It was a lovely, late-spring day. The blue sky seemed limitless, and the first fingers of almost-summer-sun warmed the air. I’d just finished turning in final grades for the students of my freshman creative writing class at Livingston College, and was looking forward to a few days of rest and relaxation. I was ready to spend some quality time with my daughter that evening, without the distraction of lesson-planning or grading papers. I smiled at the thought.
An hour later, I learned that my not quite four-year-old little girl had drowned in the swimming pool at the home of my caregiver. I promise you, I never saw that coming.
My daughter’s death was not a national horror, but it was a personal one. So, when I think of those who suffered a loss on 9/11, I need only visit my own heart to understand their pain. That said, I know their experience was singular.
I distinctly remember that day. I had just moved into my house a few days before, and was busily painting and faux painting a wall in my dining room when the phone rang. I put down the paintbrush and grabbed the handset. My sister’s voice burst through the wires.
“They’re coming, Sis!” she cried. “They’re coming right now!”
“What? What are you talking about?” I asked.
“Turn on the TV!” she ordered. “Turn it on!”
“Okay! Okay!” I said. “I will.” And she hung up.
There was something very unsettling in my sister’s voice, and so I left the open paint cans where they were, switched on the television and sat down to watch the news. I didn’t get up again for a long, long time.
I grew up in New York City. Every person who calls himself a New Yorker either knew someone directly, or indirectly, who died in the towers that day. I am no exception. I can tell you, there was grief enough to go around.
Clearly, 9/11 was about a great deal more than loss of life. It was about a national loss of innocence, as well as loss of even the illusion of safety. Every man, woman, and child of us suddenly understood that America is not, in fact invulnerable to modern terrorism. But I won’t try to address the broader aspects of this monumental event here. My focus is on personal loss and grief and how we choose to shape that in our lives moving forward.
Why is it still so hard to talk about this? Why is the heartache still so close to the surface?
I’ve suffered a great deal of loss in my life, attended too many funerals, wept my way through countless memorials. Given a choice, I prefer the memorials because they allow for moments of humor and shared laughter, moments of celebrating the life, rather than mourning the death, of the person for whom we’ve gathered to say goodbye. The sad fact is that we all have to say goodbye to someone, sooner or later. That someone might be a father, a mother, a friend, or a sister.
A few days ago, I got a call from my brother-in-law informing me that my sister, Carol, had just been rushed to the hospital with a possible heart attack. My own heart skipped a beat, and when it started up again, fear held it captive. Late that night, Carol, herself called me from the hospital. When I heard her voice on the phone, I began to cry. In that moment, I understood how deeply I feared never hearing that voice again. Carol is fine, now, and I can breathe again. But, I understand, intellectually, at least, that there will come a day when I will hear her voice for the last time. Her life is as fragile as any other. This most recent close call punctuates that fact. The events of 9/11 did the same, in spades.
The attack on the World Trade Center was stupefying. The wounds are still fresh, and it would be easy to wad up all our grief into a ball of hatred against those who brought the towers down. Some have chosen to do exactly that. Unfortunately, that hatred too often extends to the races, cultures, and nations that spawned the terrorists who crashed those planes into the towers. Whole people groups have been blamed for the deadly acts of those few. We need to be careful, here. History teaches us that humans of every race, culture and religious persuasion, are capable of enormous harm and horror. Think the Middle Passage, the Crusades, the Holocaust, Darfur. The list, alas, goes on. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.
Is there evil in the world? No doubt. Should we seek justice? Absolutely. But if we allow hatred to rule our hearts, we will become what we hate.
There’s a better take away from 9/11 than bitterness and hatred. Life is fragile, unpredictable, and it is almost always too short. Live into each day fully. Love with abandon. Take no good thing in your life for granted, especially those you love. Pursue your dream regardless of how long it takes. Time will pass, either way, so use that time to pursue what matters. Finally, whenever the opportunity arises, show kindness. Each hug, kiss, or deep belly laugh could be your last. And if it isn’t, your day will be richer for your having lived it that way.