Sunday, September 11, 2011

In remembrance of a really crappy day that took place 10 yrs ago

It was a dark and stormy night.

That's the famous opening line to the 1830 novel Paul Clifford. It became the benchmark opening line to create a setting that tapped into the readers deepest fears, hoping to hook them into the story. A few years ago I attended a writer's conference where a speaker debunked the myth of the dark and stormy night, and made the case that the best way to maximize the horror factor was to have the "bad things" happen in a place nobody expects them to happen. And when I think back to September 11, 2001, on that perfect sunny September morning, there wasn't even the smallest of hints that such indescribable horror was about to take place.

Those responsible for the darkest memories of that day were not the best human beings (major understatement) but did have a knack for storytelling - unfortunately for them, it didn't have the ending they envisioned, but I'll get to that later. A tale is often judged by whether it "sticks" with you, and using that standard, the story of 9/11 is still vivid in my mind, ten years later.

I can still remember arriving at work in Westport, Connecticut, bemoaning the idea having to spend the next eight plus hours at work on such an ideal day. I remember Joanne, the office manager, mentioning that a plane had hit the WTC, and my immediate thought was it was a small plane like the one that once crashed into the Empire State Building years ago. I can still hear the voice shouting down the hallway that a second plane had hit, and like every American did at that exact moment, I had that "aha...uh-oh" moment. Since I lived closest to the office, a handful of my co-workers found refuge at my place after we were sent home that morning, and together we watched as the unthinkable took place before our eyes on the TV. I can still see where Laurie was sitting, and Kris, and Keith, and Alicia, and the expressions on their faces are engraved in my mind when the towers fell to the ground. Later that afternoon, my now sister-in-law brought her kids over and I remember watching them play basketball - under that damn perfect sky - too young to understand what was happening just an hour away. And I will never forget going out to eat that night, sitting by the window and watching the military trucks roll by - wondering if things would ever be the same.

When I was doing research on the Nazis for a book I was working on, I found an interesting quote from a Holocaust survivor that went something like: one hundred dead is a catastrophe, six million dead is a statistic, but one dead is a tragedy. When it's one person, especially someone you know, it becomes personal. The person who personalized 9/11 for me was named Sean. He was 27 years old, worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, and had everything to live for. He also had been a close friend of my brother, and my family and I had known him since he was in first or second grade. He was also one of the funnier people you'll ever meet (his irreverently hilarious videos depicting the Iliad and the Odyssey for a school project were still some of the funniest things I've ever seen) and could find humor in most anything. There were around 3,000 or so Seans who personalized that day for people, and some police and fire companies lost too many Seans, and Moms, and Dads.

It was that spirit of humor Sean embodied, which impacted me on a Sunday morning, six years ago. I arose early and went out to get my usual paper and diet coke at a local store I frequented. I usually made small talk with the friendly cashier, who was of Middle Eastern descent. I had no ideas of his ideas on politics, terrorism, or the US in general, but I did know he liked football, which was our normal topic of conversation. On that morning the interaction went like this:

I placed the NY Daily News on the counter with the back page (sports) facing up
cashier: pointing at the photo of the NY Jets player on the back cover. "Big day today, huh?"
me: "It's like a holiday in my house" (meaning the first Sunday of NFL football)

After paying for my items, I left the store to some of the strangest looks I've ever received, as if those waiting in line wanted to harm me. I was confused - it wasn't like my brief conversation held up the line that long. But when I returned to my car, I flipped the paper over to front page, and realized that it had slipped my mind that it was September 11, 2005 - the fourth anniversary. Then I did the math in my head - I was talking with a Middle Eastern guy and happily declaring today a holiday - suddenly I understood those looks.

I couldn't help but to laugh at my idiocy, and in doing so, for the first time when it came to any remembrance of 9/11, I felt the tension slightly lift. It was at that point that I realized that while things might never be the same, they were getting back to normal. And the best way to honor those lost is to live your life - hug your kids a little harder for those who no longer have a parent to hug, chase your dreams with more zest for those whose dreams died in that rubble, and laugh for those like Sean who had their laughter silenced.

On that anniversary, six years ago, I first began to focus on the part of the story that the authors of that day wish they could edit out. The heartfelt stories of courage and sacrifice. The strangers coming together to help each other. And how we continued to live with spirit and freedom, refusing to give into the fear - this was not the ending that the authors wanted. Nor did they likely foresee the dramatic epilogue years later where the villain was hunted down by a courageous group of Navy Seals, and they stopped him from ever hurting anyone else.

September 11, 2001 will never have a happy ending. And the aftermath that played out over the last decade has often been divided and strained, and continues on with each new threat, or when each brave soldier comes home in a casket. But I'm confident that whenever the story is finally completed, it won't go down as a horror story as the authors intended, but as a cautionary tale for those who think that fear can conquer the human spirit.

In the last line of Painless, Carolyn Whitcomb, another child who is faced with going through life without a parent, looks up at Billy Harper and says, "Stick together, remember?" If she had asked Billy the same question about the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I think he would have responded, "We did."

PS. The other day I came across an organization called the Brooke Jackman Foundation.
Brooke was a 23-yr-old who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald and like thousands of her co-workers, lost her life in 9/11. It seems that Brooke was an avid reader and her parents set up the foundation to help literacy for underprivileged children following her death. I'm a  big sucker for supporting children's literacy. I don't know enough about this organization yet to recommend supporting it, but I was intrigued enough to send the link so you can check it out for yourself.