Repost: Lessons Learned From A 9/11 Survivor


I think it’s safe to say that we all feel the world is falling apart.  By now, we’ve been bombarded with news stories of crime and climate change, disrespect and disillusionment, violence and epidemics, extremism and fanaticism, terrorism and war.  And now we have to come to grips with beheadings and crucifixions.  Our 21st-century life has been turned back hundreds and hundreds of years.

At moments like this, I want to retreat into my garden.  I feel safe there.

The sad truth, though, is that the world has always been a crazy place.  Just look at the history that isn’t too far in the past.  The Holocaust.  JFK’s assassination.  And MLK.  And RFK.  Son of Sam.  AIDS.  Oklahoma City.  9-11.

Yet, it is during these times of evil that so many people rise to the challenge to remind us that there is goodness in the world.  

As we approach another September 11 anniversary, I would like to revisit a post that I wrote several years ago.  It speaks of tremendous sadness, inspiration, and, most importantly, hope.  Hang in there, everyone.

 9/11 Memorial

September 8th was Joe’s birthday, and we headed into NYC to celebrate. We did the same thing eleven years ago, and on that particular day, the air had the first hints of autumn crispness. We commented all day how especially blue the sky appeared, and how clearly we could see all of the buildings.

Three days later, the world changed – and now, September 11 is a day that still haunts me. Like so many other people, I have clear memories of where I was and what I was doing — as clear as the sky that day. I remember conversations that I had and every single emotion of every single second.

Eleven years ago, I was working in a middle school – and while I do not want to go into all of my details of that day, there is one moment I cannot forget.

As the tragedy unfolded, parents arrived in a steady stream. I was helping in the Main Office, signing their children out of school. Many of adults had spouses working in downtown Manhattan. One mother arrived and asked for her son.

“I’m not taking him home,” she said as I looked up her son’s schedule. “I just want to hug him.” I caught my breath, my eyes blinking away tears as I focused on the computer screen. When I returned with her son, they stood in the hallway and just were. It was an intimate moment between a parent and child, consoling and comforting – and it is a moment that still moves me to tears whenever I think or speak about that day.

The Freedom Tower

The Freedom Tower

Eleven years later, Joe and I are at the site. Each time we have made this visit, at different stages of redevelopment, I feel I have to brace myself. I think of that mother and her son, of so many victims and their families and friends, and I think of Kevin Donnelly, a man who hired the middle school me to mow lawns one summer long ago.

Kevin Donnelly

Today, the 9/11 Memorial occupies Ground Zero. Two pools now sit in the Twin Towers’ imprint. The pools, surrounded by thirty-foot walls of cascading water, eventually descend into a center void. The bronze rims of the pools are engraved with the names of the victims.

9/11 Memorial

Although the area is surrounded by the sights and sounds of rebuilding, it is amazingly quiet and somber and moving. It is not uncommon to see people placing flowers on the rim, carbon rubbing a specific name, praying and consoling each other – just like a mother and a son from eleven years ago.

That’s where my mind was when I noticed the tree. Adjacent to the pools is a garden where all of the trees are Swamp White Oaks – all, except for this one tree; a Callery Pear Tree that is protected by a railing, where visitors line up and pose for pictures, as if this particular tree is a celebrity.

This is The Survivor Tree.

Survivor Tree

The tree was originally planted on the World Trade Center plaza, on the eastern edge near Church Street, in the ‘70s. After 9/11, workers found the damaged tree – reduced to an eight-foot-tall stump in the wreckage at Ground Zero.

The tree was removed to a NYC park, where it was nursed back to health. New branches sprouted, blossoms opened in spring, and the tree eventually reached 30 feet. In March 2010, however, the tree was uprooted by severe storms – but it still survived with the help of its caretakers and its will, if we could think that a tree has a will.

In December 2010, the tree was returned to the WTC site, where it sits just west of the south pool – a symbol of strength and resilience. It’s no wonder that so many people wait in line to be photographed next to the tree. Sometimes we all need a tree – or a parent, a partner, a friend, a stranger – on which to lean, much like we all did on 9/12 and the weeks, months, and years following.

The rebuilt Palm Court.

The rebuilt Palm Court.

The more I think about that tree, the more impressed I am. It fought to live so that we – regardless of our gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, ethnicity, ability, and political views – could enjoy its shade, appreciate its blooms, and find comfort in its hug and wisdom in its story. It’s unconditional – just being, like that mother and son embracing each other in a school hallway eleven years ago.

And yet, there is still no museum at the site – because of bickering over funding. Yes, years of bickering. While I personally do not need a museum to remind me of that day, I know that there are many young people who were too young or not even born to understand the events of 9/11. On a similar note, this is an election year in the United States, and both parties are going to great lengths to widen the rift between their constituents.

Yes, September 8th was Joe’s birthday and we headed into NYC to celebrate. We did the same thing eleven years ago, and three days later, the world changed — but have people changed?

Perhaps we should let that Survivor Tree be our teacher. There’s so much we could learn from it – we just have to be willing to listen.

Update: The museum is now a reality — and I am thankful for that.  It’s important that we never forget the horrors of that day — nor should we ever forget the acts of bravery and courage performed, the coming together of strangers in the days and weeks and months following the attacks, and the hands that worked together to save a tree.  Despite what the headlines tell us, I do believe that most people are good.  Maybe we need to work harder at it.  Maybe we need a reminder.  Maybe we need to start remembering September 12, when — for one day — this world stood united.  My hope is that we can achieve that kind of day again.

18 thoughts on “Repost: Lessons Learned From A 9/11 Survivor

    • Hi Gwennie. It seems that we humans have been fighting for centuries. My personal belief is that ordinary people just want to wake up in the morning, live their lives, work and laugh and play — and then sleep easy.

  1. I am glad I was able to visit the 9/11 memorial. Your post describes exactly how the place is to a tee. I did want to ask you where the palm trees building is located? I think I went into that huge building, but I can not remember what it was called. It seemed like a huge office complex of some sort, but the water. I walked through it in amazement. I love NYC. I wish I could live there at times. I could not handle those brutal winters though.

    • Hi Alesia. The palm court is actually across the street (to the west) of the 9/11 Memorial. It was about 60% destroyed in the attack — but it’s great to see that it’s still there. I know what you mean about those winters . . . Brrrrr.

  2. Tomorrow we (firefighters) will once again honor the memory of Lieutenant Kevin Donnelly,FDNY, Ladder Co.3. He was a brother and my friend.

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