Every September it comes again, like a hammer to the head or a punch in the gut – there is no solace in watching TV shows about it, no recompense that assuages the pain or mitigates the loss, and those who would profit from 9/11 or use it for political reasons are beneath contempt. 9/11 is an anniversary no one wants to remember but is impossible to forget, and we are compelled to mark the day out of respect and dignity for those lost, for their friends, family, and loved ones who still suffer not just on 9/11 but every day of their lives.
For me and for some New Yorkers and Americans 9/11 is personal. If you know someone lost that day at the World Trade Center, or in Washington D.C. or Pennsylvania, there is grief beyond what other people can know or grasp. 9/11 is not just a number or a day on the calendar – it is a horrifying reminder of what happened, a day that not only will live in infamy as much as December 7, 1941, but one that qualifies the sanctity of memory and the value of grief.
My sister lost her Steve that day; he was part of her life and our family for many years. He went out that door after borrowing $20 to get the guys at the firehouse bagels for breakfast, saying goodbye to her and his beloved dogs. In that casual and everyday way of seeing someone off to work, there is no marking of the inherent importance of last words said, no way of knowing that the person won’t be back.
In the days that followed 9/11, my sister waited and hoped that Steve would be found. Each time the front door opened, the dogs would look up longingly hoping to see their master who was never coming home. In the weeks, months, and years that have followed, my sister has come to terms with her devastating loss, but she is never over it – the it is never ending, and those people who want everyone to move on and forget have no understanding of what happened and continues to happen not just on 9/11 but every day of the year between anniversaries.
My sister dedicated herself to honoring Steve’s memory and legacy, creating a scholarship in his name and holding an annual golf outing and dinner to raise money to support it. The scholarship provides funds to less fortunate students to attend a fine private grammar school, and so many children have benefited from her efforts these last 15 years. She has kept the essence of his bravery and generous spirit alive in this way, and in doing so she has also made me and her family extremely proud of her beyond what words can express.
But Steve was just one of the many firefighters who went up the stairs while everyone else was coming down, and 343 of them were lost that day. There is no qualifying the heroism, the bravery, and the call to duty that these men displayed that day, just as there is no rectifying their loss. Memorials, ceremonies, and monuments are all appreciated, but nothing – absolutely nothing – can overcome the pain and suffering that endures for those who lost these valiant heroes, who rose to the impossible challenge to fight the fires and save lives that day.
And yet 9/11 is not just about firefighters but all first responders; it is about the people who worked in the towers and the Pentagon, the passengers on the doomed jets and the flight crews, and it is about all the Americans who were witnesses in person or on TV that fateful day. Someone can watch the footage now, read about it in books, or listen to stories, but nothing is truly the same as having lived through that day.
My children only know of Uncle Steve from what we tell them. They know their aunt goes to Ground Zero every year for the ceremony; we show them pictures of Steve and they can see him dancing in our wedding video. We can construct as much of Steve as we can for them – and he was beyond question a larger than life personality who was intelligent, funny, and charismatic – but the worst part is that they will never really know him, and that is the enduring theft that his loss brings to their lives.
We can magnify that by 2,996 people who died that day and the grim reality emerges. The loss of these people – citizens from 115 nations of the world in all – had a similar impact on their friends, families, and loved ones. The depth of grief and despair radiates across the planet, and there is no ability to gauge the incessant pain and suffering this day has caused and continues to inflict on those who lost someone that day.
Now, fifteen years later, my nephew (who was the ring bearer at our wedding) is now in the New York City Fire Department Training Academy and will participate in 9/11 ceremonies. While there is a great pride in his accomplishments as he prepares to graduate and join the ranks of New York’s Bravest, there is deep sadness that Steve is not here to welcome him into the ranks.
Indeed, life goes on, and the friends, loved ones, and family members of those lost know that only too well. Each day is a reminder of the gift of life, but also that this precious gift was taken from those killed on 9/11. 15 years have gone by, but it is like 15 seconds in eternity. We can say we will “Never Forget” and we never shall nor will we truly move on, even though many people tell us it is time to do so. We keep living our days but the pain endures, and a vacancy remains in our hearts that is forevermore.