Twenty Years Ago & Today


I placed September 11 on a shelf twenty years ago, and I have tried very hard to keep it there over the past two decades. The news media, though, have other ideas to force me to take it out and relive it. Because this is a major anniversary, they have uncovered new angles, new footage, and new ways of delivering this nightmare — and I understand why. We’re not supposed to forget.

Twenty years ago, while working as a school social worker on Long Island, the district kept track of which students had lost a loved one in the terrorist attacks. Each year, we kept ourselves aware as a reminder that the date may be difficult for students, no matter if they entered kindergarten or were finishing their senior year. At some point, though, it hit me that we may reach a time when 9/11 is ancient history.

Is twenty years that moment — and if it is, why am I still crying each time I talk about 9/11 or catch a piece of news coverage before I can change the channel. I had a long overdue conversation with a blogging friend, Debra of breathelighter, and she recalled some of the previous 9/11 pieces I had written. She asked if it was difficult, twenty years later, for me to discuss 9/11 — and as I answered, I could feel my voice catching and my eyes watering.

I guess the answer to that question is, “Yes. It’s still difficult.” My twenty years feel like yesterday.

Curcuma.

I’m reminded of the final minutes of the final episode of HBO’s “Six Feet Under.” It’s a remarkable depiction of time flying. In the scene, Claire drives off and with each mile, viewers are given a glimpse of the lives and deaths of the other characters — and it all ultimately ends with Claire as an old woman in her bed. It took minutes.

That’s how my twenty years feel. Just yesterday, I was a 38-year-old school social worker releasing students to their worried parents and catching a glimpse of a mother who came to the school just to hug her son. As I did my job, a New York firefighter, Kevin Donnelly, who had hired me to mow lawns with him when I was in 8th grade, was doing his job at Ground Zero. He died there.

At the elementary schools in my district, at the end of the school day, classroom teachers rode on the school busses with their young students, while secondary teachers went to the elementary schools to supervise students who had not yet been dismissed.

Later that afternoon, as I drove home eastbound on the Long Island Expressway, I stared at westbound traffic heading toward Manhattan — a steady stream of fire trucks and rescue vehicles from Long Island’s volunteer companies.

Blackberry iris.

While all of this was happening, a flotilla of private boats crossed from New Jersey to lower Manhattan to rescue those trying to evacuate, friends of mine escaped from Manhattan by walking across bridges and through tunnels to get to Brooklyn and Queens, and a small airport in Canada became a landing hub for international flights because the US had closed its airspace. Residents in the small town opened their homes to passengers and flight crews.

There was an immediate outpouring of condolences and support from around the globe. It seemed that within the span of a few hours, communities across the country had organized to collect supplies, such as socks, meals, and gloves, for the first responders working endlessly on the mountain of debris. Then, of course, came the monetary donations for the families of victims, survivors, and first responders. It was as if we couldn’t do enough for one another.

I think it’s the closest this world has come to, in the words of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” living as one. I think it’s the closest this nation has come, in my lifetime, to being united. I think that’s why I’m especially sad this 9/11 . . . here we are, twenty years later, and we are fighting another terrorist attack — and this is the moment where I take my first step onto that proverbial slippery slope.

Molting anole.

Where are we twenty years later? I, for one, am still sad, but I’m going to add anger and disgust into my emotional baggage, because we are so far away from those hours and days of compassion and concern. Before I’m accused of attacking the previous administration, let me be clear. This has nothing to do with him, although he was clearly at the forefront of politicizing a public health crisis — which, to use AIDS as an example, never works. In fact, we all lose.

This post has to do with us.

I realize a lot can happen in twenty years to test a nation’s fortitude, to change hearts and minds — and, Lord knows, that has certainly happened here. No matter what any politician or news outlet says to stir us up, at the end of the day, we each have the ability to do what’s right, to do what’s kind. This is why there is no excuse for our collective response to COVID, our failure to work toward the common good.

Although I’m not a doctor or a general or a politician, I’ve always felt that when COVID arrived here, it was an invasion of a microscopic enemy. Just like hijackers aiming passenger jets at buildings, the virus is non-discriminatory, with little regard for race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, income and ability. In order for it to live, it must infect host bodies. Once firmly entrenched, it can reproduce and escape to spread to more and more bodies. The more host bodies it has, the more opportunities it has to mutate. This is biology. It makes sense to me — so I wear a mask, I’m vaccinated, and I keep my distance for my health and the health of others.

Red powderpuff tree.

