A Letter to My Son About 9/11


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Dearest Son:

September 11 is a date you’ll no doubt learn of soon. And it’s an important one. I want to tell you the truth about that date, but because there’s so much out there, I will tell you the only truth I can comprehend after all this time–my truth. Our truth.

I was 22 and your Poppa was 24 on that day. And, yes, we were dating. We lived as volunteers in community with your “fairy Godnuns” in East Harlem, but it also happens that I went to college downtown a few blocks from the site where the massive slaughter took place. There are details you never forget from a day like that–silly things like how I had an Italian test that afternoon (that I hadn’t studied for), and how in the preceding days, I was really agitated about being in New York. I had spent the prior month studying in Tuscany and traveling through Italy on my free weekends. And, New York seemed so young, loud and dirty. So annoying. So commonplace.

One of my roommates at the time was your “zia” Lisa. She and I often joked that we should have switched places because she so LOVED the States, while I so loved Italy, her home country. I was just getting out of the shower when she called out to me to come and watch the morning news with her. A plane had gone into one of the Twin Towers and it was on fire.

We sat on the couch in the living room and watched the gruesome day unfold. We barely got up. We could hardly breathe–was this really happening? At one point, Poppa frantically buzzed up to the apartment to make sure I wasn’t in class. We continued to watch in real time as another plane flew through the clear, blue sky and into the neighboring tower, and then both buildings were eventually reduced to dust, taking lives and dreams and secrets down from the heavens to the sidewalk below in a giant coffin of smoldering rubble.  We learned of another plane hitting the Pentagon in Washington and yet another falling from the sky somewhere in Pennsylvania. New York, the city that never sleeps, fell into a mournful coma on that day.

I can’t tell you much about the days that followed. There was a lot of information thrown out there: vigils in Union Square, Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, terrorism, anthrax…and when you’re young and would rather be dancing, facing these things is about as appealing as getting a root canal. But, ever the scholar, your Poppa explained a few things to me that 24-hour news just couldn’t–patient man that he is. I eventually came to understand that the statement our attackers made was one of hatred and it cut deep into the heart of us. Knowing this changed us. It changed me.

The community and the country rallied–but it all blurs until I had to return to school in mid-October. Each day that I had class, I walked by the pile of dreams and hopes and people reduced to rubble. I would look out the windows in class and watch it dwindle over the coming semesters. The smell still haunts me to this day–that of burning “stuff” that lingered. One friend described the carnage as “part of us” because it was simply in the air, hanging like a death haze. I agree. Riding the subway was less fun because everyone was watching everyone else out of fear that another explosion, or another attack, or more anthrax was afoot. To this day, seeing planes at certain angles against the skyline makes me freeze and chokes me up. They’ve rebuilt the site, but those memories remain.

But, then, there’s you.

When I watch you sleep, I wonder what your life will become. What will you be when you grow up? Will you think Poppa and I were crazy to move you from the bustling city we so loved and demand we go back (I won’t mind if you do! Seriously, I won’t–hint!). More importantly, what will being an American mean to you? No doubt, Poppa will teach you the history, but I will teach you the feeling–because it’s more than history and a place for me–it’s also an idea, a feeling. People swim across oceans to get here, and be part of this idea, this feeling, son. They claw and cling and pray to set foot where we’re dancing daily. No matter what happens, keep that. Hold that. Never forget that. Come what may, know that you’re blessed to be here. Appreciate that.

In the end, I was too young and stunned and heartbroken to do anything but pick up the pieces and move on. I never stopped loving New York, and being there for that season is something we’ll no doubt discuss deeper as you get older. Years later, my definitive statement of defiance turned out to be the gift of you; life going on because it has to. Love your life, son. Stay open to people and ideas that challenge, scare and confuse you. Avoid hatred like the plague and don’t be afraid to debate ideas that stick in your craw the wrong way. Be strong enough that when you are shaken, you know where your roots are and how very much they matter. Try.

You are my greatest song, son. And, I love you. With all my heart and then some. Be a good life.