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 that day, there is one moment that 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
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.
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.
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.
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 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: Last night, on the eve of September 11, it was reported that the mayor of NYC and the governors of NY and NJ had reached an agreement on the museum. Construction is scheduled to resume, with a completion goal of September 11, 2013.