15 years. It seems like yesterday doesn’t it? So much has changed in the world since that day. September 11, 2001. I took the photo above from the top of the Rockefeller Centre in 2009 looking out over Lower Manhattan. The Twin Towers once stood tall behind the Empire State Building, now glaring in their absence on the iconic New York skyline. And yet, so much is still the same. The news is still filled with stories of terror, tragedy and grief. It makes you wonder if 9/11 will always remain a very difficult and painful memory for so many of us.
Yet, yet…one does not have to look far or deep to find stories of resilience, kindness, and yes, even compassion. Just yesterday I was struck by an article by the CBC that tells the story of a touching mural created by students in New York for an elementary school in Gander, Newfoundland. The mural, a thank you to the people of Gander for hosting 28 planes and over 6000 souls far from home, symbolizes the spirit of compassion that shone an unexpected light in the darkness of a very, very dark day and week. Jeanette Gutierrez, a volunteer at the 9/11 Memorial in New York, traveled to Gander with the mural this week and shared just how important the generosity of this small community was to the many folks stranded on that day, who just wanted desperately to get home. You can watch her interview here. In it Gutierrez kindly states that we should not wait for extraordinary circumstances to shine. She says “just do good.”
I too was the fortunate recipient of Newfoundland generosity on September 11th. I have written about my experience here before, as writing about it seems to help. You can find my stories here and here. At the time, I was a Publisher for Oxford University Press, and I was in beautiful St. John’s for a two-day in-service for the province’s high school Geography teachers. We had just published a set of resources for a new Grade 12 World Geography course, and I was part of a team introducing the course and resources to their teachers. It was not my first time in St. John’s but it was my first time there when the sun shone. Everyone remembers that Tuesday, September 11th dawned bright and sunny and the sky was a brilliant blue all up and down the eastern seaboard. I remember many, many things from that day. The colour of the sky. The disbelief as planes started to land in rapid succession behind the hotel where our in-service was held. The horror when we stopped our session and watched as a group as the towers burned and fell. The fear when firemen entered our room and evacuated us as one of the planes resting up against the back of our hotel was encircled by the RCMP, believed to be yet another hijacked plane. Disbelief, fear and horror are strong words and we all felt them that day.
Yet, what I remember most 15 long yet short years later is the very visceral sense that I just wanted to be home. Every cell in my body longed for home. That morning I remember phoning my parents to check in on them and let them know I was safe and my Mum was very close to tears. She just wanted me home too and even suggested I hitchhike to avoid flying! Once back at my hotel on the St. John’s waterfront after our rapid evacuation at the airport, I changed out of my good clothes and wandered in to the hotel restaurant, not knowing what to do or where to go. There I witnessed the news stations replaying the horrific site of the second plane flying into the South Tower. I immediately shoved back my chair and set out for the harbourfront, again not knowing what to do or where to go. The call with my parents played over in my mind as I walked along the stunning St. John’s harbour. The sun shone brightly, reflecting off the water and the colourful, character-filled homes along “jellybean row.” I admit to feeling frightened for the future, and in that moment, the need for my family was overwhelming. It was then that I found a tiny restaurant at the end of the harbour and walked in. It was called Bruno’s and it was empty save for the family who owned it. Charming, Bruno’s boasted small, intimate tables with crisp table clothes, topped with fresh flowers. I sat in a quiet corner and ordered food, despite not having an ounce of appetite. What happened next renewed my spirit and touched my terribly home sick soul.
The owners of the restaurant brought out a bottle of wine and three glasses. They quietly sat down at my table and we began to talk. About family. About home. And about hope. Somehow these quiet, thoughtful folks recognized my distress and brought welcome relief just when I needed it most so very far from home. Three weeks later I would return to St. John’s, this time with a new World Religions resource, and I would bring the author and a consultant back to Bruno’s knowing the food to be great. Before we even entered the restaurant the owners came outside and gave me the biggest hug, welcoming me like a long-lost family member. You might ask why but it was simple. We were bound together by a sunny day in September and a memory of sadness, compassion and of hope.
Today, as I type this post, I am again far from home, and have experienced the magnetic pull of family in a tough year. Yet daily I’m reminded that I am surrounded by the love of family and friends even this far from home. For me, the message of 9/11 is no longer one of despair, or fear but of hope and courage and yes, even love. On this solemn day of remembrance, hold your dear ones close. Love one another.