We were graduating from training, we look like we are intent on saving the world. But we are not even close to being who we expected to be seventeen years from then.
Expectations. That of a teen mother, who has read too many ladies magazines and envisioned a picture perfect world of happy baby, a responsible man, and sleep, when in reality all she wants to do is eat potato chips and cry, alone again while her child slumbers peacefully.
A young girl in her twenties at a grave, holding a carefully folded flag. While others were around she maintained her composure, til now, alone, holding all that was left, she wept, a meaningful and sustained sound no woman of 20 years should utter. The sound falls from the sky, like the cry of a solitary goose in the wild darkness of a September afternoon, and then is gone.
A couple in their early thirties, the young woman with a deliberate smile and a hairdo that hasn't changed since college. She'll hold that smile on her face for 10 years before she has the strength to walk out the door, bruises hidden under her sleeves.
A man and a woman, leaving a nice restaurant in a big city after dark, as tall shadows appear behind them in the isolated parking lot. Anyone else, certainly the police, are far away. He has nothing to defend against the utter fear in her eyes because the law in this city doesn't honor the rights he has everywhere else.
Expectations. Of what life owes us, or what life promises. Perhaps it's the age of TV where there is almost always a happy ending, the bad guy gets his due, the good guy gets the girl. Life isn't like that always, though there are moments in there that would put any movie to shame.
And so, from experience, my expectations are someone weathered, as we can't always control what happens around us. Evil does not operate according to logic, and ignoring won't make it go away. But we can exercise our right and duty for free will and decision, in the hard intractable world we find ourselves in. We are not trapped by those fears, hopes, and expectations that man calls his heart, but fixed by them, to endure. To stand guard and protect.
I look at the picture from graduation. I look at the TV, shattered buildings and memorials, flags and first responders, those walking symbols of American courage and indomitable commitment. I look at that old picture again, how young I look, and yet I look little different. One thing has not changed, we have a duty, a duty to be alive, to the terrible hurts, the red bitter blood that flows, to the honor we bear in the world's contempt. We endure so others can as well.
Seventeen Years. 2997 innocent victims.
I was wet behind the ears, living back East, not even unpacked from getting home from training on that sunny day in September. As we grabbed our things and planned "what's next", I could not get the picture out of my mind, that of the Pentagon in flames. For you see, my brother worked there more often than not. I thought about excusing myself from the team. I had no way to know if he was safe, I was beside myself with worry, but I did not. I geared up and headed out to do what was expected of me, what I was trained to do, what I'd taken an oath to do.
My first days "on the job" were not what I had expected. It's been seventeen years, but sometimes when I wake in the night, sweat on my skin, the ghost of smoke in my hair, time hasn't moved forward at all.
I look at the photos, so many photos, so many years. Years for reckless adventures, for daring launches into the blue, for growing old, yet never truly growing up. Time for finding yourself, finding the wild and ephemeral blush of love, that knows no age, innocent, fumbling and breathless. All too soon to be reduced to small, worn squares of color held in a shoebox, of fading faces and edgeless shapes that will someday inhabit the memory and not the flesh.
But still, though, a life lived. Something the victims of 9-11 were denied. A chance to live life fully, to laugh, cry, and leave their mark. The opportunity to die on their own terms, with dignity and surrounded by those they loved.
When my Mom died, I was filled with anger for her leaving us so quickly, but I was also filled with respect. Respect for her ability to chose her final days; to unplug the plugs and unhook the machines and even though in pain, to be with her family, cohesive, intact.
I put the graduation picture back in the box with some papers. Some were no more than scraps of history. Some had more personal memories, that seared into my soul, to return on late introspective nights. There are memories there and many photos. Of dust and disintegration, shattered lives intertwined with broken wreckage, of unseen footprints in the debris of the living, stepping from the ash on their way home, and the seen footprints of those that respond, tending those taken from us.
As a nation, we moved on, but many of us continue to remember. Will Durant argued that "civilization is not imperishable. It must be relearned by every generation.' For that is the bleakest truth of all, the one truth we must never forget." That is the truth that sustains us. The truth that plays out in an image of a flame-haired woman holding her head in her hands, trying to keep it together amidst the images of tangled wreckage of metal and lives, an image of a flag, of an empty spot of ground where once stood thousands of dreams. Quiet truth that brings it back so that we never forget.
Today there will be only a moment of respect for those souls that were lost. A moment in which I will look skyward, wishing them peace, as the light vanishes with a soft sigh, driving down for only a moment upon the musty smell of slain flowers, there in a vase. Flowers taken from gardens for so many reasons, for love, for loss, for the dead, now dying themselves.
As I look to an uncaring sky, I grieve for the way they left us, as much as the why.
We graduated that day, in the last days of summer 2001. It was not a life I would have expected but it was the only life I could live. On that day we charged out into the world, passionate, excited and only days later, damned forever of all peace. In what seemed to us like minutes, we stood with regret and anguish, the despair out of which the quietly mourning, enduring bones stand up that can bear anything.