The Day a Nation Cried

Editor's Note: Three years ago this morning, Carmen Abell of Indian Head wrote the following letter to her 3-year-old grandson, Matthew Johnson, intending it to explain what happened Sept. 11 once he was old enough to read. Matthew is now 6. Abell was at her job with a federal agency in Washington when American Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon.

September 12, 2001, 5:30 a.m.

My Dearest Matthew:

Yesterday, all of a sudden, I grew old -- as I felt my beautiful city tremble in fear, shaking my foundation. A feeling of numbness overpowered me as I watched the chaotic scene being displayed before me. I watched from the sideline, a spectator. I forced myself to look around, to grasp at what I saw, to take it all in. I did that, and knew without a shadow of a doubt that my life had forever changed. Around me I saw fear, shock, disbelief, anger and hurt, all reflected in people's eyes. As we huddled together, brothers and sisters in distress united by a common thread -- "federal workers" -- the enormity of the situation overwhelmed me. I walked around, seems to me, aimlessly. Smoke was in the air, acrid. The sound of sirens and the rumble of police cars, firetrucks, and ambulances was deafening. I watched and listened, and the sounds became a sob and then an infinite wailing that tore my city apart. My tears hit shaking ground.

I am writing you this letter because, perhaps selfish of me, I want to make you part of this incomprehensible experience. One day, when you grow up, history will tell you about the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, when something horrific happened to our nation. When human beings were turned into living "weapons of mass destruction" and darkness fell upon us early in the morning. I want you to know about it firsthand, to be part of this day, to hold in your hands words written on paper dampened by tears. Not only my tears, but the tears of a country, of a nation -- united.

I must tell you, Matthew, that my first reaction upon witnessing the devastation unleashed upon my country was one of disbelief. Disbelief that was soon replaced by anger. Anger so strong and so rabid that even now, many hours later, it still saps me of my strength and leaves me weak. Anger so foul and so awful that even now I feel ashamed. I wanted the perpetrators dead. I wanted their seed to be uprooted and destroyed so it could never again germinate. I imagined their land blank and spotless as a brand-new canvas, where the virulent seed of hate no longer lived. And then, I saw the people that I gladly mentally destroyed. News reports brought them to me. I saw them -- people from a different world, dancing in the streets and celebrating the anguish of my people and the destruction of my land; and I was horrified and begged revenge. I then saw something else -- oh, Matthew, oh, Matthew -- I saw the children. I saw the children celebrating in the streets and realized that they merely imitated the actions of their parents. Mentally, I separated the children from the adults, and my blood passed through my sorrow and unleashed clarity. And I knew that the children were innocent, that they did not kill people, that they had been left out in the making of the "master plan." Those children, my dear Matthew, those children were you.

I bowed my head and cried. I cried for you, for me, for all. I thought of you, the perfect seed. Perfect in every way. You are the seed of America, the torchbearer, and upon your 3-year-old shoulders rests a burden of incalculable weight: the future of our country. The weight of that often-spoken single line (soft as silk, deep as the ocean and profound as the universe) -- "I am an American" -- is yours to carry.

Today, my darling grandchild, you placed before me my words and thoughts in clear context, and I am ashamed. I am ashamed because I allowed anger to cover my eyes and to govern me. I know that those children, from that other world, like you, Matthew, are good and innocent and pure -- and worth saving. They must not be uprooted and destroyed, but nourished and molded, and taught to value life. All life. That seed, which must be isolated to prevent contamination from the virulent illness that afflicts their parents, must surely be saved. Their parents, who are victims of a dreadful illness (cowardice is its name) -- an illness that robs them of their own identity; that keeps them under cover, taking furtive steps, eyes cast down, ashamed of the light, hiding behind shadows, unable to contemplate their own reflections -- are solely to blame.

I must admit, Matthew, that I am afraid. Afraid that we, in this most awful state, will harm the children -- and I get on my knees and pray for a miracle. I pray that God shelters and spares them from harm. I pray that they grow with kindness in their hearts and a river of love flowing through their veins. I pray that one day those children will be your friends and your children's friends. United by a common bond -- my sister, my brother, my people from a different world -- all members of the family of man.

Carmen L. Abell

Indian Head

Matthew Johnson received a letter from his grandmother about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.