I avoided all news channels this past weekend. The memorials and scenes from 9-11 were too much for me to take in. Like everyone of age, I remember precisely where I was and what I was doing ten years ago that fateful morning. In some ways my world changed very little. Ten years ago I was already on active duty and living on a military installation, and I had also already been on the ground previously in the war torn places of Bosnia and Somalia and seen firsthand the evil man could render to his fellow man. Sadly the idea of flying an aircraft into a building and killing thousands was not an extreme concept to me. I’d already encountered other versions that kind of twisted thinking.
What did change was my ability to be there for my family. Starting with 9-11, I was “gone” a lot. I didn’t think so at the time. The fact of my persistent absence was driven home by the event of my wife’s collapse, which occurred while I was in Afghanistan. My kids faced that episode, the collapse, the 9-11 call and ambulance, the police car ride, social workers… alone, while I “rushed” home from thousands of miles away. Family and friends hurried in to fill the void but it took me two days of constant travel to get back.
The other thing which drove home my absence was in the months following my wife’s death when the kids talked about their memories of family. They had numerous happy memories of their mom, places that they’d been together, things that they’d done. Inevitable the conversation would go, “Papa, do you remember the time we… oh yeah, you were gone.” I got to hear that several dozen times over the past five years. It comes up to this very day. I’m extremely grateful for the many happy memories my kids hold of their mother. I just wish I was in more of them as well.
What else changed was that I began to routinely scan military casualty lists; looking, fearing that I’ll see yet another friend or colleague’s name on the ever growing list. In total over 6,000 service men and women have died in these conflicts, many more if you count suicides and deaths whose cause could be traced to a decade of war. As irrational as it is, because of my wife’s death, I often feel connected to each one of them.
This weekend I tried watching sports and movies but sports teams were doing tributes and even movie channels had specials on. I accidentally dialed in a HBO special focused on a dad telling his nine-year-old son that his mommy had just died in the collapsed World Trade Towers. All I could think about was five years ago when I had to tell my two children, “Mommy is going to die.” I don’t wish that conversation on anyone. I shut my TV off and, as I write this, it and my radio remain off.
Finally this evening I read something which gave me some comfort. Written by a woman named Stephanie Ericsson (http://tiny.cc/7v027) , she describes the power of the three words “I Love You” and how in the final moments when time did not permit anything else to be said, so many on 9-11 called loved ones, from the towers, from aircraft, and mouthed those very three words to each other. In the end, facing death, nothing else mattered.
Tomorrow my Dad turns 90. I’ve gotten him a cake, and decorations to make him stand out among the residents of his facility. I’ve gotten something sweet for the staff because any excuse is a good one to love on them a little more as well. My brother and sister have mailed in their gifts and, if Dad’s energy is high, I’ll put him on the phone with them but after reading Ms. Ericsson’s article I know what the most important thing I will do.
Tomorrow, after wishing him Happy 90th Birthday, I’m going to lean in close and whisper in my Dad’s ear, “I love you, Pop-Pop.”