Sept. 11: 10 meditations on a searing moment
Local Opinions invited some of those who had letters printed in The Post after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to write again. Below, the original letters in italics, followed by the new ones.
The healing has come
I’m fine, actually. Never been better. I made sure my employees had a chance to speak with an EAP in order to process their feelings. I even attended the group session myself. I am one calm, collected, middle-aged woman, centered and at peace with myself and the world around me. So why have I been losing my hair in clumps ever since that day? Is this how I allow myself to scream?
In retrospect, it would have been healthier to scream as long and as loud as I needed. I went through a stage where I didn’t really know whom to trust. I asked myself: Who is my enemy? What does my enemy look like? Female or male? Swarthy or pale? Crazy or religiously fervent? Where will I be safe?
In 2004, at Heathrow airport in London, I smiled inwardly as they detained anyone who looked vaguely Middle Eastern. I am ashamed of this now. Just recently, at the Little Rock airport, I felt angry when the Transportation Security Administration agent did not check out a medical device that I use for sleep apnea, as TSA staffers do at National or Dulles. I wanted to say: “Stay vigilant. Be ready. Don’t slip into complacency!” But even with occasional fears, the healing has come.
I have found three things that have sustained me and made me feel safe: a deeper relationship with my God, a new husband who helps me keep it all in perspective and a semi-serious plan to retire to Panama.
— Ellen Zamaria, Woodbridge
Carrying on their work
After 9/11, I painted the ice of Antarctica, filled in blue oceans and added green land masses to 35 foam balls so the third-graders could pin sequins on the poles, and used ribbons to fasten equators, prime meridians and other longitude lines. I could picture the five friends I lost on Flight 77 laughing at the mess I was making, but feeling proud that I was fulfilling their commitment to geography education.
Ten years later, I am still teaching and trying to infuse geography into the curriculum. In preparation for a unit on explorers, I am planning an expedition to our school’s newly acquired property so my students can explore and photograph the topography of the land. They will be creating a geographic and historic time capsule for posterity.
I feel as if Joe Ferguson, Ann Judge, Sarah Clark, Hilda Taylor and James Debeuneure, traveling that day as part of a National Geographic program, created a geographic and historic time capsule for posterity, too. I think they would be proud that my love for geography, my passion for teaching and my gratitude for their time in my life has never left me.
— Liz Jacobi, Kensington
An honor beyond words
I won’t let anyone change the school-style clock in our Pentagon office, frozen at 10:35 since 9/11, probably when its electronic roots in the destroyed wedge vanished. We evacuated, agonized to leave shipmates irretrievably behind, returned months later to fresh paint, carpet, furniture, rather than smoke and mildew smells, and found our old clock. The clock didn’t change; I did. I look at it several times a day, my silent ritual of rededication to the naval service.
I wish I had climbed up and wrestled that clock off the wall. I read recently that a Pentagon clock, stopped in time, had been placed in a collection. I like to think that is “my” clock.
I did my best work in the Navy that day and in the days and months following, reconstituting the staff and spaces of the chief of naval operations. Some memories are still crystal-clear. I have nightmares, the lucid kind, where I can smell the burned things my conscious mind shies away from.
After military retirement, I chose a job allowing me to stay close to the military, coordinating my company’s corporate sponsorship of active-duty, National Guard and Reserve events. I need to feel I still serve. I find I don’t care so much for the acquisition of things, but for simple pleasures involving family, friends and the Naval Academy midshipmen we sponsor, and working on my travel bucket list.
I am honored beyond words to have served in the U.S. Navy during such a time. I am humbled by the experiences of those who fought and are still fighting, and by their families’ sacrifices. May those whose lives were forever altered that day and in all the days following by the loss of a loved one find joy and peace in their loving memories.
— Mary Jo Sweeney, Crownsville
What’s important every day
On Sept. 8, my sister-in-law Michele invited me to dinner. I said no, because I was just too exhausted. So we arranged for me to come instead on Sept. 12. That never happened because Michele Heidenberger was a stewardess on Flight 77. Daily I miss this person I met at midlife, who had become my big sister and my best friend. I now make every effort to accept or initiate opportunities to stay in touch with family and friends — dinner, coffee breaks, walks or a five-minute phone call. Decline an invitation, and you could regret it for the rest of your life.
