On this anniversary of the 9/11 terror attack on NYC, I am able to neither respond nor subscribe to the requests to 'Never forget'.
Like every year, I wonder 'why?'
I see no value in rehashing the horrors of 9/11, the day of the Newtown shooting, the Boston Marathon bombing, the UK subway explosion, Indian race riots or any of the many atrocities that have assailed communities in the past with lasting damage. Commemorating the victims might seem like the respectful thing to do, but it sounds like more than it really is. Perhaps mass solidarity provides a few moments of support to some survivors but on the whole, I'd worry that it re-opens more wounds than it soothes. People have varied reactions to trauma.
My mother and brother like garlanding photographs of my father on his death anniversary, and my brother finds deep solace in memorial rituals. I on the other hand, rejoice the years I forget that day that changed my life. That particular emembrance brings me nothing but pain, renews the loss I try to fight every day of my Life. The past two years, I have similarly forgotten the due date of my first (unsuccessful) pregnancy and felt victorious for finally conquering the haunted un-birthday that would cast a pall over me in the past.
Remembering horror only feeds despair and a sinking belief that the world is painted with only shades of suffering. There's no catharsis for onlookers like us, who have been spared immediate grief in any of these attacks. Most of us, thankfully have no real loss to seek solace from. Let’s be honest...our sense of security has been assailed, and recovering it involves acts of caring not a resurrection of grief.
So I WANT to forget the hatred and pain in the hearts of perpetrators and victims alike (because no one who is not partially out of their minds with pain can wreak such horror). Like with the Boston Marathon bombing, I want to remember the people who stepped up in times of distress. I want to salvage what is good from amidst the debris that surrounds us, so we can face another day with hope for better and resolve to right what we can.
Here's an Oyon story that has helped me every year. (Dialogues to the best of my recollection and jogged by FB posts from the time)
Oyon was almost 5, I think, when Bin Laden was brought to death (not 'brought to justice', I'm not sure that actually happened). People crowed their delight, relief and resurrected grief all day as I felt nauseous at the bloodlust, spun in the whirl of contradictory emotions that had exploded. We were celebrating a death that somehow expunged other deaths. I have an outsider’s comprehension of 'closure', being fortunate to have not experienced the kind of loss that requires it. But I remain unconvinced that meting out death as a consequence for murder bears any resemblance to justice or morality.
My quest for balance that day was met by the numerous headlines celebrating the NYPD (Police Dept) and NYFD (Fire Dept) heroes who changed so many lives that awful day, at the cost of many of their own. An idea started forming in my head and on an impulse, I grabbed 2 boxes of cookies from the grocery store before driving to Oyon's day care at days end.
In the disjointed way of pre-schoolers, he launched into requests to watch 'Rescue Heros' before we were even out of the day care gate. Billy Blazes, his favorite character was a firefighter, Oyon's hero of the hour and he couldn't get enough. He started on his favorite spiel about fire safety (the show teaches it), reminding me that we needed to designate a safe meeting spot outside the house in case we ever had to evacuate. After agreeing it would be the Maple tree outside the O'Connors home, I grabbed that perfect opening to ask:
"You're right: we need to get away as quickly as possible from a burning building. But hey...can you think of someone who does the opposite?"
"A very silly kid! NEVER go back for your stuff!!" he added with gravity as he buckled himself into the car seat with care.
"Of course. But anyone else? Someone who might HAVE to run into a burning building when everone is running out?" I took my time buckling up, arranging my things etc to give the conversation a chance before starting the car.
"Fire fighters!" he exclaimed.
"Yes. They have safety gear and are trained but do you think it's still dangerous?" I prodded.
"Yes. Mummum, they could even die!" he exclaimed with rounded eyes.
"And they still do it, huh?" I asked neutrally.
"Yeah, they're really brave." he said rather absent mindedly. A quick glimpse in the rearview mirror showed he was distracted, minutely examining a large, colorful sticker on his chest.
"What's that you've got?" I inquired.
"A reward. For being extra good at circle time." He replied with not a little smugness.
"Well done! It must feel nice when people notice your effort." I said carefully.
"Yup!" he said in a happy voice.
