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History Is Different When It's Yours

Today is 9/11, and I don’t think I’ve made a single post on this day before. Eleven years ago, I was awakened in my New York apartment by the phone ringing off the hook with friends frantic to get hold of me. I turned the television on just in time to see the second plane crash into the building right up the street from my husband’s work.

An hour or so later I watched the first tower collapse on television, then turned to look out my window and see a huge cloud of grey smoke mushroom up. I remember collapsing on the floor sobbing, certain I’d never see my husband again – my husband I’d been trying frantically to call all morning, who had no cell phone. I was told by someone at his office that he’d left the building shortly after the second plane hit, and knew his commute was through the World Trade Center subway stop to get out.

And I don’t remember much else after that until I heard the doorbell, opened the door, and saw my ash-coated husband standing on the stoop, panting from having run all the way home so I wouldn’t worry any longer than I had to.

I was lucky that day, and of course thousands of others weren’t. The dusty clothes my husband wore home that day, including his shoes, we threw away. Cleaning out someone else’s ashes to wear them again was further than we could go. We still live with the personal fallout, all these years later: we traditionally hibernate on 9/11 to avoid watching television or hearing it talked about on the radio. I can’t watch a plane fly closely overhead. Brian hears a loud, dull thud, and is convinced it’s another plane flying into a building like the one he watched eleven years ago. And of course, what we went through pales in comparison to so many others: my friend who lost her fiancé in the second tower, or my best friend who lost several members of her work team in the first tower. And thousands of others with stories like them.

To Maddie and Cora, it’s just another day and we work hard to keep it that way. They have no idea there’s any historical significance to the date, or any personal significance to us. But Maddie’s in second grade now, and I have been told that this subject will be taught. Today. Perhaps over the teachers’ objections.

Truthfully, I had half a mind to pull her out of school today and avoid the topic. Partly because I don’t want her to learn this part of her world – that it can be an ugly and uncertain place – and partly because I frankly don’t want to talk about it. But I know that it’s part of her world, not just ours, and needs to be learned some time. So I recognize that it will be talked about. It will be taught.

But here is what I ask of you:

Please, do this with dignity. Please do not turn to sensationalism, or allow people to rubberneck at this remembered tragedy. When I first saw The Titanic and people were sobbing over the doomed lovers onscreen, I couldn’t help but wonder what a survivor would have made of our turning the floating bodies into voyeuristic entertainment, complete with greasy popcorn and super-sized cokes.

And please, for the love of all that is holy, do not treat this as a political opportunity. In 2001 Congress passed a resolution declaring 9/11 “Patriot Day” and I find it a poor description for the day. The people who died on those planes and in the towers weren’t trying to serve their countries, they were innocent victims of terrorists. And those men and women who worked as firefighters and policemen and died when the buildings collapsed? They weren’t patriots, they were heroes: they died not rescuing Americans, but rescuing people. A good friend of mine was on site and ran back into one of the buildings repeatedly to help bring people out, climbing over rubble and coated in dirt. Did doing this make him a better American? No – it made him a person living a life of true greatness, striving to serve others and God as best he knew how.

To call it Patriot Day is to belittle the day, to make it less than it was, and I much prefer the newer term Congress officially passed in 2009, the “National Day of Service and Remembrance”. All across the country non-profits join together to give millions – yes, millions- of people a chance to pay it forward, to serve others in their communities the way hundreds of thousands of people came forward to volunteer in the aftermath. Firemen, welders, construction workers, chaplains, cooks, kids, all drove across the country to do what they could to help us out in those horrible months after. They didn’t look for praise and they sure as heck didn’t buy the t-shirts my husband had to walk past every day when he went back to work, replete with slogans like “I Saw Ground Zero” on them.

Do I remember the Starbucks on the corner that refused to give free water to the firemen on 9/11? Yes, I surely do. But I also remember the many communities who sent food and water and supplies to help house and feed the volunteers who came flooding in. What better way can we as a nation remember the day, than to do our own part in our own areas of need?

But I digress, and I apologize. This is surely not the happy-go-lucky story you thought you’d find today about Cora sticking a Cheerio up her nose or something precocious Maddie said yesterday. Apparently I had more to say on the subject than I thought.

So for my Baby Girl and my Little Bit, here’s what I have to say to you:

We’ll talk about this, girls, and we’ll help you make sense of it as best we can. We won’t always be able to say everything we should, but we’ll give it a shot. We have no explanation to give you about why some people died and others didn’t, except to say that we live in a fallen world. And we’ll try not to look back on that day in hatred and fear, but in remembrance of all those people who died needlessly, and with gratitude for all those strangers who stepped forward and selflessly opened their arms and their hearts on that day to our beloved city. We will treat the subject with dignity and not morbidity. This is not a titillating ghost story to be pulled out at campfires with s’mores and shivers up our spines; nor is it a cautionary tale of the perils of befriending a Muslim. It’s a tragedy and a triumph, all in one day, and we cannot make it less than that.

History is different when it’s yours.


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