It’s difficult to be away from home when the people back there are hurting.
It’s difficult to be a New Yorker in Ireland on the anniversary of September 11, 2001.
Especially this year, when the city has been caught up in sheer chaos over the proposal to build an Islamic center near the site of the devastation, and a crazed Floridian fame-seeker was threatening to burn copies of the Q’uran if its imam didn’t build the center elsewhere.
All I could think this week was, my city is in pieces right now. And I’m 3,000 miles away.
I kept thinking, if only I had been at home in New York, I could’ve covered rallies, visited the proposed site of the Islamic center, interviewed the imam and supporters, and worked to get the truth out about the center to readers.
I could have gone to Florida, talked to the pastor and his community of 30 who planned to join in his “National Koran-Burning Day”, and helped them to realize the dangerous repercussions of their would-be actions. If only I was there, I thought, I could do something to prevent this terrible wrong from occurring.
But then again, I was there on September 11, 2001, and I wasn’t able to do anything then, either.
I remember the spine-tingling feeling of that whole day like it was yesterday. My Dad was working in the city that day, and he didn’t end up coming home until about 10pm, covered in soot, with the blank look of shock drawn all over his face. I was one of the lucky ones.
One of my high school classmates lost her father, in a long and traumatic sequence of events. He was working in one of the towers that morning; he called his wife to say he was okay before the towers fell, and after that, the family didn’t hear from him. They spent days visiting hospitals and morgues all over the city looking for him, hoping he might have been a John Doe who had forgotten who he was.
And one afternoon, probably a four or five days later, I happened to be standing in the stairwell when my classmate bounded down the staircase and stopped on the landing to pick up her cell phone. She and her friend listened on speakerphone, as the person on the other end told her that her father was alright. He was found, identified by a tattoo of his name on his back, alive and well, and the family should come to the hospital to meet him.
I don’t know why Fate put me in the position to be one of three people witnessing this scene unfold between two staircases, but I’ll never forget it. Her eyes were instantly flooded with tears of relief. She gave me a quick smile, eager to share her happiness with even a peripheral friend, and raced down the stairs to go home. I watched as the two girls bounced down the stairs in their Catholic school skirts, effervescent with thoughts of impending bliss, and I whispered a quiet thank you to God.
And yet hours later I found out that, in the cruelest of Fate’s twists, it wasn’t her father in the hospital after all. It was somebody else’s loved one, with a similar tattoo.
I got to keep my Dad; she lost hers.
Everyone has a September 11th story; I can’t tell mine without telling hers, and my feelings encompass everything that lies in the gulf between guilt and gratitude.
But you don’t have to be a New Yorker to have been deeply affected by September 11, 2001. I’ve definitely learned that in my time abroad.
Even if people are unhappy about America’s policies, they tread compassionately on the subject of September 11th. Often, people will volunteer their experiences from that day with me, even if we’ve just met.
A few months back, I sat down to have tea with an Irish man after an interview. As is the case in Irish households, when we sat down, family members came flooding in from every doorway, and our tea for two turned into lunch for six. We chatted pleasantly for a time, and then, someone said something along the lines of, “It was a terrible thing, September 11th, wasn’t it?”
For the next hour, each of the family members offered me stories from September 11, 2001. I gave an abridged version of my story, and no one seemed to mind; I think they just wanted to talk with someone who understood how they felt, and I was happy to listen.
As an American, I know that I can go almost anywhere in the world, and if September 11th comes up, someone will sit beside me and talk to me; even if just for that minute or two, we will exchange thoughts deeply and honestly, like old friends.
A few months ago, I was in Hungary working on a documentary film, and one evening, I was lucky enough to have dinner with my co-producer’s family. After we offered friendly greetings and struggled through the few English and Hungarian words we knew, one person suddenly piped up, “We were really sorry about September 11th. Were you there?”
And that’s when it hit me: people mention that date because it’s the day we all became connected again. We all remember exactly where we were, exactly how we reacted in the days that followed; and just as I felt for my classmate’s heartbreak, people all over the world felt for America’s pain that day. Tragedy, it seems, brings out the best in human compassion.