9/11: Fragments of Thought

LeavesIt was a love­ly, late-spring day. The blue sky seemed lim­it­less, and the first fin­gers of almost-sum­mer-sun warmed the air. I’d just fin­ished turn­ing in final grades for the stu­dents of my fresh­man cre­ative writ­ing class at Liv­ingston Col­lege, and was look­ing for­ward to a few days of rest and relax­ation. I was ready to spend some qual­i­ty time with my daugh­ter that evening, with­out the dis­trac­tion of les­son-plan­ning or grad­ing papers. I smiled at the thought.

An hour lat­er, I learned that my not quite four-year-old lit­tle girl had drowned in the swim­ming pool at the home of my care­giv­er. I promise you, I nev­er saw that coming.

My daugh­ter’s death was not a nation­al hor­ror, but it was a per­son­al one. So, when I think of those who suf­fered a loss on 9/11, I need only vis­it my own heart to under­stand their pain. That said, I know their expe­ri­ence was singular.

I dis­tinct­ly remem­ber that day. I had just moved into my house a few days before, and was busi­ly paint­ing and faux paint­ing a wall in my din­ing room when the phone rang. I put down the paint­brush and grabbed the hand­set. My sis­ter’s voice burst through the wires.

“They’re com­ing, Sis!” she cried. “They’re com­ing right now!”

“What? What are you talk­ing about?” I asked.

“Turn on the TV!” she ordered. “Turn it on!”

“Okay! Okay!” I said. “I will.” And she hung up.

There was some­thing very unset­tling in my sis­ter’s voice, and so I left the open paint cans where they were, switched on the tele­vi­sion and sat down to watch the news. I did­n’t get up again for a long, long time.

I grew up in New York City. Every per­son who calls him­self a New York­er either knew some­one direct­ly, or indi­rect­ly, who died in the tow­ers that day. I am no excep­tion. I can tell you, there was grief enough to go around.

Clear­ly, 9/11 was about a great deal more than loss of life. It was about a nation­al loss of inno­cence, as well as loss of even the illu­sion of safe­ty. Every man, woman, and child of us sud­den­ly under­stood that Amer­i­ca is not, in fact invul­ner­a­ble to mod­ern ter­ror­ism. But I won’t try to address the broad­er aspects of this mon­u­men­tal event here. My focus is on per­son­al loss and grief and how we choose to shape that in our lives mov­ing forward.

Why is it still so hard to talk about this? Why is the heartache still so close to the surface?

I’ve suf­fered a great deal of loss in my life, attend­ed too many funer­als, wept my way through count­less memo­ri­als. Giv­en a choice, I pre­fer the memo­ri­als because they allow for moments of humor and shared laugh­ter, moments of cel­e­brat­ing the life, rather than mourn­ing the death, of the per­son for whom we’ve gath­ered to say good­bye. The sad fact is that we all have to say good­bye to some­one, soon­er or lat­er. That some­one might be a father, a moth­er, a friend, or a sister.

A few days ago, I got a call from my broth­er-in-law inform­ing me that my sis­ter, Car­ol, had just been rushed to the hos­pi­tal with a pos­si­ble heart attack. My own heart skipped a beat, and when it start­ed up again, fear held it cap­tive. Late that night, Car­ol, her­self called me from the hos­pi­tal. When I heard her voice on the phone, I began to cry. In that moment, I under­stood how deeply I feared nev­er hear­ing that voice again. Car­ol is fine, now, and I can breathe again. But, I under­stand, intel­lec­tu­al­ly, at least, that there will come a day when I will hear her voice for the last time. Her life is as frag­ile as any oth­er. This most recent close call punc­tu­ates that fact. The events of 9/11 did the same, in spades.

The attack on the World Trade Cen­ter was stu­pe­fy­ing. The wounds are still fresh, and it would be easy to wad up all our grief into a ball of hatred against those who brought the tow­ers down. Some have cho­sen to do exact­ly that. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, that hatred too often extends to the races, cul­tures, and nations that spawned the ter­ror­ists who crashed those planes into the tow­ers. Whole peo­ple groups have been blamed for the dead­ly acts of those few. We need to be care­ful, here. His­to­ry teach­es us that humans of every race, cul­ture and reli­gious per­sua­sion, are capa­ble of enor­mous harm and hor­ror. Think the Mid­dle Pas­sage, the Cru­sades, the Holo­caust, Dar­fur. The list, alas, goes on. Let him who is with­out sin cast the first stone.

Is there evil in the world? No doubt. Should we seek jus­tice? Absolute­ly. But if we allow hatred to rule our hearts, we will become what we hate.

There’s a bet­ter take away from 9/11 than bit­ter­ness and hatred. Life is frag­ile, unpre­dictable, and it is almost always too short. Live into each day ful­ly. Love with aban­don. Take no good thing in your life for grant­ed, espe­cial­ly those you love. Pur­sue your dream regard­less of how long it takes. Time will pass, either way, so use that time to pur­sue what mat­ters. Final­ly, when­ev­er the oppor­tu­ni­ty aris­es, show kind­ness. Each hug, kiss, or deep bel­ly laugh could be your last. And if it isn’t, your day will be rich­er for your hav­ing lived it that way.

4 Responses

  1. Your reflec­tions are so touch­ing and poignant. The mem­o­ry of the loss of your daugh­ter touch­es places long pushed aside. Your words are wise and remind me of lessons learned at my father’s knee.

  2. Dear Nik­ki, I am so sor­ry for your loss, it is heart break­ing to read it. i have two daugh­ters 3 and 6 and some­how the shock of read­ing your state­ment about your daugh­ter drown­ing, drowned out the rest of the arti­cle on 9/11. Some­how i felt the arti­cle deserved to be more about your grief and sor­row and mem­o­ry and love of your daughter.

  3. “Is there evil in the world? No doubt. Should we seek jus­tice? Absolute­ly. But if we allow hatred to rule our hearts, we will become what we hate.”

    Nik­ki, you speak wis­dom and truth into the world and I am so blessed to have been able to find it through this post today.
    Thank you so much for shar­ing about your own expe­ri­ences and for remind­ing us what tru­ly matters. 

    …may we all con­tin­ue to dive into love, life, even more abundantly. 

    Can’t wait to see you again! 


  4. Nik­ki, With the most respect I have not ever heard of your books,or even your name. But just from read­ing this web­site I can tell your a pow­er­ful, pas­sion­ate woman. Im not of age,but ever since I was a child my dream was to write books,it still is my dream.I love writ­ing more than any­thing else.You have inspired me to work hard for my dream and ful­fill it.I plan on going to colledge to study Eng­lish and lit­ti­ture. I am best at writ­ing fiction,and I hope you well with your career.
    Thank you for your time,Hailey.

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