Living Life to the Fullest
Julie Lynne Zipper and I were best friends from the time we met in the hallway of our Brooklyn apartment building when we were 6 years old. When she attended a routine training session on the 102nd floor of Two World Trade Center on Sept. 11, that was the end of our 38 years of friendship.
One warm Sunday last October, my 13-year-old daughter and I had tickets to a lecture neither one of us really wanted to attend. Instead we put the tickets aside and planted bulbs. When the flowers bloomed brightly this past spring, we rejoiced in the blessing of our life and solemnly thought of Julie. Before Sept. 11, I would have made it a point to not waste the tickets and we would have spent the day going through the motions, sticking to previously made plans rather than doing what we truly wanted to do.
When my 19-year-old daughter took one look at photos of Banff last winter, she declared the Canadian Rockies "too cold" for her summer vacation. With my new "life's too short" attitude, I purchased two round trips to Las Vegas for us instead. We spent a glorious week this past July drinking in the 110-degree weather, mesmerized by the dancing water fountains at the Bellagio hotel. Then the rest of my family and I (minus one happy but warm teenager) shivered in awe as we hiked to glaciers and remote mountain lakes. Before Sept. 11, I would never have thought to compromise our family vacation, nor would airfares -- lowered to lure back frightened passengers -- have allowed us to turn one family vacation into two.
In August, my sister Suki and I already had tickets for the Bruce Springsteen concert in one of the last rows at the MCI Center when we found out we could purchase better tickets right up front. I hesitated to own two sets of tickets to the same concert, but then she reminded me that we might not even be on this Earth the following week. We jumped, danced, sang and celebrated on the floor and gave the top section tickets to eternally grateful friends.
Renewed optimism and an astounding appreciation for my family are the ways in which I have chosen to allow 9/11 to have changed me. A bright October afternoon is for being outside, basking in the warmth of the sunshine. A cold winter's night is for planning festive future summer vacations. As my sister Wendy wrote in the most recent birthday card she sent to me, "Happy Birthday to someone who knows how to live life to its fullest." The memory of my best friend, Julie Zipper, is a constant reminder to do just that.
One Ray of Hope on a Dark Day
Around 8 a.m. on Sept. 11, I awoke to the sounds of breakfast being served in my room at Inova Alexandria Hospital. My first thoughts were of my new son, Jackson, born early that morning. I basked in the glow of new life and of my accomplishment. Suddenly everything was wonderful; life would never be the same.
Not an hour later, the phone rang. My father-in-law solemnly instructed my husband, Eric, to turn on the TV. At first we were incredulous and stunned, but after a few minutes, we realized what was happening and began to fear for our country, our loved ones and ourselves. Suddenly everything was wrong; life would never be the same.
In the days following 9/11, numerous family and friends called, of course, to offer congratulations. Many also thanked me, adding that the news of Jackson's birth provided a glimmer of hope and love on a very dark day.
I will begin 9/11/02 in much the same manner as the rest of the country. I will explain the importance of the day to my child as we set the flag out in front of our house. I will watch the news, fear the worst, remember the horror, and pray for the lost. But that evening, I will sit in my dining room, surrounded by balloons and streamers and laugh as I watch Jackson revel in his first-ever bite of birthday cake. I will celebrate the day, remember my son's amazing first year and hope that he will always understand how important it was for his country that he came into the world on Sept. 11, 2001.
By the evening of Sept. 11, I was overwhelmed with the sense that bravery and love were now very important for the whole world to express to each other.
I made a list of resolutions that night -- not to keep for a year, but to try to keep for life. I taped them up at my desk, where I read them every day. It seemed to me that if people around the world took these resolutions to heart, then hatred, ignorance and fear would lose their foundation and those who died that day would have had the profound effect of bringing about a new, much improved world order based on love. I could see that it had to start with each of us individually, not in some far off place, but in our own thoughts and actions. Some of my resolutions were:
* Open thought to see all people as having the capacity to express good and treat them so they know you see them as good.
* Be very slow to take offense.
* Do not indulge anger, hatred or other lower qualities, or be self-righteous, but replace such thoughts with an openness to seeing more good in yourself and others.
* Refuse to let hatred get a foothold in thought and do not make decisions based on anything less than your highest thoughts.
More recently, I added the idea "magnify the good" to my desk-side list of guiding ideas.
I saw some graffiti recently that said, "Are you angry, or are you just boring?" Henry Drummond in "The Greatest Thing in the World" called ill temper "the vice of the virtuous," implying that it is socially acceptable to be ill-tempered if you are generally a success in other ways. But whoever wrote the graffiti knew that anger is the easy choice and shows a lack of control and a drought of ideas and imagination. Anger is merely the path of least resistance. Love and forgiveness are the only tools that can build peace. They require letting go of deep-seated, learned hatred. Until each of us decides individually that we do not want to be ruled by hatred, the sadness and weight of hatred will limit our experience on this Earth.
