I have no right to their grief. It was not my personal tragedy. My prayers seemed so shallow at the time. I have not been there to stand in the vacated shadow of New York City’s Twin Towers late at night, straining to see some light from just one window, yet knowing that the sky looms hollow. I have no bittersweet memories of meeting friends at the bar on the roof of the tower, of a relative who remains in name only on a granite stone with all the other victims, their ashes resplendent in every daybreak’s hush.
I remember, as most of us do, exactly where I was on that ominous morning, September 11, 2001. Waiting for a second appointment at Mayo Clinic, I sat in the cafeteria sitting area having teatime, reading a book. I noticed people gathering in front of a television, quietly watching an apparent event of a serious nature. Still, I settled into the comfortable chair and became engrossed in reading. I decided to visit my sister Mary, who worked on seventh floor west in the eye department.
As I walked past the waiting area to go to her office, I was stunned to see all the personnel lined up along the wall with somber faces. Then Mary ushered me off, apparently shaken. I remember the exact words she spoke and the fear in her eyes. “Our country is under attack, Janet!” We hugged each other and sobbed. At first in disbelief, I thought of all those people in the cafeteria huddled together in trepidation, in front of the small screen. How blind was I?
Mary told me about the Twin Towers being struck by hijacked planes, and that Mayo Clinic had been warned as a possible target. The clinic had opted not to make this announcement to patients, to avoid panic and turmoil. Praying, we listened intently to the radio in her office. In a daze, I kept my afternoon appointment. Faces all around seemed to be carrying the burden of the tragic unknown.
I was ashamed of myself, but acutely aware of my sudden change of attitude toward people who would, from this day forward, bear the stigma of a terrorist because of the color of their skin, their dark robes, and shifty glances. I rode an elevator with a couple such as this that day on my way out. I froze with emotion. Still, I had to wonder, did they feel ashamed and disgraced by the actions of their counterparts? Were they smirking hatefully beneath their garments?
Stories following the 9/11 attacks were not reassuring. Someone claimed to have overheard two of these olive skinned foreigners speak with pleasure of the supposed next attack on our country. Someone else saw a group of these people laughing and clapping at the sight of the Towers’ collapsing on television. Other conversations overheard reveal the extreme hate other nationalities have for Americans. The road to healing and recovery is far from reparation. Yet, each individual point of light for peace and harmony among all nations forms a beacon ennobling those who walk in darkness.
I was moved to return to that sad day in history as I read columnist Anna Quindlen’s stories concerning 9/11, in her book “Loud & Clear.” She writes, “The end of the world came with both whimpers and bangs and all matter of sounds between. When it was done, what hung over it all, greater than the smoke or the shock, was the sense of what most people are really made of, the emotional alchemy that enables us, from time to time, to love our neighbors as ourselves.”
As Quindlen shares her feelings about proposed plans for the land vacated by the destruction of the Twin Towers, she quoted what the late Jacqueline Kennedy said about wiping the blood from President Kennedy’s face after he was shot and killed in Dallas.
“I should have left it there,” she had remarked, “let them see what they’ve done.” Sadly, one person’s grief can be another’s triumph.
Janet Burns lives in Lewiston. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.