Sept. 11 is a day of great national mourning, noted in commemoration and steeped in reflection, but also a day of personal mourning for those of us who lost dear friends or relatives. My buddy, Simon “Shimmy” Biegeleisen, vice-president of an investment banking firm, was in the second building that was struck. He was on a higher floor than the impact, so he knew almost instantly that there was no way out.
Yet he kept his composure and modeled a new way of dying, made possible by the technology of our time. He spent the last minutes of his life on the phone to his wife and kids, to his friends and relatives, to his Rabbi and his mentors, saying loving farewells, Jewish last rites (known as Viduy, an acknowledgment of one’s sins and expression of deference to God’s right to judge), and asking that his memory be an inspiration for good works. He asked his wife to take care of the kids, he asked the kids “to take care of their Mom,” and he asked his friends to look after his widow and orphans. Death with dignity.
Except that for me the grief does not end at midnight. As the clock chimes and the calendar turns over a new leaf into Sept. 12, I get a special delivery of personal pain. It was 37 years ago on that date when, as a boy of ten, I came home from my first full day of school. I said good-bye to my friends, the Liebb brothers, at their house, and started to walk the last two-thirds of a block to home. There seemed to be a crowd gathered down there and an ambulance in the street. Perhaps one of the neighbors.
Little did I dream that the tragedy unfolding was in our house, in the sturdy brick house that my father had bought brand-new just five years earlier. When I left that morning, I said good-bye to my Mom (I wish I could remember if she kissed me), who was still in bed 12 days after giving birth to my sister. She was being treated for a blood clot in her leg. Now, as I approached the house, some people spotted me and diverted me into a neighbor’s house. My mother wasn’t feeling well, they said.
Naturally, I was quite alarmed. But nothing prepared me for my father coming in an hour or so later and telling me that she had died. Somehow the clot had moved and blocked her heart. The decision was made that I should not attend the funeral. And that was it. My beautiful and brilliant, loving and generous mother was gone at just 30 years old. Whisked away in the blink of an eye.
IS THERE SOMETHING to be learned from the experience of personal loss that can be usefully translated into the context of our national loss?
Perhaps that word holds the key: “loss.” The events of Sept. 11, 2001, sparked an old patriotism and launched a new bravado. We’re out there on the four corners of the Earth, fighting terrorism and terrorists, even trying to kill some of the political germs that breed them. But while we strive mightily, and justly, to avenge the vicious act-of-Man that brought down those towers and killed those people, we may be overly deemphasizing the act-of-God side of the experience. In absorbing the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, arriving in much the same season, it may be wise to coin a cultural pairing for the two events.
As a nation, we have been afflicted with loss on a grand scale in these past four years. Forgetting for a moment the hunt for who was asleep at which switch to allow such a high toll, let us remember to be awake to the experience itself. Long after the various pontifical verdicts of the pundits and the commissions, this fact is glaring: the World Trade Center has not been rebuilt. My father chose not to institute a malpractice lawsuit against the doctor who may well have erred badly in not having my mother admitted to a hospital. We need to do the national equivalent of that, keeping the focus on the obligation to grow from our losses, to find new strength to build even better structures and systems.
Mrs. O’Leary’s cow was never prosecuted for kicking over the lamp, but when viewed against the sweeping panorama of history, the Great Fire of Chicago did as much to make Chicago into a great city as any single positive event. The Civil War was our greatest national loss, but Reconstruction took us to a new level as a force in the modern world. Let’s pick up the pieces that lie scattered after our shattering Twin Terrors and add a few new pieces of heart and soul, season them with a dash of wisdom, and build a powerful future of might and right.