I still aim not to turn down invitations. One missed opportunity to say goodbye has stayed with me forever. This tragedy has changed my perspective on so many things. I learned the hard way that life is too short and one needs to make the most of situations the best way possible. Being around positive and energetic people is so important every day. I have come to understand that I need to be grateful for the years that I spent with Michele and realize that she often guided me while she was alive and appears to be doing the same today.
— Betsy Heidenberger, Chevy Chase
A wound that doesn’t heal
At 7:30 on that day, just like every 7:30 a.m. for the previous four years, I hesitated a moment before phoning my son, Josh, knowing the Wall Street wise guys at Cantor Fitzgerald would tease their leader that “hey, Josh, your Daddy is calling.”
I called. We teased each other and concluded with a mutual “luv ya.”
Every day since, I still check the clock to see if it is 7:30 yet. Then I catch myself. The only time I talk to Josh now is in the dreams that sometimes come.
Ten years later and the images are familiar: Names are read, bells are tolled, the fallen are remembered. Much has changed. Ground Zero has been cleaned up, a beautiful memorial has been built, a new building reaches up to take its place in the New York skyline. Our enemies have been punished. Osama bin Laden is dead. After 9/11 our political differences didn’t matter; we were Americans, and an evil deed had been visited upon us. But unity has given way to partisan intransigence. I believe that when our leaders forsake the ideals of the American democratic process for the sake of petty political gamesmanship, they betray the memory of the fallen.
But in some ways, little has changed. I still have to remind myself daily that I can’t phone my son Josh each morning like I used to.
Josh grew up in Potomac and graduated from Churchill High School. He attended Cornell University and moved to New York, where he parlayed his uncanny ability with numbers into becoming a rising star as a stock trader at Cantor Fitzgerald. It also put his office on the 105th floor of the North Tower. He married Rachel almost a year to the day before 9/11.
The images of the planes hitting the buildings and the buildings falling, with me hoping against hope that he was not still inside, is etched indelibly in my mind, like a movie loop, running over and over. I vividly recall agonizing over the location of the fire stairwells in the towers (I had worked as a doctor on the World Trade Center construction site 30 years earlier, when we were expecting Josh), trying to remember if it was possible for anyone on the upper floors to escape.
Our community has been wonderfully supportive, but those wounds don’t heal. I just find a special place for them and try to honor the fallen by doing my best.
— Barry Aron, Rockville
The princess is back
As we watched the news, our 3-year-old daughter ran and played, oblivious; that night, as we put her to bed, she cried, asking: “Did the princess get out of the castle?” What princess, honey, what castle? “The princess in the castle that was very hot with fire from the airplanes that crashed into it.” She’d seen the news. How terrible we felt — we hadn’t protected her from it. Sweet Jena, so considerate, and worried about the princess. Those bastards got her, too.
Ten years have passed. Jena has learned about the princess. The princess may have been severely hurt that day, but she survived. It took a while for her to clean up, to heal, to learn, to never forget. But the princess is back. She is resilient. She is stronger than before. She is New York City.
— Laura (and Jena) Calvitti, Leesburg
A 40th birthday wish
Sept. 11th was my 30th birthday. I awoke thinking that I would be transformed somehow, that 30 would bring me more wisdom. The day brought something else — death and suffering on an unimaginable scale, followed by an outpouring of compassion among the living. And I am transformed. Now my birthday is a day for mourning. Now I want to be more loving than wise.
This 9/11, I will turn 40. I have a loving husband and two beautiful children. I still mourn deeply for those who died in the attacks and their loved ones; as a spouse and mother I now understand even more fully their suffering and grief. In these past 10 years, I have focused on trying to offer and receive compassion above all else. And to be thankful for my loved ones, knowing that life is fragile.
There have been periods after witnessing the tragedy of that day where I have lost my faith in God, my fellow man and myself. I wrestle with fear more than I like to admit. But I have kept going forward by remembering that the best way I can honor the memory of the victims of 9/11 is to choose compassion as my lens through which I see others.
