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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Life Then, Life Now

Even though I was a toddler when JFK was killed, I think of 9/11 as our own "What were you doing when JFK died?" moment.

I have very distinct memories of that morning of 9/11/01. I'd gotten up at 6:15am, as I did every Tuesday morning back then, to leave the house in time for a weekly 6:45 prayer meeting. As I brushed my teeth I heard the initial reports of the first plane crashing into the World Trade Center, which had only happened a half hour before. I numbly drove to church, which was only a few minutes away, listening desperately as NPR tried to get as many details as it could in the midst of the chaos.

Some people knew what had happened as they arrived to the prayer meeting, many did not. We prayed a few vague prayers for the situation, not remotely understanding what had happened. We also prayed through scripture, as was our practice. As we finished, one of the other pastors drew me aside and said, "I didn't hear about this before I came. How bad do you thin it really is?" I looked at him and said, "I think this is as bad as it gets."

I drove home distracted and was growing far more fearful. The radio had more horrifying details as I drove home: a plane crash into the Pentagon, the towers had fallen, flight 93 had plowed into Shanksville. My housemate, who worked with college students late every night, was still asleep in her room. I woke her up and said, "I think you need to see what's happening."

We sat silently in front of the TV. Slowly, our upstairs neighbor, a good friend, came downstairs and watched with us because she didn't want to watch it alone. Tears were rolling down our cheeks.

Meanwhile, I gathered my wits about me enough to recognize that my own brother worked in Manhattan! It took many hours to find out what had happened with him. He worked in Midtown (rather than Lower Manhattan, where it all happened). Nevertheless, he had to evacuate and spend many, many hours trying to get home. Cell coverage was sporadic and networks were jammed. Many families were unable to communicate for much of the day. His wife said the most horrible experience for her was standing at the train station in their town 20 minutes north of the city, watching spouses wait for their partners to come home.

Like everyone else, my day was spent glued to the TV. Life stopped.

The next significant moment I remember was exactly one month later, when I flew to New York myself. I'd previously booked a visit to see my niece and nephew, and amazingly, the flight departed on October 11. Rightly or wrongly, I was frightened to travel that day. I had a short flight to LAX, then a direct flight from LAX to JFK. That particular flight had a large group of Hasidic Jews on it. Like many thousands (millions, perhaps), I got down to Lower Manhattan and toured the crash site during my visit... which is sort of overstating the fact, since most of it was cordoned off. But in one spot you could see the leftover iron structure that is pictured above.

Touring the site, what stood out most were the thousands upon thousands of flyers posted that were either looking for lost loved ones, or commemorating their passing. Flowers, keepsakes, and various little items were stapled everywhere. The volume of agony was tangible. Given that I have experienced large-scale tragedies like fires and earthquakes on our Left Coast, I think I have a sense of the weight of such pain, but I also know that 9/11 stands alone in many respects.

Ten years later today, I pause and think of many things. My life is quite different -- mostly in that I have lost some dear people in my life: Andrew is 2005, Matt in 2006, Claire in 2010. My old youth group experienced the loss of two of their friends during that time, Alyssa and Jake.

So in many ways, the years after 9/11 are for me a very long march through grief. I am greatly changed as a result. I cry so easily. I am stopped in my tracks whenever I meet someone who has experienced death and loss, and am able to talk on a deep level immediately. Significant days -- birthdays, anniversaries, important days of memory -- often slow me down for awhile. Flying is still somewhat anxiety-producing, especially as we have to go through so many additional steps for the sake of "security." When I hear sirens, I flinch for a moment because now, I know how bad things can get. Though I walk with a "limp" from all of this, I am deeper, a tiny bit gentler, and much more aware of how much I cling to the hope of heaven in my daily life. And how much I want that comfort for others. It drives me in everything I do.

I am currently reading through the One Year Bible, and today's reading from Psalms captures my feelings -- both from ten years ago, and today -- well:
Psalm 55:
4 My heart pounds in my chest.
The terror of death assaults me.
5 Fear and trembling overwhelm me,
and I can’t stop shaking.
6 Oh, that I had wings like a dove;
then I would fly away and rest!
7 I would fly far away
to the quiet of the wilderness.
8 How quickly I would escape—
far from this wild storm of hatred.

Thankfully, we do not have to remain in such terror. I conclude with this prayer from Common Prayer:
You who prayed from the cross for your Father to forgive those who were killing you, grant us the courage to forgive those who harm us in our families, in our communities, and in our world. Help us recognize our own need to seek the forgiveness of others. Amen.

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