Sunday, September 11, 2011
Why We Visit Memorials
Jeff and the boys, looking over the field in PA, six months after the plane crashed on 9/11. The angels in front of them represent the passengers on the plane.
The day my mom died I cried the deepest tears of my life. I was young, she was young, it was all very sudden. None of it made sense to me. While my patient husband cared for our two toddlers, I waded through the months that followed, and finally found a bit of sunshine the next spring.
Then I woke up to see footage on my television, of a bombing in Oklahoma City. Hundreds of people were killed and injured. Pictures of lost little children, dressed in Easter outfits from the week before, flashed across the screen. New grief was stirred up inside of me.
Again, it was all very sudden. Hard to process. Hard to put in perspective.
A handful of years later I watched another horror play out on my television, this one broadcast live. With a toddler in my lap, I struggled to handle my own emotions while trying to explain to my five, eight and nine year old exactly what had just happened to those two tall buildings, while trying not to alarm them. Familiar grief, shock and tears welled up in my soul.
Two months later, as we drove through New England to visit Grammy for Christmas, we detoured down through New York City. I was amazed to see the streets just a block away from Ground Zero looking very…normal. No signs of the grey dust that covered everything, in every picture we saw on the news. Coffee shops were open. People scurried to and fro, on their way to work and school, back to regular life.
You’d hardly know that just a block away there was a great pit, filled with dust, debris, and remnants of lives lost.
Then less than a year after the 9/11 attacks we moved our young family to Washington D.C. On our drive across the country we stopped by that field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania and stood by the temporary monument that had been erected, a simple chain link fence. The children brought tiny flags and small stuffed animals to leave on the fence, a marker that they had come and paid their respects.
It’s a tradition we’d started when they were hardly old enough to understand stories of loss and terrorism. In the years after the Oklahoma City bombing, as the Oklahoma version of Ground Zero went from a pile of burnt rubble, to an empty lot, to an amazing monument, we stopped many times to see the site. We lived in Missouri and often traveled to Dallas to see family. It only seemed right to stop off and check up on the progress being made there.
And it only seemed right to continue reminding our children that what they were seeing was hallowed ground.
For many years I’m sure they didn’t really understand why we went. To them it was a chance to get out of the car and stretch their tired legs. But they heard the stories, over and over, and they saw that it made mommy sad to tell the stories. They got the part that mattered. The part about how there are bad guys in the world. Scary things happen. But in the end, human spirit wins out.
We remember the people who were just doing their jobs, on a normal day of the week, and never knew they wouldn’t be home for dinner.
Our children have seen all three crash sites from 9/11 and have clear memories of seeing the bombing site in Oklahoma City. It’s not that we have a morbid fascination with tragedy. We take our children to these sites so they can feel history. I spent my childhood reading history in books and never really connecting it to the outside world. My husband and I wanted our children to hear about something that happened in our country and say, “I know about that. I saw that monument. I stood by that fountain. I rubbed a name off that long black wall. I gazed over that field with my family. I know about that.”
And every time we go stand by the site that I’ve stopped calling Ground Zero and started calling The Freedom Tower, I tell them the story of that day once again. They fill in the parts they remember, and together we talk about it as a family. They are reminded that terrible, awful, senseless things happen. But life goes on.
More than I ever understood, as we drove away from the cemetery after burying my mother, my children are starting to understand the reality of life.
They see the pattern. Things happen that are sometimes hard to comprehend. They aren’t fair. They will never make sense. But for the survivors, life has to go on. It’s good to build a tactile reminder - a new building, a monument, even a park bench - to help us never forget. But the lesson will always be that life does move on. People rally together, comfort each other.
And then, as hard as it seems, we all move on.
This week we’ll remember the events around September 11, 2001. If you get a chance, stop by the site in lower Manhattan. Stop and gaze at that amazing new building that sparkles in the sun.
But I also encourage you to visit the Oklahoma City National Memorial, if you’re ever in the Midwest. I challenge you not to cry as you walk through the rows of empty chairs, each representing an empty chair at some family’s table.
And I challenge you to not weep when you walk by the 19 tiny chairs, neatly inscribed with the names of the 19 children who never got to grow up.
It’s important that we remember. Not to dredge up the horrible acts that caused our grief. But to never forget the people whose lives were cut short, and the families whose dinner tables will never again be complete.
Don’t forget to tell your children the stories, this week, and for years to come.
It’s their history too.
Take them to the walls. Walk them through the gardens. Let them touch the cold steel monuments. They need to understand how important it is, how incredibly important it is, that we never forget.
And that through all tragedy, life goes on.