What I can’t understand are people fighting the most basic health protocol — wearing a mask in order to interrupt or slow down the above process. Masks work at preventing the vast majority of droplets, but anti-maskers seem more concerned with the discomfort of masks — and they’re correct. With the straps digging into the skin around my ears and the material trapping my breath so it feels like I’m inhaling a swamp, masks are uncomfortable.

On the other hand, I’m incredibly relieved that on the occasions I’ve had to have surgery, the medical team was able to muddle through their discomfort for my health and safety. Besides, getting intubated is far more uncomfortable than a mask.

I would love to hang up my mask. I long for that day — breathing easier is one thing, but I want to see smiles! Yet, the longer people fight the scientifically proven sensibility of masks, the longer we’ll have to wear them.

Perhaps the greatest offender these days is the governor of my state, Florida. He has worked tirelessly to overrule any attempt at mask mandates in businesses and in schools, while fully opening the state before we even came close to a safe percentage of vaccinations. The result of his political game — this is a political game for him and, as I said earlier, politicizing a public health issue hurts everyone — is that August was Florida’s deadliest month since the pandemic began, and the vast majority of those were unvaccinated.

Rain lily.

I’m not even sure I want to address the topic of vaccines. I understand peoples’ reluctance to get vaccinated — except the reason that it’s a means for the government to insert a microchip. I really don’t understand that one, especially when the actual tracking devices are our cell phones.

In my own circle of friends, some have said they don’t trust the government, and that the vaccine was rushed. These same friends, though, have little knowledge of the side effects of or ingredients in any over-the-counter, illegal, or prescription drug they take — or even in the tattoo ink, which is not regulated by the FDA, that’s injected just under the surface of their skin.

When it comes to the vaccines, I’ve given up arguing and trying to change minds. I’ve fallen back on a line the kids say: You do you; I’ll do me.  I’ll wear a mask and maintain my distance from anyone unvaccinated, and I hope they will do the right thing and mask up when around others. That being said, though, COVID — and this is one more thing that saddens me — has taught me to trust no one to do the right thing.

Succulents.

Perhaps the most troubling thing of all is the battle line. One would think a nation at war would have a battle line between the homeland and the invader. We did that immediately twenty years ago.

Because COVID was politicized, though, the battle line was drawn between us — and we’ve all witnessed what happens when the two sides meet. It’s a melee of viral-worthy behavior: screaming, name-calling, spitting, incivility, and coughing. Is this really who we are? 

With each passing day (and let’s throw in the January 2021 attack on the US Capitol), I am convinced that this is who we are. While there have been small moments of hope and good news stories, I am deeply, deeply saddened — and let’s not forget angry and disgusted — that I no longer recognize my country. I no longer recognize my fellow Americans, the same ones who rallied around one another twenty years ago.

Gulf fritillary butterfly on blue porterweed.

Some may say the 9/11 of twenty years ago was different. We were a grieving nation . . . but what are we today? As of this writing there have been nearly 660,000 COVID-related deaths in this country. That’s approximately 220 consecutive 9/11s. That’s a 9/11 terrorist attack each day for more than seven months. That mind-numbing number should also be grieved.

It also demands some serious soul searching — because this didn’t have to happen. Where is our compassion from twenty years ago? Never mind that . . . where is our compassion from a year ago? Last year, we hailed frontline healthcare workers as heroes, banging pots and pans to honor them and thank them.

Today, the sick — especially the unvaccinated and unmasked — are filling ICUs, overwhelming the hospital system, and breaking the spirit of people who have taken an oath to save lives. At the same time, there are factions doubting what medical professionals are saying is happening in their own hospitals, and who are also begging people to get vaccinated and to wear masks. It’s a remarkable, tragic, infuriating display of an American selfishness that was unheard of twenty years ago, one that confuses rights with entitlement. Hooray for me. Too bad for you. Clearly, it’s time to trade in our pots and pans for masks.

Blackberry iris when the flower is done.

What happened to us over the past twenty years? When did we stop listening to our hearts? When did doing the right thing become the wrong thing to do? In our fervor to never forget the attacks of September 11, did we forget the compassion and care and concern we had for one another?

These are the questions that crowd my brain on this 9/11. I don’t have answers, but I’ll find some peace and comfort in the one place that always delivers: my garden. (That’s why I‘ve added flowers to this post. Flowers make my world brighter.) I’ll tell Joe that I’m going out to Kevin’s world, where I’ll listen to my iPod and tackle some projects that I’ve been saving to do for this occasion.

It’s usually happy in Kevin’s World, but today I’ll be reflecting on a whole bunch of stuff. I’ll think of that mother hugging her son (now in his early 30s!) in the school hallway, and I’ll think of Kevin Donnelly as I mow my own lawn.

