It is hard to believe that it has been ten years since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. At the same time, it does seem so far away- a lifetime ago since it happened. Every year on this anniversary, I am touched by new stories I hadn’t heard before—stories of heroism and loss that haunt me. I count my blessings that I was far away from the cities affected that day, and that even though I traveled constantly for business, I wasn’t on a plane that particular morning, though I had been the day before.
We all have our stories of where we were that day, and mine is not spectacular or even relevant in the scope of things. I was in Colorado hosting an event for the company I worked for at the time. I had overslept that morning- which was so unlike me for anything to do with an event or my work. It is still the only morning I ever overslept while I was on the road for work—for anything. It was an odd, rushed start to the day, and as I dashed out of my hotel room a few minutes before 7am, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that a red banner was floating along the bottom of the television screen with large letters. I had the sound muted, and thought it was some random weather warning. I was more worried about getting downstairs to make sure the meeting room was set up properly.
Once I got downstairs, I walked through the lobby area and a crowd was in front of a large television set. Before I saw the screen, I could feel something was wrong in the room. I saw some of my coworkers standing in the crowd, and then finally, I saw the screen—saw what was happening. I came downstairs just as the second plane hit. Before I realized it, I was peppering a stranger with questions—a man in a business suit. He looked ashen—and as he told me what he had seen and heard so far, he teared up. I looked for the two women working with me on the event and found them steps away, watching another television outside of our conference room.
The next hour was a blur of phone calls- checking on my friends who traveled extensively, as I did. Making sure everyone was safe. Calling my parents to let them know I was fine. I remember walking outside as I thought of the people who worked in The Windows on the World Restaurant at the top of the North Tower- people I had just worked with a few months prior while in New York. We hosted a reception in the restaurant—and I remembered the view, so beautiful, so far away from the bustling city below. I remembered the kindness of the catering manager and the waiter for our event who made me laugh. I wondered if they were there, if they were OK. I remembered that we stayed in the Marriott hotel adjacent to the tower. All of it was gone. I felt sick.
We had been scheduled to fly out the next day, but instead, we headed to the nearest rental car location outside of the airport. We found it—crowded and overrun with panicked travelers- rented two cars, and I spent the afternoon trying to map our trip back to California—back home for all of us. I don’t think I will ever have another day in my life so surreal, so suspended...encountering so many strangers in tears or seeing truly terrified expressions of people I didn’t know and watching as other strangers comforted them.
The drive home was eerie—almost silent. We listened to NPR all the way home, hearing the voices of survivors and loved ones who had lost their sons, daughters, husbands, siblings—their unedited words raw with grief. It was sobering and terrifying. I just wanted to get back to my bed, my books, my cats…and the safety of my home.
I have read several blog posts in the last few days, talking about how in the days after the attacks, the feeling of unity was so strong—the abundance of overpowering acts of kindness that occurred between strangers could barely be measured. I remember that feeling.
I remember going to the grocery store the day after I got home and encountering several neighbors in my apartment complex on the way to my car. We spoke smiled, stopped and talked. This was an apartment complex full of business people like myself, and this had rarely ever happened. We were all taking account of each other, genuinely caring when saying hello.
At the grocery store, people were careful turning corners, apologizing profusely for bumping into one another. And while this may seem small—these little, meaningful encounters were so powerful. There was such a feeling of shared grief. Kindness was the knee-jerk reaction for everyone. It was contagious and beautiful.
I knew that we, as a country, had been changed in some fundamental way. Back then, I believed that we were going to continue this path of kindness and togetherness. I never expected nirvana or for the intensity in those first days to last, but I did believe that we might view neighbors and strangers differently, seeing unity before differences. Perhaps I was more naïve than I thought possible.
We have changed as a country. I believe the most clear and evident change is that we don’t feel safe, we don’t see ourselves as immune from the “far away” violence in other countries where we once believed that this sort of thing took place. Now, we are one of those places where things like this do happen. That is a huge shift in thinking, a huge shift in living.
The other change makes me so sad. The thing that I loved most about what I saw in the days after 9/11 was such an acceptance of everyone, kindness without question. Although all of us held anger for the people who had carried out these attacks, a small group of Americans immediately thought to hate a religion, a people, a group that they believed that these terrorists belonged to. And then the group that hated started to grow. And then the group THEY hated started to grow. It started to become all encompassing—the hatred and fear. We stopped looking beside us in compassion, but some people suspected their neighbors, coworkers and friends as being a part of who we hated, who we feared, who we found guilty.
I wanted the people who were responsible punished—even dead. But I did not want to see our country become a beacon of hatred, judgment, or paranoid vengeance. I wanted to feel safe, but not at the cost of our souls.
I guess I am still naïve. I wish so badly to feel the kindness in those days after the attacks. Actually, if I am wishing for things…I want to turn back time and take back the loss, the pain, the attacks themselves. But since that isn’t possible, I try and wish for things I still think somehow are possible. I don’t want to believe that it takes bombs, death, and hatred to make us reach out to our neighbors, old friends, and strangers when we see them in need, or just see a moment of pain cross someone’s face that is so deep--and even though we don’t know how to heal that kind of pain—we reach out and say, I am here, I understand.
I am as guilty as anyone. I am not the same as I was in those days after the attacks. I try to be each day, but I am not. I am not quite as compassionate, quite as reticent to judge.
Tomorrow is the tenth anniversary of so much loss, so much pain, so much uncertainty. Almost 3,000 people died that day. For their family, friends, and loved ones, nothing will take away that pain. We can write beautiful words about the loved ones they lost, we can honor them with ceremonies, we can speak their names. But, what better legacy than kindness? What better way to remember a day often attributed to hate than to counter with boundless compassion?
I know it is naïve, and ridiculously optimistic. I know that even I won’t live every day that way. I know that someone in the mall parking lot will annoy me endlessly for some small infraction. But I hope that tomorrow as I count my blessings, I can remember everything we have lost since that day, everything I have been here to enjoy. I hope that I can remember to be a little kinder, a little more accepting. I know I will try.
And I hope, even in some small way, that effort is contagious.