Where Were You?

A generation is often defined by the significant events that occur. My grandparents were shaped by the Great Depression and Pearl Harbor; my parents, by the assassinations of President Kennedy and, to a lesser extent (for them, but not necessarily for others), of his brother Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. My generation carries the image of the space shuttle Challenger exploding at takeoff in 1986: the exhaust plumes spiralling off, the looks of horror on watchers’ faces as they–and we who were watching–realized that something had gone horribly, horribly wrong.

Such was the case ten years ago. We were living in Alamo, in northern California by then, having moved from the Boston area in April because Barry had changed jobs. And when Barry called me early that morning, waking me, I thought it was to wish me a happy birthday. “Turn on the TV,” he said. Like millions of people around the world, I spent that day glued to my set in disbelief. I watched helplessly as the towers came down and fielded phone calls and emails from relatives that no, Barry was not in lower Manhattan that day on business. We comforted Ben and Danny as best we could–Emily was only four and a half and had no idea what was happening–and to give them a semblance of normalcy, went out to dinner for my birthday. I had never felt less like celebrating.

In the days, weeks, and months that followed, I mourned with the rest of the nation. I made it a habit to read the New York Times’ “Portraits of Grief” column, as a way of honoring the victims. Much of the focus in my area was on United flight 93 because one of the passengers involved the plane’s takedown, Thomas Burnett, Jr., was from the nearby town of San Ramon. I panicked when Barry did have to fly to New York that October. (He, of course, rolled his eyes, pointing out that with all the increased security, he had never been safer while flying.) When we were in New York to visit family the following spring, we dutifully made the trek to Ground Zero and paid our respects.

I cannot begin to understand how people can be so consumed by hate that they can commit such unspeakable acts. In her fantasy novel Winds of Fate, author Mercedes Lackey writes that “Evil done in the name of a Power of good is still evil. And good done in the name of a Power of evil is still good. It is the actions which matter, not the Name it is done for.” In an ideal world, of course, we would do good in the name of a Power of good. There would be no evil. Of course, then, we might argue, there would be no free will, either. But those are religious and ethical discussions for another day.

Every year, I have an internal discussion with myself on whether it is okay to be happy today. Can I smile and laugh; can I celebrate my birthday? And every year I decide not only that I can, but that I must. If I don’t, the terrorists win. I recently found a wonderful site, started by a then 10-year-old girl named Dahlia, for people with 9/11 birthdays: http://www.birthdayspirit.org. And so in a short while, I’ll sit down with the boys and watch some football. Tonight, my children and I will go out to dinner, and they’ll probably have the waiter stick a candle in whatever dessert I order. But first, I’m going to go bake a birthday cake and bring it to our local fire station, as a way of honoring the first responders who put their lives on the line every day to keep the rest of us safe.