Responding to Tragedy

As an extended family, personal tragedy preceded the national tragedy of 9/11. My brother, still in his early 50’s, was in the late stages of lung cancer. At the request of his wife, I cleared my calendar and flew from California on Sunday, September 2, 2011, to South Plainfield, NJ, to give whatever support I could. Flying in a day or two after me was my son, a Marine Reservist whose civilian job had him in a promising career with Morgan Stanley. Surrounded by extended family, my brother passed away on Thursday, September 6. On Monday, September 10 , his funeral was held in Staten Island, and later that afternoon, my son went with one of his cousins into Manhattan to stand beneath the shadow of the towering twins of the World Trade Center where the daughter of my brother had her job with Morgan Stanley.

Awakening on the morning of the 11th , emotions were already strained and family members were needing to grieve their singular loss, when a time of idle TV watching suddenly turned to confusion, and then, horror. We were sure my niece hadn’t gone to work, but nonetheless, the immediate sense of concern was overwhelming. For the hours and days that followed, we had as it were, “a front row seat” to the unfolding tragedy and a week that had been set aside to grieve a singular death was brutally altered to a week of grieving for thousands, some known and many, many unknown, and desperately trying to stay connected, trying to make sense out of the senseless, giving blood, quieting fears about pursuits and threats around the city, listening to the stories and perspectives of others, realizing how far, far away California was – and then – beginning to find out the names of the dead – neighbors, a roommate’s cousin, co-workers. Even as the words, “America At War” glared from TV screens and President Bush vowed to protect our freedoms, shock, hurt, and sorrow were already merging with anger. My son was no exception. He had seen and felt the atrocity, and his almost immediate response was to join in the fight against those who had perpetrated it. He volunteered to have his Marine status changed to “Active Duty.”

One of the things I learned is that life can make unprecedented changes without any warning. My emotions were very vulnerable. Personally, apart from God, those weeks and the weeks and months to follow would not have been possible. My niece felt as if she had lost everything. Morgan Stanley set up business near the Empire State Building and she continued emails with my son. Even with a place though to work, she still struggled. Death had surrounded her and she wanted desperately to somehow start over.

In the months after September 11, there was a keen awareness of a bond uniting all Americans, even in their profuse diversity. We called it “patriotism,” but it and the freedom it protects comes with a price tag. The War on Terrorism could only be fought by those who were willing to give. My son was willing to give, but as a parent, I soon realized I too must be willing to give. I needed to give my blessing as he pursued what his heart called him to.

I had seen the darkness of national tragedy up close, although certainly, not as close as many experienced it. But, I also experienced the contrasting light, as my son came home from overseas, eager to be home, but proud of what he had given. My niece did have the opportunity to start over. She moved to California, and through my son, she met her future husband. Today, her two beautiful young daughters call me “Grandma,” and I delight in a young family that has woven their lives together with mine. I share deeply the pride any parent holds when his or her child gives to protect the freedom we treasure. I have seen a God who makes the future possible. September 11 made me see and experience the brevity of life and the necessity of loving well and giving with uncalculated openness. I am quicker to see the heroes of ordinary life, heroes who are ordinary people but who give in extra-ordinary ways. Heroes like my son who gave, and heroes like my niece who never quit.

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