In January, when the Olympic torch came through Washington, U.S. Sen. John Warner told a crowd gathered on the Mall that "the reason we are the land of the free is because we are the home of the brave." That is a thought worth dwelling on.
Bonnie J. Williams
A Friendly Wave
Here's one thing I do differently since September 11, 2002: I wave. On Route 110 near the Pentagon, I pass officers and soldiers in police cars and military tanks guarding the road. I wave at every one. Sometimes they wave back; more often I don't even know if they see me. But I'm glad they are there and I want to say thank you, so I wave.
Out of Tragedy, Love
Conversation at dinner parties, lunches with co-workers, and even a picnic at Wolf Trap has fallen silent many times since last Sept. 11. The culprit? My boyfriend's or my response to the inevitable question, "How did you two meet?"
Friends who know the story sit back in their seats to listen. Others leave conversations half-finished and lean in or move closer as if the question is one they had wanted to ask themselves but didn't for fear that I would crumble before them. The person who asked the question looks on, unaware.
"We met on September 11," I say.
Silence. Our companions seem to consider which circumstances that day could have drawn Jim and me together. A second or two goes by. I explain.
Traffic is bunched up on Route 27 in front of the Pentagon. I turn on the car radio to listen for a traffic report. The airwaves are somber; the usual, raucous, early morning DJ banter is missing. I hear instead reports of the attacks on the World Trade Center. I call my sister, who lives and works on eastern Long Island, on my cell phone. They say it was a hijacking, she says.
A helicopter takes off from the heliport at the Pentagon. Minutes -- maybe seconds -- later, I hear it: American Airlines Flight 77 screams toward the Pentagon. The explosion shakes my car and shatters or pops out the windows of cars nearby. I jump. Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God. I can't stop trembling. A massive fireball mushrooms over the Pentagon. Smoke spews from the crash site. The smell -- burning fuel mixed with death -- is everywhere. I cry and clamp my hand over my mouth.
"What the hell was that?" a man one car over asks.
"A jet," I answer. "Hijacked. Like New York."
I am hysterical, desperate to get away, but traffic is at a standstill. Will the roadways be the next target? Hundred of motorists are corralled on Route 27 and I-395 with nowhere to go. I don't want to be here. People stream out of the Pentagon. I expect to see horror, hysteria, fear on their faces. But they look calm. I scan the faces of nearby commuters. They look unfazed, as if they are enduring just another long drive to work.
Somber DJs and radio newscasters report the "explosion" at the Pentagon. I look for an escape route. The ramp to the Pentagon's north parking lot is blocked. I cannot use it to reach Route 110. Sirens wail in the distance. I can't get a signal on my cell phone. An SUV in front of me herky-jerks its way across the grass median. I turn my steering wheel to follow. Traffic loosens ahead. A police officer directs drivers to the roundabout before the Memorial Bridge. I straighten my car's path and follow, winding my way to Route 1 in Crystal City.
More traffic. I eye the office buildings that tower alongside the highway and warily watch the sky. A loud noise. What was that? Another strike? An explosion? Something at the Pentagon crash site has caught fire, the radio news reports.
I make it home hours later. My suburban neighborhood seems so serene, so far-removed from a world where airliners fly into buildings or fall from the sky. I leave the TV and radio off. Eleven months will pass before I finally let myself watch video clips or see photos of people plunging to their deaths from the burning World Trade Center. I sit dazed on the porch swing with my dog. I'll sell my home, I think. Move to Colorado or New Mexico. Maybe Washington.
Jim, who recently bought a condo unit two floors below mine, drives into a parking spot. He and I have met only in passing; my dog -- a welcome wagon at the end of a leash -- had pulled me over to him. Jim steps out of his SUV, clasps his hands behind his head and stares at the sky for a minute or so. He starts up the sidewalk and glances up at my porch. I stand at the railing with my chin in my hands and manage a weak hello.
"Are you OK?" he asks.
"Kind of." I wasn't really.
"Do you need anything? Would you like some company?" He squints in the sunlight.
We spend four hours together that day. I cower when the noise of a passing jet rumbles overhead. Just a military jet patrolling the skies, Jim assures me. He and I had our first date a week later and fell hard for each other, instantly and fearlessly.
Sept. 11 forced us to take chances, to live and to love each other. Had the horror of that day never happened, we may have eventually worked up the courage to date, and we may have discovered the love that we now share. But we may have also let love pass us by. Sept. 11 compelled us to take a chance -- and taught many people that every day is precious.
Jim and I are so very happy together. When we think of Sept. 11, we have heartfelt sadness for those who died and lost loved ones, but we also feel a renewed sense of appreciation for the treasures that we have, and can have, in our lives. The tragedy reminds us that life must be lived and that love and hope can rise from tragedy.
Jennifer L. Reichert
and Jim Linney
[Editor's note: Jim proposed to Jennifer last week. She said yes.]