I grew up in Nebraska. We were thousands of miles away from New York when it happened, but September 11th was still an attack on our country and it impacted our lives greatly. My parents felt it was important for me to see it with my own eyes and so in May 2002 we made a somber visit to the former site of the Twin Towers. It was a pit filled with a mess of steel that was being sorted out by construction workers. My parents wanted me to know it was real. It was a very real, very horrible tragedy in which the lives of so many innocent people were lost.
I tried to go back years later. I tried and failed. This is a short story I wrote to cope with my feelings afterwards:
“Be brave,” I commanded myself while riding the subway downtown.
I had whispered those encouraging words under my breath a lot since having moved to New York City four months ago. I was the girl who needed to keep being brave. Starting a new job had been scary enough, but when my new career as a flight attendant had also required that I move to the Big Apple, the task had been almost unthinkable. I was the girl who had grown up in a state that had more cows than people. For me, New York City was a faraway, mythical land; a place as foreign to me as China. Fortunately, with the support of many family members and co-workers, I had made the move and was thriving in my new home. Certainly there had been days of getting lost and hours spent figuring out the local transit system, but ultimately, I had grown as a person and adjusted to the strange, urban environment. I knew I could be brave, but when facing a gravesite, I felt my bravery would truly be tested.
There were only two more metro stops to go before reaching the World Trade Center subway station and so internally I reviewed my mission. I was finally going to visit the 9/11 Memorial. I was finally going to pay my respects to the men and women who lost their lives on that tragic day in 2001.
“Be brave,” I told myself again, but a mounting sense of dread loomed over me like a dark cloud.
As a flight attendant, I held a deep connection to the plane crashes that brought down the Twin Towers. Although I was just a teenager when it happened, the significance of the horrific events that had played out on the news was not lost on me. My father was a pilot for a commercial airliner and (Praise be to God!) he had just flown out of New York City the morning of September 11th, hours before it happened.
As a pilot’s daughter, I had flown abundantly throughout my childhood and until 9/11, had never seen flying as unsafe. It was a terrifying moment to suddenly think that your father’s life, just like the lives of the people on United Airlines Flight #175 and American Airlines Flight #11, could end in an instant. Perhaps surprisingly, this revelation did not deter me from eventually seeking a job in the airline industry. If anything, 9/11 fueled a deep desire for me to emulate the acts of bravery that abounded that day. I was inspired by the countless number of heroes that put themselves in harm’s way to save lives including firefighters, police officers, emergency responders, courageous New York citizens on the scene, and the individuals on United Airlines Flight #93 that crashed in rural Pennsylvania.
My musings on these tremendous acts of heroism faltered, however, as the subway train pulled to a jerky stop. I exited the car and shuffled up a stairwell with a swarm of bustling people. When the crowd dispersed, I was left alone at the intersection of Barkley and Church Street standing in the shadow of the recently completed One World Trade Center building. I craned my neck back and caught my breath as I gazed at the enormously tall fixture of glass and steel which had replaced the fallen towers.
I knew that a few blocks away I would find the 9/11 Memorial. I had seen pictures online of the two square-shaped reflection pools that mark the former location of the Twin Towers. Water pours across the two empty holes which are paved in concrete brick. There is a banister bordering the uppermost level that is lined with sleek, gray panels in which the names of the dead - their lives unjustly stolen - are inscribed. I squeezed my eyes shut and envision myself standing there in the photograph and the moment I did, the tears came.
“I can’t. I can’t do it.”
The thought of defeat repeated over and over in my mind. I wanted to see the memorial. I wanted to pay tribute to those brave and heroic people, but that important visit did not happen. Instead, I turned and fled back into the subway to make the hour ride return to my place in Queens and to save the journey for another time.
Although my visit to the graveside was unfulfilled, I am left with a small bit of hope that bravery is not instantaneous. Bravery, I hope, is a mindset, a trait, a determination that we must seek to find within ourselves and once found, something we can cultivate so that it can someday be used for the good of others.