As I celebrate my 40th birthday, I want the next part of my life to be about teaching my children empathy, and to have the courage to stand up for what they believe — to love in spite of fear. There is nothing more difficult — and more fulfilling — in this life.
— Rachel Hill Freytag, Reston
Striving for understanding
On Sept. 12, I was pulled off my train at gunpoint and arrested as a suspected terrorist. As a Sikh, I wear a turban, have a beard and carry a small dagger that is for religious purposes only. My picture was broadcast worldwide next to Osama bin Laden’s, and the media continued to broadcast the image long after my release. This changed me, and I am now an activist for interfaith and human rights.
A decade later, I feel a sense of humble acceptance over what we have undergone to ensure our safety from terrorism and to heal from the wounds and sad memories. I pray for peace and safety for the whole world. As we remember the terrible moments of a decade ago, I hope we continue to strive for a true acceptance and a loving understanding between all people.
In hindsight, I think of my arrest as a calling. Because I had such an experience, I was able to identify deeply with the issues of bigotry, racism and intolerance, from which many of us were suffering. I sincerely applaud the outreach efforts of all the interfaith and multicultural organizations to promote peace and understanding at a local and national level, and also of our government’s work to ensure the safety and dignity of all people.
— Sher J.B. Singh, Frederick
The way to open minds
Sept. 11th took the idealism out of my job and replaced it with suspicion. Instead of spending the past year creating new programs to help international students successfully adjust to life at a large American university, I spent the year developing procedures for tracking and reporting on them. Sept. 11th so profoundly changed the image and nature of international education that I’m not sure I want to be in this profession any longer.
On 9/11, I was working with international students and scholars from more than 130 nations who came to the United States for academic degrees, scholarly research and exchange programs. These students and scholars were (and are) the best of the best. Most pooled family resources and left their countries behind to have access to one of America’s greatest assets, our system of higher education.
Sept. 11 affected them as much as it affected us. I’ll never forget how it felt to counsel terrified students from the 25 countries identified for mandatory “Special Registration” treatment before they went in to be photographed, fingerprinted and interviewed by U.S. immigration and customs officers.
As the years have passed, our public paranoia has lessened. All international students, scholars and exchange visitors can again feel welcome in our country. More Americans are studying abroad, too. I’m glad, because the experience of living in another country is the best way to open minds and erase stereotypes.
I now work for the government, facilitating educational and cultural exchange programs. Exposure to other cultures is the only answer I have come up with to peacefully combat the terrorism we experienced on Sept. 11.
— Julia Findlay, Reston
Forgiveness and peace
My boyfriend of 12 years was a well-known law enforcement figure who died in the World Trade Center. But this is an extremely shortened version of the story. When I’d asked him how I’d know if anything happened to him, John always laughed and said that I would “read it in the paper.” He was right. He didn’t tell me I’d also read, in three national magazines, that he’d promised to marry two other women besides me. I wander the gray landscape between trust and skepticism now. I pray for him, for them. I pray not to lose my belief in love.
The wounds to my heart healed slowly, but I forgave John O’Neill, because he was also a friend. To channel my grief, I changed my career to focus on those most affected by the aftermath of 9/11: military men and women and their families. As part of my work, I spent more than 300 Fridays at the “Fran O’Brien’s” dinners for wounded service members. Among the hundreds I met were a young man seeking a double kidney transplant, as his were liquefied in a land-mine blast; another, with dreams of writing like Faulkner, who drove over a roadside bomb and found his intestines in his lap; a third who lost his hand but became the first amputee to return to combat. I was lifted by their courage and forgot my own sadness.
When I woke on May 2, my birthday, I heard the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed. I imagined John sitting in a leather club chair, glass of Chivas in one hand, Cuban cigar in the other, with his signature wry smile. Yes, there is justice, I thought. But not yet peace.
This Sept. 11, I will read at a Mass for Peace celebrated by Cardinal Donald Wuerl. I will pray we find the peace we seek.
— Mary Lynn Stevens, Washington