September 11, Five Years Later

New York Skyline After 911
New York Skyline After 9/11

by Robert Gillis
Published in the Foxboro Reporter 8/2004 and the Foxboro Reporter 8/2006 and the Boston City Paper 9/2006.

September 11, 2001 was a death in the family. A death in our National family. And as a nation, we went to the wake and funeral.

The world suddenly seemed so quiet. The commercial-free constant coverage of the attacks and their aftermath. The deaths, my God, the deaths and the destruction. The stories of miraculous survival. And the unimaginable reality of the demolished twin towers and Pentagon. As a nation we had been violated. Attacked. Changed forever.

As a nation, as a family, we mourned.

I remember sitting in church at Saint Mary’s and LaSallette. I remember walking on Castle Island with Sue that Friday. It was so quiet, with no planes flying overhead. I remember staring at Logan Airport and realizing two of the hijacked flights departed from where I was watching – that the terrorists had been standing so close to where I was standing now.

That evening, there was a nationwide candlelight vigil. Everywhere, we saw people walking around with candles. I locked eyes with a total stranger holding a candle. “Good evening,” he said solemnly, the way you greet someone coming to a wake. We joined another group of strangers by the Korean War monument. They gave us candles and we talked and shared. Suddenly, a rainbow appeared in the sky. Was this a sign that things were going to be all right – that the worst was over? We hoped so.

We drove home that night, and a large truck was pulled over by the side of the highway, and a bunch of people were cheering, waving a huge American flag bathed in headlights. We beeped in support as we went by. So did everyone else.

In the months after September 11, especially at first, patriotism was at an all time high. The flag flew proudly EVERYWHERE – on houses, buildings, cars, in windows–it was everywhere, along with ubiquitous “God Bless America” and “United we stand” signs. The assembled House of Representatives sang “God Bless America” on the capital steps. Patriotic songs played on the radio. In all ways that mattered, everyone in this country was of one mindset, one family. Hearing the National Anthem brought tears to our eyes.

Death has a way of bringing families together.

But as time passed by, we needed to move on. In the five years since September 11, most of us not directly affected by the attacks have moved through the stages of death – the grief, the denial, the anger, and for most of us, we’ve accepted and tried to move on. We don’t forget what happened but September 11 got pushed into the background for most of us. This acceptance is actually healthy; none of us could survive if we couldn’t move on from death.

But for so many, the pain doesn’t end, it just dulls a little. Moving on is much more difficult, if not impossible, for the tens of thousands who lost a loved one that day. May God ease their pain.

Whether or not you lost someone that day, you know that the world is now a very different place. The world seems less safe. New security measures – some prudent, some just invasive – are everywhere. We’re at war. Men and women in uniform are fighting terror – some are dying. The shores of the continental USA are not the impenetrable barriers we thought they were.

I’ll never walking Ground Zero eleven days after the attacks and the guy whose sister had died in the WTC. He saw the flag I’d purchased and told me, “Fly the colors proudly, man.”

This September 11, stop. Remember. Its okay to get angry, it’s okay to be outraged, and it’s okay to hurt. It’s okay to watch all the retrospectives, and as your kids get older, explain what happened, and why. Tell those close to you what they mean to you. For the sake of the 3000 who died and the 10,000 children orphaned that day, and the people still fighting a war against terror at this moment, for the sake of our national identity, stop and remember. Pray. Fly the flag. Whatever your politics, whether or not you agree with the war, you are an American. Be proud to be an American. And “Fly the colors proudly, man.”

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