I wasn’t sure what to expect on the day when it came. For the entire week leading up to the anniversary, I had been reading some of the very personal stories behind our very collective grief as a country. September 11th is our generation’s “Where were you when?” moment. Everyone remembers and I for one will never forget. I was a new mother. My baby was almost seven months old and we had grown into a comfortable daily routine. I was fortunate enough to be able to stay at home and at 9:00 that morning, after diaper changes and some snuggling, we had finally made our way downstairs to get some breakfast. I absentmindedly turned on the TV and walked into the kitchen expecting to hear the voices of Regis and Kelly. I did not. Instead I heard what sounded like a news report. Carrying my daughter, I walked back into the living room and saw fire engulfing one of the towers of the World Trade Center. I quickly learned a plane had caused the gash in the side of the building and my mind started trying to put the pieces together. It was an absolutely beautiful day so I couldn’t comprehend how a pilot could have gotten so disoriented and how he could have possibly slammed into something as large as the World Trade Center. As I was listening to the news anchors mulling over the same questions, not but three minutes after I had turned on the TV, a second plane came quickly into view and just as quickly disappeared into the second tower and exploded into an enormous fireball. That’s when I knew, the world knew. The shock of it hit me immediately and I hugged my baby girl tightly and sank down to the couch. This was no accident. The enormity of what that meant weighed me to my spot. I cried and apologized to my daughter for bringing her into a world where people could do this to each other. And of course I prayed for every life I had just witnessed being extinguished.
I spent a very similar morning on Sunday, September 11, 2011. We were out-of-town at my in-laws unexpectedly. A close friend of our family had a death in their family. Our friend’s father had passed away after a long illness and as soon as we heard when the funeral was going to be, we packed our bags and headed to the mountains. The service was held on Friday, September 9th. Our friend’s uncle said his eulogy. We had met “Uncle Jay” earlier at the visitation and I liked him right away. He has piercing blue eyes, a very wry smile, a generous laugh, and carries himself with enviable grace. He is the type of person you just want to be around. I grew to like him even more when, during the eulogy, he read the poem, The Dash by Linda Ellis. I wish I could reprint it here, but there are copyrights and such so I’ll just have to ask you to Google it. The gist of the poem though, is that there is a beginning to your life and an end. But what is really important is what you do with the “dash” in between those dates. Throughout the eulogy, “Uncle Jay” told us wonderful stories of love, devotion, and service in a tribute to my friend’s father. His dash, it seemed, had been very full. At the end of each story he repeated the line, “He is my brother. He is a good man and I’m here to celebrate his life.” Life.
I thought about this as we all sat as a family Sunday morning watching the ceremony at the memorial in New York City. Just like ten years ago, I was holding my daughter on the couch as we watched TV, but this time we were both crying. I find it difficult to explain what happened that day to her and to her brother who was not yet born. The overwhelming question they have is “why?” It’s something I wish I could make any sense of, let alone put it into words that my children can understand. Luckily, the program we were watching focused on the stories of those lost that day instead of the why. This day ten years ago was the end of an earthly path for so many but thankfully they have loved ones, just like my friend’s uncle, who are more than happy to let us know how they spent their “dash”. It was so good to hear these stories. And it was amazing to hear that some who knew they were not going to survive the day and were able to, called their friends and family to say, “I love you” and “I want you to live a good life even if I’m gone.” Live.
By the grace of God we did not die on September 11, 2001. By the grace of God we have our family with us and were able to share this anniversary with my husband’s parents. And so, after all of the moments of silence, after we gathered our bags and packed the car, my husband suggested we go for a hike together on our way back home. We drove to a state park with several walking trails all leading to beautiful vistas of waterfalls. At one point, our children walking ahead, my husband took my hand and held it. This was much different from ten years ago. That day he had been out-of-town on business and was in New Jersey, across the river from Manhattan. He had flown into JFK the night before. I remember calling him frantically after the second plane hit; leaving him voice-mails because I was unsure of what was going to happen next. He called back saying he could see the smoke and when they went outside, smell the burning. With air travel being grounded for days, he rented a car the next day and drove home. When I hugged him the night he came home, I felt like I was hugging him for all those people who weren’t as lucky as I. And when I held his hand today I felt the same way. Along the trail we met a man, a veteran, who was there doing something he loved – photography. We found out that not only had he served our country, but his nephew (who he said “was as close as a son”) made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan. He said he had been devastated for a long time and still didn’t think he was over his loss. But yet, there he was enjoying the outdoors on this somber day and not letting it get the best of him. He was doing what I’m sure his nephew would want him to do. Living.
Soon we came upon a roaring waterfall. It was so serene and peaceful. As I stood with my family, I said a silent prayer for those we lost ten years ago and for those who survived. At that moment, I felt that what we were doing together was a perfect way to pay tribute to all of them. I saw many tears today but I was also heartened by the LIFE in the stories I heard. Being able to LIVE in the moment, tell people how we feel, enjoy being together, appreciate everything we are given and share it, LIVING our “dash” and making it the biggest and boldest we can possibly make it… that’s the good stuff. And in a weekend full of grief and sadness, that is what I want to remember.