TORONTO — There’s a slim book that sits proudly on Selena Dack-Forsyth’s bookshelf at her home in Port Hope, Ont., filled with illustrations of New York in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks.
For the 72-year-old who lost her son that day, the book is a huge source of comfort.
“Healing Hearts,” a collection of 43 pen and ink drawings by Canadian artist John Coburn, takes Dack-Forsyth to the places she couldn’t access after the attacks and shows her there were many who tried to find her son.
Thirty-nine-year-old Arron Dack was attending a conference at the World Trade Center when the planes hit. As soon as she heard of the attacks, Dack-Forsyth headed to New York.
“What I wanted to do was get a hard hat and some boots and just go to Ground Zero and look for my son. That was my mission,” she said. “There was just no way that I could believe that he was not going to survive, so I was going to go look for him.”
After a police chief gently explained it wouldn’t be possible or safe for her to dig through the mountain of wreckage herself, Dack-Forsyth had to accept she couldn’t search for her child. Her son was never found.
“I was really quite devastated,” she said, adding that she was angry in the early aftermath because she felt not enough had been done to find her son.
That changed in May 2003 when she received a copy of “Healing Hearts,” one of just 3,000 printed for the families of 9-11.
“I was just thrilled in one sense because John’s drawings, they were all people who were there at Ground Zero, looking for my son. They were looking for everybody’s son,” she said.
“Even though I felt so helpless at the time when they wouldn’t let me go to Ground Zero, I suddenly realized that indeed other people had done that job for me.”
That realization brought huge comfort. Over the years, the book has continued to reassure her and others who lost loved ones that every effort was made to find the survivors of the attacks.
“When you lose a child the pain never, ever goes away — not ever will it go away — but it does get easier to deal with,” said Dack-Forsyth. “I think John’s book helped in some way for my pain to be easier to deal with.”
For Toronto-based Coburn, there’s no bigger satisfaction than hearing something like that.
“When I am reminded by families that these drawings actually do mean a little something to them ... that one conversation makes it all worthwhile,” he said.
After 9-11, Coburn — who had often used New York as a muse in the past — felt compelled to travel to the city with no clear idea of what he would do once he landed.
“I needed to go and pay my respects to the wounded city,” said the 54-year-old. “It became a physical thing...all my body and mind was telling me was, ’You gotta go to your other home.”’
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Arriving two months after Sept. 11 with his pen and sketchpad in tow, Coburn initially found himself locked out of the city’s core, but after pushing through a hole in a fence and slipping through a barricade, he arrived at Ground Zero.
“I sat down and started drawing and that was an extremely surreal feeling,” he said. “Beyond anything I could comprehend in terms of just sadness and strangeness ... That was the start of this journey.”
Coburn went on to capture scenes of rescue workers clearing rubble, volunteers working around the clock, families praying and strangers comforting one another. He was often in places where photographs were prohibited, but his drawings weren’t.
“The entire city was hurt and for me, I just wanted to capture what was going on. And what was going on was a whole lot of love.”
A chaplain working near Ground Zero saw Coburn’s drawings and called them “gentle,” suggesting he compile them to provide a snapshot of the compassion that arose from the immense tragedy of the attacks.
The idea that his art could help someone struck Coburn, but the real trigger for the book came from a conversation with a woman who had lost her son.
Rosemary Cain, whose firefighter son George died in the attacks, told Coburn that if his work could help even four people remember her child, it would be worth having.
A decade later, she stands by what she said.
“His book brought the site, brought the happenings and the events to the families through his incredible illustrations. It’s just telling the stories of what happened down there,” Cain said from her Long Island home.
“Anything that helps people to remember Sept. 11, I think, is important.”
The book was printed, published and distributed at no charge, all thanks to donors who supported Coburn and his work. It was then sent to every family who had lost a loved one in the attacks.
Coburn is now working on a documentary about “Healing Hearts” and the people it has touched. He’s also exhibiting the original drawings from the book publicly for the first time. They’re on display until Sept. 15 at a location six blocks from Ground Zero.
“Having an exhibition is a real honour in any city, but in this city that’s always been my passion, it’s very, very special,” he said.
“These drawings, I think (of them) as a gentle catalyst to ... share a little bit of love and something that might help someone else down the road.”