In 2002 or 2003, I was set to teach an early morning class on Sept. 11. Shortly before class, a student emailed to ask if I would devote a few minutes of class time to pray for all whose lives were snatched from them at that very time of day in 2001. With a pang of regret that I had not thought to do so before his suggestion, I assured my student that I would – and we did.
The horrors of that anniversary were then still freshly raw in our minds. In my hometown of New York, I had worked in the Twin Towers during my teen years. After I moved to Washington, whenever I took the train back to New York, the Towers were the first sign I saw in the distance to tell me I was almost home. New York’s skyline without them still startles me after all these years. In a far greater loss, my hometown high school, parish and neighborhood were home to too many who never came home that day.
In my adopted town of Washington, I shared a university family and a parish with those who perished at the Pentagon. I watched colleagues and students anxiously await word from their loved ones on that morning whose flawless sunny glory belied the horror that was unfolding.
At the time, I had no personal link to Pennsylvania – or so it seemed. That last flight was reportedly heading for the Capitol – a stone’s throw from where I work and just above the subway where I was commuting that morning. I have since wondered whether, unknown to me, I owe my own life to those who stopped that deadly act with their heroism in the skies above a quiet field in Shanksville.
Now, 20 years have passed. A generation has gone by.
I am struck by the fact that so many college students were not yet born that deadly day. They, and so many of my own students, have no memory of it. Yet, I hope they never see that day as mere history to be studied with the mind but not felt with the heart.
As those events recede further back in time, it is all too easy to teach the next generation about the dates, details, context and consequences of that day – and to lose sight of the real people who were lost on Sept. 11, 2001. There is a sacred obligation to make sure that those whose lives ended that morning, and in the tragic aftermath of that morning, are remembered.
Those who died that day were living the ordinary times so often taken for granted. The police, firefighters, first responders, chaplains and members of the military were doing what they do each and every day – ready to give up their lives for others. The airline pilots and flight crews were engaged in the awesome responsibilities they have when, around the clock, passengers entrust their lives to them.
The thousands who went to work for the last time that day were parents, seeking to earn a living and return home to the embrace of their children. They were grandparents, working in the last year or two of their careers, anticipating the family times they thought lay ahead. They were young people, the same age as my students, starting their first jobs in the hopes of a bright future. They were those working hard at the top rungs of the ladder of success, and they were those working hard, minimum wage jobs so that their children would not have to do the same.
They were newlyweds in the spring of new love, and those who cherished the spouse whose hand they held for decades. They were women carrying their children within them, in eager anticipation of holding newborns in their arms in a few short months or weeks.
I hope that the young adults of 2021 will learn about all of these people, about the lives they led and about the sacred fragility of life. I hope that they will not let the enormity of the loss hide the fact that each of those thousands of people had a unique place in the world that no one else could fill once they were gone.
While some were or became well known in the aftermath of that day, most lived the quiet hopes and dreams of ordinary lives. I hope that history and humanity, together, will keep the next generation aware of all that was lost that day. I hope they will understand that so many still mourn their loved ones with a sorrow that is fresh.
Most of all, I hope that many, like my wise student from yesteryear, will remind us to pray for those lost that day and for their loved ones left behind whose hearts still grieve for just one more moment of ordinary time.