Why my feelings on 9/11 are Gratitude not Grief…

(Image: Where Hope Lives by Jan Richardson)

I suppose it’s not all that surprising that I’m just getting to writing some reflections on September 11 now on September 13.  To be honest, my journal entry back in 2001 describing the events of that day lay unfinished as the last entry in my journal for years.  I was somehow silenced.  Befuddled.  Confused and conflicted.  Both empty and full and simply unable to describe how I was feeling.  So, now, 10 years later, well, I’m not much better.

The day, for me, began with a confusion and relief.  It was one week after I had moved into the married and family housing at Princeton Seminary, known as CRW.  I was spending my days settling into Princeton, sleeping in, getting ready to begin school and meet new people and begin to sort out God’s call for my life.  I had just woken up and was having breakfast in my apartment.  I never turn the TV on in the morning, so it was quiet and peaceful. Then the phone rang, and it was my mother.

“Hello?”

“He’s alright! He’s alright.”

“Who’s alright?  What are you talking about?”

“Your brother, John, he’s out and he’s alright.  Turn on the TV and I’ll call you back.”

Click.

My mom sounded frantic, out of sorts, and I was totally confused by her brief message.  But I walked over to the TV and turned it on, and quickly figured out what she was talking about.  I saw the images we all saw: the two towers billowing smoke into the sky.  The news stations replayed the shots of the planes flying into the building over and over again.  The images and noise of the newscasters came so fast – it was hard to catch up with what was going on. I watch again and again as the second plane flew into the tower, right at the floor where my brother worked, for Morgan Stanley.

But he got out, right?  That’s what my mom had said.  I went over and over her brief words. I wondered how she could really know he got out. Perhaps he called before the plane hit?  Perhaps he had said he was alright before he really knew.  As the towers fell I wondered where he was – on the street?  At the bottom of the building? Under the rubble?  What about his wife?  His baby girl, who had just been born in March.  Where were they?  Did they know where my brother was?  I called and called – my mom, my brother, but all the lines were busy. I was going to have to wait until she called me back.

It was an hour, maybe, give or take, when she called and explained further.  Some random cousin of my sister-in-law, who lived in Texas, had gotten through to my brother’s cell phone.  He had said he was out of the building, and headed home.  He asked the cousin to call his wife and my mom to let us know.  It was true, he was okay.

Soon after I began to feel exhausted by the images, the grief and fear coming from the television and I had to turn it off.  We wondered outside and spoke to some of our neighbors, brand-new friends, still half-strangers.  We heard about a gathering at the seminary chapel later that day – and went together to pray, to sing.  During the prayers many people prayed for those who they had not yet heard from – those who were “missing” at 4 pm that day.  We mourned the loss of our country, we cried in confusion and terror, we sat in silence and solidarity.

It was a couple of days before I finally spoke to my brother – the phone lines were so jammed.  He was heading up to his cottage on the sound in Connecticut.  I asked if I could come too.  I need to see him. To wrap my arms around him and touch his body. To prove to myself he was physically okay, still breathing, still standing.  Still alive.  We drove to Connecticut on Thursday, up the Jersey turnpike and saw the smoke rising from the city – an eerie wound in the skyline, a funeral pyre of sorrow.

My brother was in some ways his old self.  He shared how he had begun slamming alcohol shots in his apartment after he had run from the building.  He swore about every 3rd word.  We all just kept saying “Holy f-ing sh-”  He was animated, he was thankful to be alive.  And yet – something had changed, too.  I knew that he had stopped by to talk with my friend who is a pastor in Greenwich on his way up.  I don’t know what they discussed, but I had a sense that my brother had seen evil face-to-face and had been changed by it.  Questions were unanswered, and loomed in the air: Why was I saved when so many perished? How could this happen? Where was God in this?  What now?

Those questions still hang in the air for us as a family.  Every September 11 I call my brother to tell him I love him and am thankful he is alive.  It feels strange, even loaded with guilt to spend that day in gratitude, joyfully, treasuring family and the gift that we were given as a family – a second chance.  A second chance to be better siblings to one another.  A second chance to learn to live in the present moment, to treasure one another.  To try harder not to make each other into something we are not but to accept and love each other for what we are.

As our country went into a period of mourning and remembrance this past weekend, I found my emotions deeply dissonant with the rest of the country.  Because while I too mourn the great, deep and inescapable loss that we experienced on that day, I also celebrate the gift that I received: my brother.  Alive, laughing, able to know and love and play with my children. Walking this earth with me for a lot more years to come.

In the years since 2001 many things have happened.  My brother and his wife had another daughter; I graduated seminary, became a minister and had two sons of my own.  And we moved to a town 20 minutes from my brother and his family.  We don’t see them as much as we would like to, but we see them a lot.  And even when he annoys me (as big brothers are bound to do) I still appreciate his life and his presence in mine.  I think our whole family is a bit done with the memorializing and remembering of that day – we lived it very close up and personal, and re-living it is exhausting and harrowing.  Instead I think we try to remind ourselves of the blessings we have, the knowledge that there is a responsibility, now, in living on – to be more grateful, more kind, more loving, more aware of our blessings. Not just on 9/11 but on every day.

After all the services and prayers and memorials this past Sunday – the two most important parts of my day were when I called my brother to tell him I love him, and when I came home and put my beautiful boys to bed.  They know nothing of that day and that world.  My oldest had a moment of silence at school but didn’t really know what it was for.  I decided to let them live in that innocence for now.  But I also hugged them harder, kissed my husband longer, raised many many prayers of thanksgiving for our family and my life – full of blessings, even now.

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