Sep 12, 2011

10 for 9/11

I know that I wrote about some of this five years ago (has it been that long already?).  But I wanted to again.  Yesterday, as a nation we observed the tenth anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in our history.  There were tributes running on television almost non-stop for the last week.  Sports teams wore flag decals, ribbons, and bandanas.  The UCF/BC matchup this past Saturday was especially poignant as the hometown Knights actually honored a BC alumni who gave his life in the World Trade Center while leading a dozen people to safety.  You had to be in a cave to miss the tributes; just like it is impossible to forget the event itself.  We all know exactly where we were at the moments the towers fell, when the Pentagon was hit, when the fourth plane disappeared into a field.  We all know precisely where we were when the world fell apart.

I was standing in a labor and delivery suite at the Orange Park Medical Center, awaiting the arrival of my first child.  "You may want to turn on the tv.  A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center."  The happiest and proudest moment in my life collided with the saddest and most terrifying moment.  I know we've told this story so many times, but it is impossible for me to separate those two events.  We were forced to deal with becoming new parents at the same time that we were watching parents lose children and children lose parents.  We were overwhelmed by the crushing grief and fear that emanated from New York and Washington DC.  We finally had to turn off the television once the camera crews started showing the thousands of people holding up hastily made "Have You Seen This Person?" flyers.  It became too real and too overwhelming.

I tried as best as I could to ignore what was going on.  It was virtually impossible.  Everyone was shaken - and understandably so.  We were living in the military-heavy community of Jacksonville.  No one there knew what these attacks meant.  We all knew there had to be retaliation - against who, no one knew.  You could feel the tension everywhere.  I swear to this day that some of the inferior care my wife received was due to the medical personnel being shell-shocked.  After Josiah arrived, we didn't watch the television.  I tried to avoid the wall-to-wall coverage on the internet.  As a result, we actually mercifully missed out on some of the most painful stories after the initial event.

One of my friends up in Buffalo wrote on his Facebook yesterday that he never realized just how much he was still in shock over the 2001 attacks until yesterday.  It was the first time the true weight of what happened hit him full force.  Last night, we had on the "minute by minute" replay of NBC's coverage.  Josiah wanted to watch it, since his birthday always coincides with the anniversary.  But, after five minutes or so, I felt myself getting anxious.  Even though I knew what was going to happen, I was terrified.  After about ten minutes, Natalie just exploded and yelled, "Turn this off!! I can't take it any more!"  She was just devastated at what exactly was happening - the fact that all the people on the planes died too, knowing thousands of lives were going to be lost (in the past).  I understood completely, because I was feeling the same thing.

I don't think I still have ever truly come to grips with what happened.  If I spend too much time thinking about it, I am just consumed by the grief and the scope of it all.  It is enough to bury me.  I remember right after the attacks, that I fell into the darkest depression I ever experienced.  I was so distraught over the loss of life and what this attack meant.  I sat there and looked at my little boy and asked myself, "What have I done?  How could I have brought this little one into such a horrible place?"  I was angry and withdrawn (classic male symptoms of depression).  It took months to escape that dark place.  And I have to be careful to not spend too much time thinking about that day or I can feel the darkness coming for me - like a Dementor attacking in Harry Potter.

I am sure many would call this avoidance.  I don't care.  I call it a conscious choice.  When I look back at that day, I see two enormous memories.  One is dark and horrible.  One is bright and wonderful.  I choose to focus on the second one.

My firstborn son, Josiah, turned ten at 2:11am this morning.  That, to me, is a huge birthday.  I remember my tenth birthday, how I felt like I really was growing up.  I was double digits.  I had lived a decade.  I was in the upper grades of elementary.  So it was a huge deal to me that Josiah was turning ten.  My little boy has turned into a very big boy.  He will be in middle school in two years.  I am very proud of the young man he has become.  He is brilliant and talented.  I am blown away by his artistic talent.  I have told him that between his artistic talent, his brilliant mind, and his knowledge of math and science he has all the tools necessary to create something absolutely incredible.  He could be a George Lucas or James Cameron or Steve Jobs or CS Lewis.

His brain has always impressed me.  Just this afternoon, he was standing in the living room running through all the ways that terrorists could still attack - despite improved security procedures.  The stuff he was coming up with (sleeper cell agents, deep cover agents, attacks using trucks or boats) was right out of Hollywood filmmaking.  The thing is, he's never seen those movies or read those books.  He was just thinking and generated these very intricate scenarios.  He's already created several fictional worlds for his comic books - and of course he's adapted popular ones to fit his needs as well.  I remember last year, he had to write sentences for his spelling words.  So he would write all twenty sentences as a story and incorporate words into each successive sentence.  I was just blown away.

He's always shocked and surprised us.  He sat up in his stroller at three months and was mistaken for a nine month old.  He walked at seven and a half months.  He was carrying gallon bottles of water around our apartment at nine months.  He had all the planets memorized before he was two.  When Pluto was demoted from planet status, I had tons of people come up to me from his preschool to ask me what he thought.  I told them to ask him.  "I think it's dumb.  Some scientists don't want Pluto to be a planet any more.  Doesn't make any sense."  People wanted to know what a preschooler felt about astronomy.  It just cracked me up.

When he was born, I remember watching him through the window of the nursery.  Heather's parents and their close friends, the Delisis, were standing there.  These friends are as close as family - their daughter has known Heather since first grade.  They came up to the hospital to wait for Josiah to come.  When they arrived, they said, "We could stay home and be sad or we could come up here and celebrate life."  We all stood in the hallway after he was born and looked at him.  Mrs. Delisi said something about God having a reason why Josiah was born this way on this day.  "He is going to bring such joy on a dark day.  He already has.  God has something big planned for him."  Josiah himself told me once, "We're going to do big things for God."  It was completely unprompted and something I tucked away.  I don't know what exactly his path will hold, but I feel confident that Josiah is going to be involved in something big.

I choose to focus on my son's birthday.  I choose to focus on the joy and love that having him brings.  It isn't that I don't want to honor those who fell on that day.  I wore a 9/11 memorial badge all day.  I saw a Marine in the restaurant we ate at for lunch and made a point to go and thank him for his service.  I talked to my kids about what 9/11 meant and what happened.  But if we spend too much time being crushed and crippled by that day, that actually dishonors those who sacrificed.  They died to ensure that we can still live our lives and live them to the fullest.  It's kind of like what Tom Hanks' character says to Matt Damon's in Saving Private Ryan.  "Make your life worth this."  I want to make my life worth their sacrifice.  And I want Josiah's life to as well.  I try to teach him about making the most of his abilities, not settling for less than is best.  I don't want him to waste his copious talents.  In future years, we will have the discussion about why he was born that day and what he can do in his life to honor that event.  For now, though, he is still bringing hope and joy for the rest of us just by being himself.

For a long time, I hated the fact that we had to experience his birth on the same day as something so tragic.  But, when I think about it now, I realize that we actually had a wonderful gift in the fact that we had something to amazing and incredible to think about instead.  I really didn't have to go through what a lot of other people did because I had this little baby.  Whenever it got too hard to handle, when the news got too bad, I could hold him and find a place of joy and hope.  It is easy to recognize things like that in retrospect.  I thank God so much that I have had him in moments like those.  And I thank God that he is my son.  He has made me a better man, a better father.  And it has been a true joy and honor to be a part of his life.  And I still can't believe he just turned ten...

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