I first published this blog entry on 9-11-09. I thought I would share it again today, on the twelfth anniversary of the attacks on our soil on September, 11, 2001.
I don’t think it’s appropriate to extend the traditional holiday greeting to you, as in “Happy Patriot Day”, but the day cannot pass without us all thinking very hard about what we lost as a nation that bright blue September day twelve years ago. We lost our sense of safety on our own soil. We lost many, many American lives.
My daughter, rehearsing to perform in a show, one that did go on in spite of the hate extended to us by our attackers, was to turn seventeen years old the day after the attacks. She will be twenty nine years old this Thursday. The world she has grown up in is a different place than it was for us as we became adults. It was a time of fear, grief, and pain, but also a time that saw Americans rally around and support each other in ways that we are still struggling to regain today. I offer this to you to document my memories of that clear day in September and to honor those who died. I never cease to wonder at how much we all suffered that day, how we comforted each other, and how much of ourselves we lost forever.
It was a Tuesday, of course, late summer/early fall in South Carolina. Bright blue sky, wonderful smells in the air, and just a hint of the changing season. Enough to make you wish for pumpkins and turkey and pan dressing and kicking piles of leaves and smelling smoke. Enough of all this to make you feel safe, free, and wonderful. Enough to make you proud to be an American.
I was working in the mental health center that Tuesday morning, doing what I had done every Tuesday morning for over ten years. I was talking to people with psychiatric illnesses who had been hospitalized against their will for reasons of dangerousness or potential for self harm. In other words, my job that morning involved making sure that the most vulnerable among us were given a fair shake by the mental health system and the court system, and that if they had improved sufficiently, that they would be released from the hospital that day. How American, yes?
After the second interview or so, if memory serves, a staffer ran into the room and told us that the patients and hospital staff waiting their turns to see us in the adjoining room were all glued to the television. It seemed that a small plane had just had a terrible accident, crashing into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City. How terrible and sad, we all thought vaguely, going on about our work for the next few minutes, not thinking more about it at least at that instant. Soon, that same staff member came back with astonishing news. It seemed that the plane that had hit one of the twin towers was a much larger plane, maybe even a jet airliner. No, we all thought, at least to ourselves, how could that happen? Huge planes don’t just lose control and crash into skyscrapers. It just doesn’t happen.
The next few moments, really the next few hours, changed all of our lives forever. When we understood what was happening, as the first tower smoked and burned and helicopters began to buzz as did television commentators, we stood riveted to the floor, all of us standing up, restless and vaguely afraid but not knowing what we were afraid of, not knowing whether we should just go on about our days or wait to see if we were going to get new marching orders. The crash of the second plane into the second tower, with the graphic video footage that almost all Americans have seen by now, was surreal.
We were being attacked.
The United States was being attacked.
I have always loved history, and I thought to myself, if there had been the real time coverage we have now in 1941, this is what Americans would have felt like as Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor. Just like the Gulf War and other incidents in recent years, we were all witnessing history being made, terrible history that would affect everything from how we traveled to how we looked at neighbors who didn’t quite look like “us” any more.
I think we went through the rest of the morning in a fog. All of us wanted to make sure our families were safe. As crazy as it feels today, I believe that we all thought that attacks could happen anywhere the rest of that day, even in South Carolina. We made plans to attend church services that night, most of which had been cobbled together as prayer services for the victims as well as for the safety of all of us who remained in America that night, shocked, afraid and angry. My family did something else that a lot of other families did. We met for a meal of comfort food, hearkening back to that age-old tradition of gathering around a table and breaking bread together, offering solace and strength to each other.
One of the most symbolic things we did as the next few days and the real tragedy of it all became so apparent was to display American flags everywhere. We put them on our cars, on our office doors, on our windshields. At our family home, we just happened to have a very large American flag that had been flown over the US Capitol at the request of our congressman. We had never displayed it. I found a few of the biggest, strongest nails I could find, attached them to the front of our house, and hung the flag proudly so that it covered most of the front porch and acted as an impromptu curtain and afternoon sun shade for the living room’s French door windows. That huge flag stayed there, proudly displayed, for a very long time. It has long since been replaced by a smaller version that hangs from a more traditional mounting on a porch column, but there was rarely a day that Old Glory did not fly at our house in the months after the attacks.
Today, we remember that tragic day, 9-11-01, when so many innocent Americans died. We remember and honor a new crop of American heroes who rose to the occasion in service to their country. We remember when the American spirit, so often dampened of late, burned brightly at ground zero in New York City through dark days and even darker nights of digging, searching, rescuing, and recovering. We remember the fear, the anxiety, the terror, the anger and the relief when we knew that the worst of the initial attacks was over, though the aftermath was just beginning.
Oh, how we still grieve.
We are not fighting a war on terror. We are all struggling and fighting to regain a lost sense of humanity and brotherhood and common cause. We are fighting, or we should be, to be a global people who can live together and celebrate our differences as well as our commonalities. We are fighting not to be isolative and separate and exclusive, for if we do so, we shall all surely die one day, all of us the world over.
The flags outside state offices will be flying at half staff today, as will thousands of others across the country.
No, I will not wish you a Happy Patriot Day.
I will instead ask that you take some time to reflect today.
Take some time not to grieve the loss purposefully inflicted on the United States that clear September day, but to consider the loss to humanity as a whole.
When many of us die, each of us dies just a little right along with them.
It’s time to stop the killing.