I’m sorry this post is so long, but there was a lot of stuff swimming around in my head that I needed to get out. I know those of us who have vivid memories of 9/11 will quietly relive that day today. Like you, I never will forget, because I can’t forget.

I also think we have to share so others don’t forget — and so my wish is that when we talk about the events of 9/11, we must also talk about the compassion of that time . . . because . . . I, for one, do not want compassion to become ancient history.

25 thoughts on “Twenty Years Ago & Today

  1. As a fellow Floridian I too am frustrated with our state’s “official” response to Covid. As with 9/11, we’ve been presented with another dangerous challenge to confront. I’m praying it’s not too late for American to change course and work together for the common welfare.

    • Good morning, Lynn. I try very hard to keep politics out of my blog, but any conversation about COVID sort of demands that, especially in Florida. Like you, I also feel what’s happened/happening here is tragic. It’s like Groundhog Day — no different than what we witnessed in China, Italy, NYC, and even last year in South Florida. I can understand politicians playing a political game, but I cannot understand the lack of compassion anywhere. September 11 and the compassion we had for one another magnifies that loss for me, especially this year. We’ve lost so much — and I hope we can get back on track. I hope, but I fear it’s slipping. Stay safe. Take care.

  2. Kevin, you are ever a critical memory when I recall that day, as you called Joe to tell him that a plane crashed into the first Tower, and Joe then spread the word to his neighboring teachers. I was confused as to what it meant, but when Joe returned to say that you called again to relate that a second plane had struck the other Tower, a terrible realization slowly formed. It was difficult to dampen my rising anxiety in front of my students; I tried to be extra reassuring and patient, especially when the parents began streaming in to take their children home. I thank you now as I was grateful to you then for the part you played in this unfolding national tragedy, played small in my classroom. Hugs, Cathey

    • Hello, My Dear Friend. I remember making those calls. At the time, I had been asked to stay in my office, which was located in a dead-end hallway without a phone. I was alone, and I think I made those calls using my cell phone to feel less alone. Soon after that call, I went to the Main Office and told the principal it’s ridiculous to keep me isolated and useless — and that’s when she had me release students to parents. A nightmare day filled with so much unknowing. Hugs to you.

  3. My husband is mourning Kevin Donnelly along with you, as he does every year. He purchases a flag in Kevin’s memory (and another for a cousin lost on 9/11). These flags line the street in front of our local high school. There are well over a hundred. They are beautiful. His memory lives in the hearts of those whose lives he touched. Your post is beautiful, Kevin. Find solace in your garden.

    • Hello Lori. What a beautiful way to pay tribute to lost friends and family. Kevin played a pivotal role in my early adolescence, one that I slowly became aware of during adulthood and looked back on my life. I will always cherish that summer and the laughs I had with Kevin and his brother, Brian. I wish you and yours peace & comfort today. xoxo

  4. Kevin,
    Beautiful, heartfelt essay and the photos are stunning. Somehow the beauty in those photos help calm/soothe the 9-11 memories I too have. The photos recently shown again of living people falling from the first tower is beyond belief. The pregnant woman who chose to jump…what must have been in her mind those final moments. Too horrific to contemplate.

    And one of the troops killed at the Afghan airport, the son of one murdered in the Twin Towers, decided to fight the fight that killed his father…how profoundly sad!

    IF there is a God, she has turned her back on our planet, spit, and left our orbit.

    Twenty years ago today I was just in my first single-family home, wildly ripping and tearing the fixer-upper. I watched as the planes crashed into the Towers from my kitchen TV. I then heard of the Pentagon horror, merely three miles from where I lived in Arlington, VA for 14 years. Twenty years later, I do not find America a better place. In fact, I too, no longer recognize her. Are we on a permanent downward spiral?
    When I see young couples with small infants while at market, I think to myself, ” they must be so optimistic about the future, I would never bring a child into this America.”

    Thank you for this inspired post Kevin, and as I rest in the bucolic countryside, I gasp that UVA hosted two home football games in the past two weeks, and just yesterday 65 COVID cases entered the ICU in Charlottesville, as NO ONE wore a game mask, NO social distancing was practiced.

    I fear we are doomed to wear masks forever.

    The ND game in FLA last week was identical. Hope all those fans enjoyed perhaps their last game.

    Please keep safe and hang on to anything positive. Diane

    • Hi Diane. Thank you for sharing your story. Like you, I am constantly shaking my head at the lack of sensible protocols. I have even unfollowed FB friends because my anxiety soared each time they posted a photo of themselves inside with crowds. It’s too much. If I can take any comfort is that our voices aren’t alone. I know so many people who think as we do, and my hope is that our voices will grow together as a roar that will not be silenced. Each day, I’m thankful to have a garden. It had brought me peace and comfort — a few headaches, but nothing that can’t be managed. Stay safe.

