Throughout the course of history – particularly the history of the past 100 years – people always ask “where were you on such and such a day”, referring to those events that have shaped current history. Pearl Harbor. D-Day. V-Day. The assassination of JFK. The first moon walk. The Shuttle Challenger.
Most significantly in my own lifetime, the question pertains to 9/11/01. That fateful day in which the daughter of old friends was murdered and my beloved country gave her last gasp of innocence.
The Oracle and I were on vacation – it was to be a glorious 2 weeks in a lovely cabin on an isolated and pristine lake in the northwest corner of the Adirondack Mountains. Local phone service only. No people – the perfect respite from a life overgrown with responsibilities. We started our sojourn on September 8th that year – the weather for the next 2 weeks promised to be the most beautiful of the season – crisp clear days, cool clear nights.
The morning of 9/11/01 we went about a routine of sorts, so normal. Get up, make coffee, cook breakfast and eat on the deck overlooking the lake. Bucolic is the word that comes to mind. Peaceful. We were resting that day – just soaking in the sun on the deck, perhaps taking a late afternoon boat ride around the lake.
In the midafternoon The Oracle decided to go into the little town to get a few supplies we had forgotten. By the time he got back, he knew that the world had changed, forever. And soon I would know too. He brought with him a small local newspaper – which had already printed the horrible images that remain seared into our memories. The Towers, in flames, collapsing. The Pentagon brutally violated. The field in PA pockmarked forever.
The cabin had one modern-day piece of technology – satellite television. We immediately ran indoors and tuned the TV to CNN. And we never really left for the remainder of our 2 week stay. We watched the news – as so many did - with a fervent obsession. How could we miss one moment, in case something else happened.
We watched, with intense fear, the ticker list off the names of the victims – having grown up in MA and now living in CT, we were terrified that we would see the names of former classmates or neighbors, or worse the names of people we knew in our present lives. I recognized 2 of the names from High School – they turned out to be the wives of boys I went to school with. We thought that would be my closest brush with knowing someone who died that day – we would find out when we got home how wrong we were.
We saw her obituary in our local paper – Heather Lee Smith, 30 year old daughter of George and Judy Smith, sister of Chad, fiancée of Michael Jammen. Traveling on her first business trip for a new employer she boarded American Airlines Flight 11 and became one of the day’s first victims.
Heather was beautiful to look at, and even more beautiful to know. She was a “soft” person – meaning that everything about her was kind, non-threatening, approachable.
At the time of her death, we had known the family for about 5 years – I worked with Heather’s dad and we became fast friends. Genuinely kind people – everyone loves them. Heather was a perfect reflection of all that was good in her parents – a dutiful daughter, brilliant student, possessing a strong work ethic she was highly sought-after in her field. Devoted to her mother. Adored by her fiancé. They had just set their wedding date for October of 2002.
Like so many others there isn’t a grave for Heather’s family to tend; no final resting place the family can visit for holidays, birthday or no special day in particular; no place to leave Heather’s favorite sunflowers, no physical place to ensure she is never forgotten. For George and Judy and their family & friends there will be nothing more than a marble panel at a public museum to mark the final resting place of their much loved daughter. They have their memories of a life cut short at age 30; wistful dreams of grandchildren they will never know. Judy once said to me that the hijackers stole her future.
Heather – and nearly 3,000 other people – left a howling void in the lives of so many. Think of how many people in your life would miss you should you leave them suddenly - think beyond your family, to your friends, coworkers, the guy at the coffee truck who always gives you a kind smile with your morning shot of caffeine. Is it 10, 20, 50, 100, 200 - likely more? Each one of us touches a few hundred lives in the course of our existence – multiply your own “number” by 2,996 – the number of actual victims of 9/11/01.
Eleven years. 132 months. 572 weeks. 4,015 days. Countless thousands of people who continue to grieve for lost loved ones, for injuries and pain that will never fade. Eleven years and it still hits my gut like the ultimate sucker punch. It leaves me breathless, gasping and nauseous.
As I have said in years past – we talk of unpleasant things like the pain and suffering and terror of the passengers, the nightmares in the WTC when people jumped rather than be trapped when the buildings collapsed, the brave souls on Flight 93 who sacrificed themselves so that the hijackers would never reach their target – so that we remember. 2,996 lights were extinguished eleven years ago today and we must remember them; we must show great courage in remembering them, for the memories can be so painful. But remember them we must. For their sake, and ours.
We must remember the sacrifice they made unwillingly. We must remember those who perpetrated this crime against the innocent people of our country. We must remember the pure nature of the victims and the evil nature of their killers.
Remember them we will – as Americans we share the burden of grieving for the victims of 9/11/01 and their families. If we forget Heather or the other victims, or if we abandon their families & friends, we do so at our peril.