.
"The two weeks following Sept. 11, I lived on the phone. I called every number I saw on TV or heard on the radio looking for Shawn," she says. "I refused to accept that he was gone. In fact, I still haven't fully accepted it."
She says that Shawn's funeral was an important step on the road back. As in the funerals for other fallen firefighters, many firefighters from far off states joined the funeral procession. They were led by firefighters from Engine 207, Ladder 110, who lost five of their brothers on Sept. 11. The funeral included a marching band and fire trucks with American flags draped over the ladders.
Though the ceremony was long for Joshua, Powell thought it was important that he hear how others felt about his father. In the early 1990s Shawn was a CNA at Florence Nightingale NH (formerly in Local 144, now in 1199). Later he was trained as an EMT in the Army Reserves. He was a skilled cartoonist who also studied architecture. He worked in numerous theater productions. Fellow firefighters from 207 said he was the resident intellectual and a jack of all trades who could cook and bake with the best of them.
A British TV company broadcast parts of the funeral and presented copies of the tape to Jean and Ruth Powell. The film notes that Shawn was one of 12 African American firemen among the 343 who perished Sept. 11. At the service, Powell's smile mingled occasionally with her tears when speakers joked about Shawn.
"Shawn was such a people person," Powell says. "He was always smiling and he gave everyone the benefit of the doubt." She feels that his kindness to others is now coming back to her.
"What has sustained me is the tremendous support system I've had," she says. "Our family and friends, Shawn's co-workers, the fire department and union and people in the city as a whole have embraced us.
"I'm extremely thankful for the support of my co-workers at TCC. (CNA)Flora Brown calls me every day, often with greetings and well wishes from other co-workers I don't even know."
Powell says she has contacted the Benefit Fund and its Members Assistance Program. 1199 Executive Council member and TCC delegate Maurice Philip and Organizer Ray Ithier have made calls and helped with the paperwork for Powell's leave of absence and other union benefits.
"That is what having a union means," says Philip. "We will give our sister any assistance she needs. For instance, we'll discuss making sure that Joshua gets to the union's children's Christmas party."
Powell is making sure that Joshua is closely monitored at school, where he is in kindergarten. "He seemed to be fine at first, but lately he's been taking it hard," she says. "I'm trying to be father and mother, and that means learning how to do things that he previously did with his dad, like playing computer games."
Joshua also misses having his dad tuck him in on the nights Shawn was home. When asked what he and his Dad did on those nights, Joshua answers, "We did reading and we did praying."
"Joshua's father was a hero, but what I want him to remember most about Shawn was how very much his dad loved him. Shawn also was in charge of putting together Joshua's Christmas list for Santa," says Powell. "I never even saw the list, but whenever I ask Joshua about it, it seems to get longer."
Getting through the holidays will be another step for her, she acknowledges. The week before Thanksgiving she began spending more time at home in Brooklyn with a view to moving back permanently. "It is painful, but I know I have to do this for me and Joshua," she says.
"I'm so busy during the day that's it's easy to get caught up, but the problem comes at those moments when we used to do things together," she explains. "Going to bed and waking up are two of those times.
"After Sept. 11, I used to feel guilty whenever I smiled, but I'm beginning to understand that that's wrong," she says. "Shawn wants me to go on and he smiled all the time. One day recently I was riding on the bus and I heard Shawn's voice. He said to me, 'I'm alright.'"
Powell plans to return to work in January. "That will be a very big step back," she stresses. "I know that Shawn and all those who died rescuing others on Sept. 11 made the ultimate sacrifice for the rest of us. And as someone said at Shawn's funeral, we honor his life by doing the best we can with ours."