      • Yes, indeed Kevin.
        Garden headaches/challenges will not kill us. They may make us ache, but we will recover and hopefully become stronger.
        Despite all the crazies, I always take time to stroll my gardens early, along with the birds, I delight in how plants continue to continue.
        I too filter what I read and see/hear. This is no time for nonsense or fake news.
        One neighbor stated this week that he “heard” that the vaccines actually made people contract COVID quicker. I asked him to stop watching FOX News! GEEZE! Diane

  5. Dear Kevin,
    Once again, you have brought me to tears. I must admit, they have been flowing pretty freely this past week, and especially today. I, too, wish the America of Sept. 12, 2001 was the America of today. It didn’t matter if you leaned left or right, believed in God or didn’t, were straight or gay, what your ethnicity was – we were ALL Americans and reached out to each other with empathy and for solace. We were ALL Patriots! Oh, to find that in our fellow Americans, once again.
    Sending you hugs and love,
    Aunt Pat

    • Hi Aunt Pat. I could only imagine the tears you were shedding this week, because the news did an amazing job of once again ripping off the 9/11 scab. I was even crying as I wrote this piece. I find myself clutching onto the slightest glimmer of hope — and one of those glimmers are the vast number of people who no longer recognize this country. In my world, these voices come together to reset our course. Stay safe. xoxo

  6. Your emotional honesty moves me to shed a few tears today, Kevin. I have been moved each time you have shared your 2001 experience from such personal memories and firsthand experience. I am mindful each anniversary of “innocence lost” for so many of us who previously considered, naively so, that we were somehow secure from anything of this scale.

    This is a magnificently clear essay that stands to remind us of how much we NEED to learn about caring for each other, cultivating civility and remembering that we are a collective, a community and a connected human family–and we are fragile. Thank you for sharing such a painful memory and yet making it so personal to each of us.

    Your photos are so refreshing. Garden on, my friend!

    • Hi Debra. Thank you for our conversation. It helped to focus the jumble of thoughts I had as we approached the 20th anniversary. We are a nation that needs one another, but the pandemic is preventing that — and if people would only do what is right and kind, we could get back to hugging. Stay safe and be well.

  7. What a beautiful – if heartrending – post. Thank you.
    “I am deeply, deeply saddened — and let’s not forget angry and disgusted — that I no longer recognize my country.” Yeah, that. That’s no small thing. We all minimize what America once meant in order to minimize the horrible loss of it being gone. Good on you for so eloquently reminding us.

    • Hi Carl. Thank you for your kind words. It means a lot coming from you and your own professional experience. My hope is that others who feel this way will start speaking up and voting (although, sadly, that’s now becoming difficult). There’s so much work to do. Thank you again. Stay safe.

  8. Dear Kevin, such a poignant and heartfelt post. So many sad memories even for us half a world away. I was teaching at a boys school at the time and we came together in prayer that day, confused, apprehensive and shocked at the world. We continue to be shocked at the world. “We’re all in this together” is the catch cry for our covid situation but here in Victoria but there are many who are all selfish and filled with self importance. You’re right, our gardens bring us solace and in that quiet time we hope and pray that our collective humanity will rise to embrace us all. Praise to your beautiful garden and to you, Kevin.

    • Hi Crab & Fish. Thank you for sharing your story. One of the things from that day that I carry with me is the global impact and the global hug. I think we need a global hug, but Covid always seems to be in the way. I’m sorry you’re having your own selfish epidemic in your part of the world. If only we could all be in this together. It’s kind. It’s right. It’s good, practical science. Please, stay safe — and enjoy the start of your growing season.

  9. My Dear Friend,
    I am speechless and crying after reading this post, which I could not do on 9/11 because of the powerful memories and emotions surrounding that day. You have captured what so many are feeling, a collective sorrow and grief.
    I think the major newspapers should pick this up.
    Than you

  10. We honored the fallen, as we have done every year, at the Selden FD. This year, our son Michael, decided to be with his Dad in his Lynbrook FD uniform to honor the fallen, including Nick Chiofalo, a NYFD and SFD member who left a wife and 13 year old son. The pain always comes resurfaces.

    • Maria… How nice that Michael & Mike sold together. I’m sure it meant so much to both of them. I understand about the pain… as you said, it’s always below the surface, but this time it’s different. This time there’s so much more mixed into the emotional stew… and I worry about what events will transpire this week when there’s a far right march on Washington. I am disheartened — so I’ll stick my hands in the dirt and try to occupy my mind. Stay safe. Be well.

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