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.


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.


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.

Repost: Lessons Learned From A 9/11 Survivor

American Flag

So much has changed since a September morning in 2001 — and now we have a generation for whom September 11 is ancient history.  To keep the emotions and meanings of that day alive, we need to talk about it, to reflect, to learn — and to remember.  

In honor of the 15th anniversary of 9/11, I’d like to revisit a post from a few years ago when One World Trade Center and the Memorial were still under construction — a post about a birthday, a parent and child, a friend, and a tree that reminds us we are all survivors.

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We Are A Part Of A Hyphen Nation

American Flag

This is one of those posts written at 3:00 am. I have a head cold and I’m awake. I couldn’t breathe — the congestion tide rolled back up into my sinuses and the only cure for me at the moment was gravity.  So, I’m sitting up and thinking — and these are the middle-of-the-night ramblings of a stuffy, sleepy me.

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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.

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Facing 9/11 For The First Time

This post features photos of the Suffolk County, Long Island, 9/11 Memorial, which honors the 178 County residents who perished on a crystal clear September morning.  I recently visited the Memorial for the first time, morning dew coating each pane of glass, which is etched with the name of a resident and an emblem.  The glass panes form a room of sorts, with manicured landscaping on the outside and an inaccessible garden of native plants on the inside.  The inner garden is designed to grow untamed, symbolizing the passage of time.

Less than five minutes away from this Memorial is the new one, which is the basis for this post.

Suffolk County 9/11 Memorial

In the New York metropolitan area, 9/11 never really goes away.  It’s always present.  Throughout the year, the news media provides updates on the construction of the Freedom Tower and the deaths of rescue workers who were exposed to Ground Zero’s toxic dust in the days following the attack.

And as the anniversary approaches, 12-year-old footage is re-aired as a precursor to all of the memorial services, the largest of which — the one at Ground Zero — is usually broadcast.  In between are the smaller, more localized ceremonies, since so many towns and community organizations have their own 9/11 memorials.  It’s difficult to avoid the emotion of the day.

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Lessons Learned From A 9/11 Survivor

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.

9/11 And A Summer Long Ago

USAF photo by Denise Gould

This is not the post that I was planning for today.  In fact, this is actually the post that I debated writing.

The truth is, I have a very difficult time with September 11.  There is a large part of me that actually dreads the date, that wishes we could remove it from the calendar.  And now, on the 10-year anniversary, that feeling has been doubled.  Just talking about September 11, no matter when, brings tears to my eyes — and so I do my best to avoid it.  I have stopped watching the news for the weekend.  I do not want to see memorial services.  I do not want to hear speeches.  I do not want to relive the day through newly released video footage.  Everything I need to know is in my mind.

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