I re-post this every year out of gratitude for my own blessings, and in sympathy for the thousands still living every day with absence.
I remember clearly that it was a Tuesday. I was living in Mobile, Alabama at the time. Since I had overnight duty at the school where I was working, I had the morning off. I was headed to the gym in my car when I heard the news story. I thought it was a spoof; like an April Fool's joke. Ha ha. It sounded way too "out there" to be real.
Planes, crashing into a building in New York City? Please; the likelihood of that level of mechanical and human failure happening in the middle of one of the largest metropolises in the world? Not hardly.
I didn't think about the failure of human minds and hearts.
At the gym, I was on the elliptical machine watching the news on tv when I saw that it was real. That something was gravely, horribly wrong. I don't remember when the word "terrorist" first scrolled across the screen (do you remember when we still thought it was just an accident?). My first concern was for my uncle Paul, who had worked for NY Bell and had been part of the repair crew on the Towers eight years earlier.
But he was long retired; surely he wouldn't be down there.
And then a moment of sheer terror: I had completely forgotten that my brother worked there, somewhere in lower Manhattan, not in the Towers, but I didn't know where. As the story spread, the towers collapsed; ash and dust coated the entire area and I finally panicked. I grabbed my water bottle and towel and ran to the car.
I had spoken to him two days before, to wish him a happy birthday. Where was he now?
How odd; nobody around me seemed moved or concerned. They had no connection to this news story unfolding up there in "the corner." But my dad's family is from New York; we had all visited the Towers one summer when I was ten or twelve. I had been there; I knew what it was like, the sheer enormity of the place.
And my brother was in there, near there, somewhere.
As I drove home, I called his house in New Jersey. Busy.
I called his cell phone. All circuits busy.
(Do you remember how the phone lines on the entire east coast were tied up that day?)
Tried his home again. Still busy.
Tried my parents' down in Georgia. Busy.
Finally, I noticed the voice message icon on my cell phone. It was from my father; they had heard from my sister-in-law that my brother was ok. He was trapped in Manhattan (remember how they shut down all car traffic to and from the island?), but he was safe.
I called my father back and finally got through. My brother had watched the whole thing from his office in the Traveler's building, two blocks from the World Trade Center. He had been on the phone with my dad, watching the first tower burn, and assuring him that they had been told to stay where they were; everything was fine.
Then the second plane hit.
My brother told my father, "I've got to go," and hung up the phone. It would be days before they spoke again.
After hearing the story, I stopped trying to reach him or his wife that day. I knew there were vastly more important calls that needed to get through.
Down in Manhattan, my brother was the recipient of some of the amazing generosity that bloomed that horrific Tuesday. He walked tens of blocks north, and was given shelter by a coworker’s sister's friend, or something like that. It was the only way he was able to call his wife that day. I don't remember how he got home, or when. That day, it was enough to know that he was alive. (Do you remember the confusion; the "Missing" fliers plastered on every vertical surface, pleading for a thousand miracles?)
My brother worked for Citigroup at the time, in their International Treasury division. The next several weeks he reported to an emergency backup site in New Jersey, putting in 12 and 14 hour days to ensure that his small part of our financial system remained functional. (It didn't sound all that impressive back then, but after the 2008 financial meltdown, I'm a bit more respectful.)
When I finally got to speak to him at length, weeks later, my brother wouldn't talk about it. He wanted to put it behind him and move forward. He had lost colleagues and neighbors. He had watched people leap to their deaths rather than face hell on Earth. That detail was the only one he would go into, and he said it angrily: "You don't understand what it's like."
No, he's right. I don't.
Less than six months later, in February 2002, I flew up to visit. (Do you remember how air travel was shut down for days, and the bravery it took afterwards, just to board a plane?) My brother drove me into Manhattan, where we visited his office, high above the streets in another glass-fronted tower. From a floor-to-ceiling window we looked two blocks down the street, at the raw wound, a huge square of nothingness. "If they had missed the Towers, our building would have been the next one they hit," he told me matter-of-factly.
On September 11th I fly the flag for many reasons, but mostly to commemorate the innocents who lost their lives that day. The ones who were in the wrong building. Who weren't lucky enough to flee, covered in ash, panicked and cut off from their loved ones, but alive. For those who ran in the other direction, into danger.
I fly it in the hope that it will keep the memory alive another year. To remind myself of the inconceivable tragedy that still should haunt us. To remind myself to be grateful that I still have a brother, no matter how little we may agree sometimes.
My nephew Ethan was born in 2002.
My niece Keira was born in 2006.
My sister-in-law is not a widow.
I know that by the time Ethan's and Keira's children are in school, this will be just another date in history. A bunch of people died. My grand-nieces and nephews will learn the definitions of "isolationism," "nationalism" and the names Bush, Hussein, Al-Qaida, Desert Storm. And it will mean as much to them as Pearl Harbor meant to me growing up.
That's the nature of history; as it retreats further into our collective past, it gathers dust, a soft coating that obscures our view. It's inevitable. Over the years, plenty of other, more immediate crises will push our country this way and that. Yet, for the time being, I'm doing my part to keep the memory alive and distinct.
I don't know anyone who actually died that day. But my flag, this post, and my tears are for their memory, and for the ones they left behind.
Ethan and his dad, July 2008