I have a lot of mixed memories about 9/11. There's the horrible stuff, of course, but there is also a lot that I remember with better sensibility. I remember the admiration I had for the resilience of people and the sense of unity and service that came from such a tragic event. I remember the quiet moments of personal dignity that I saw in the people of New York. As I told my friend Robert Arnold, who was the one reporter I was willing to talk to while I was at Ground Zero, in my experiences responding to disasters - whether Hurricane Katrina, the Columbia Space Shuttle Recovery, the West, Texas explosion, the Haiti Earthquake in 2010, the repatriation of Lebanese-Americans in 2006 and more - in the midst of the major tragedies with everything going on, there is always some very human moment that stays with you. It's oddly like what the writer Gwendolyn Brooks said to me when defining poetry. "It's life, distilled."
9/11 for me is a piece of artwork affixed to the front of the Javits Center, where we ate and slept after our shifts at the site. The children of New York City had drawn pictures on pieces of construction paper along with messages about their perceptions and feelings in response to the attacks. They ranged pretty broadly, from anger to sadness, but there was one created by a little girl named Rachel Pollack that was, for me, a perfect crystalline example of very human empathy. She had drawn a picture of the fractured skyline and apparently herself next to it. The accompanying caption read, "I feel sorry for everyone who lost someone, because I know what it's like to be alone."
It was so simple, so sweet and perfect, and it said so much about the correlations in the human experience. Despite everything that was happening, I had been bearing up okay, but when I read that, I felt such a profound sense of connection to her, an instant concern about what she meant and what circumstances had caused her to experience that loneliness, that it broke my heart.
Of course, I'll never forget the site, the actions, the worries, the health issues that I predicted and that have sadly borne out since that deployment, but for me, as with every deployment, 9/11 will always bring back the memory of a little girl's sentiment, and the great connection that we all share.
We are currently living in a time of great division, or so we are constantly told. It really seems that true human connection has been sacrificed in favor of connectivity. In remembering 9/11 and the human moments I witnessed and experienced, and particularly in the connection I felt to the emotions of a child I never met, I think we are perhaps not as far apart as some would have us believe. In that way we are all joined at the heart.
Thanks to Robert and the folks at KPRC for allowing me a moment to re-experience that.