I remember crowding around televisions throughout the school, seeing my brother watching in the library, and learning that the father of a girl in his grade was in one of the towers. Word passed around as she and her younger brother, a grade below me, faced the tragedy that day and in the months and years following. The mood of Lenape Valley Regional High School darkened in a way that I’ve tried to forget. Our history books were suddenly outdated and we were too close for comfort to the pages that would soon be added.
More stories emerged in the weeks following of friends who barely missed death and of others lost. It’s an event that was remembered every year at school, painfully, with moments of silence in class and at football games. But the weight of those silences, when we all individually and collectively understood what that loss meant for our small New Jersey town, at least for a time, unified us.
Ten years later I’ve seen 9/11 affect me in other ways I couldn’t have predicted. Knowing and loving a Marine who chose to serve directly following 9/11 was more humbling than any other experience in my life. Seeing how that day changed his entire life, learning of his experiences with his fellow Marines, his brothers, and being asked to understand that aspect of his life was a devastating challenge I’ve never faced successfully. To hear the stories, see the pictures and feel the pain emitted still reminds me of that day and what it’s done to so many people in so many ways.
I’m sorry I never served in the military, something I actively and seriously considered several times. I always wanted to walk in the honorable footsteps of my father, 30 years in the Navy, but somewhere knew I wasn’t quite as strong or capable as my dad, that Marine or the many friends I’ve watched choose that path: Luke, Katie, Carol, Chris, Marty, Russ, Mike, Laura, and too many others to name.
For me, experiencing 9/11 in the way I did at that pivotal age of change and growth completely altered my life in extreme ways that I don’t think I often consciously realize. It hit so close at first and changed my understanding of protection, family and loss. It hit again later in seeing the effects of war. It will hit again as others depart and return.
And the hardest reality is realizing how powerless I am in the wake of it. It is humbling. It is devastating. It has me in tears as I type. But 10 years later, much more a woman and much wiser a person, I think reality has finally sunken in and the impact has boiled down to some graspable concept of gratitude. We live free thanks to the incredible sacrifices of so many. Events like this shake, frighten and alter our realities, but in some ways, although at a high price, the bright side of a large darkness can be more powerful than any alternative. Freedom is fragile. United we stand.
I’m still hopeful that maybe one day we could even learn from a certain Bob Marley quote, “Overcome the devils with a thing called love.”