"Maybe people who do brave things would like to know that people notice too." I added with calculated carelessness. I was driving extra slow now as the turn-off for our Fire Station was approaching and I hadn't steered Oyon yet as well as I was steering our car.
"Hey! Maybe WE can give the Fire Fighters a reward!" he burst out as he made the connection.
"Hmm. Not a bad idea!" I feigned surprise, adding "I do have 2 boxes of extra cookies in the back."
"Yeah. Cookies are even better than stickers. But why 2 boxes?" he asked wriggling in excitement.
"Well, Police Officers also race into dangerous situations don’t they? Just for us! And the Police Dept. is right by the Fire Dept." I said, turning into the road to the services.
"Yeah, and they also rescue all the lost animals." he added in excitement.
He tumbled out of the car and balanced the box of chocolate chip cookies carefully as he strode into the Police station. I rang the bell for him. When the uniformed officer came out in response, I pointed to Oyon and said "Officer, I think this young man has something to say"
The officer squatted down to Oyon's eyelevel and asked seriously "How can I help you, sir?"
"We brought you cookies for running into burning buildings. No…..that's the other guys! For rescuing all the armadilloes that are lost in Waltham!" Oyon gushed, shoving the box at the officer.
"Well, thank you very much." he said with a visible attempt at maintaining a straight face at all the armadilloes that are apparently plaguing the city of Waltham.
"Don't eat all the cookies! They're for ALL the officers!" Oyon added, helpfully as the officer shook his hand.
"I'll share. Promise. Thanks for thinking of us." the Officer replied, now wearing a broad grin.
I shook his hand too and added that I didn’t want to wait until a 9/11 happened to thank him and his colleagues for keeping us safe every day.
Oyon seemed to walk a few inches taller as we exited. It was only a hundred yards or so to the Fire Department but he glanced around with an odd kind of authority and disclaimed at trash littered by the pathway. Without any prompting from me, he started picking up energy bar wrappers, empty chips packets and crushed juice boxes. The only place to put them was on the second box of cookies that was occupying my hands.
"What ARE you doing?!" I asked in amusement, trying to keep the trash pile balanced as we walked.
"We can't just ignore it!" he replied seriously, adding a candy bar wrapper to the pile.
We had reached the Fire Department now so he quickly rang the bell then grabbed the box from me. As the middle aged Fire Fighter approached us, Oyon stepped ahead and held out his gift, saying "Thanks for running into burning buildings and keeping us safe!"
The gentleman looked down at the heap of trash and after a pause said, "Thank you! I think."
Oyon happily said "You're welcome" oblivious to the poor man's confusion at being handed a box of trash.
I quickly removed the litter to reveal the cookie box and explained that Oyon was just doing some cleaning on our way from the PD.
"Yeah, trash hurts the planet." Oyon added helpfully.
The fire fighter started laughing, asked us to wait and went and got a bunch of others. They lifted Oyon onto the fire engine and told him they wished more people were like him. Oyon talked about them for the rest of the night. These are just a few pix I was able to find. We no longer document these trips. They've just become a regular part of our lives.
The next day at day care pickup his teachers told me with damp eyes that he had made play dough 'sweet cakes' for each of them to thank them for taking care of him. They were moved beyond words since it wasn’t Teachers day, valentines or Christmas. I told them about our previous day's impromptu field trip and we connected the dots together with delight.
We have repeated this trip every year since, usually around Christmas. Once, when 2 fire fighters were killed in a valiant rescue effort in a 5 alarm Boston fire, he asked to visit our fire station again. It was 6 pm on a weeknight when a trip to the store would derail dinner and bedtime. Not a request to be lightly denied though , so we found a jar of corn kernels and made a large pot of popcorn. An empty beer carton was decorated to look like a fire station and filled to the brim. A quick run after dinner and another round of thanks had been shared.
Finding the good, reaching out to touch people....primes us to see other good things that might be hiding in plain sight. This is not surprising in the least.
So why SHOULD we prime ourselves to remember horrors when instead we could be learning to see the good and better still.....BE IT?
I wish the families of all victims of hate, Peace and healing today. May they see all the good that still remains and be on the received end of an even larger share of kindness.