I remember being in my office on September 11th, 2001, and my co-worker Fred saying a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. At first this didn’t strike me as anything big, I remember hearing about a small plane hitting them before, and the damage hadn’t been that significant. Fred decided to pull out his small portable TV, and we all huddled around to watch it unfold. I will never forget seeing the images of the first plane hitting and the explosion that followed. It was completely surreal. At the time no one knew what was going on, it appeared to be some kind of freak accident for sure. Our small group then decided the television set in our training facility was much larger, and would allow us all to see what was going on without being cramped into a small cubicle… standing shoulder to shoulder around a four inch screen. So we ran down to the 11th floor and watched in dismay, as the building burned. We watched in absolute horror as the scenes unfolded… and then absorbed the news that our country was under attack from terrorists. I had to run to the bathroom and on the way back to the training room, I saw my co-worker Karla nervously running out of the room with a frightened look on her face, telling me she was going to get her kids. Trying to hold back tears and clearly panicked, she quickly uttered “They just attacked the Pentagon.”
One by one the towers fell and more reports came in about other government buildings being attacked. The decision was made to send us home, and I remember my close friend Tania telling me she would drive me home. With her toddler Anthony in the back seat, we took back roads to avoid the chaos of drivers trying to reach their families, just as we were. The news on the radio was grim and frightening, so much was going on and there was much misinformation about what was actually happening. After Tania dropped me off, I logged onto AOL to see how the online world was reacting and what they were saying. Smartphones didn’t exist back then, so life “connected” was usually experienced in the privacy of your own home, something I had been doing for over a decade at the time. I had found some friends and they were freaking out like everyone else, wondering if people they knew were safe. As the day progressed more reports came in, and we mourned collectively as nation. We didn’t know what the world was going to be like the next day, and everyone went to bed that night with a certain level of uncertainty.
The next couple of days saw our nation rallying together like I hadn’t witnessed since the Gulf War. People were grouping up on street corners waving flags, holding up posters and cheering on drivers all times during the day or night. We were helping and supporting each other, looking past any and all differences to demonstrate that as a united nation, we were unstoppable. Many people initially wanted to turn the middle east into a “parking lot” or a “sheet of glass,” as descriptive examples of nuclear warfare littered conversations. However, many people realized that doing so would make us no better than our attackers, and during this time of crisis, we needed to make sure we targeted only those responsible for the pain and suffering so many had experienced. I remember interfaith services in the lobby of my employer’s headquarters, people hugging, crying and consoling each other. We were making promises to never forget and to remain united and strong for all time. Still, many found it very acceptable to demonstrate hatred and rage towards people of the Muslim faith, while at the same time professing unwavering patriotism.
Friday marked the 19th anniversary after the September 11th attacks. I started to write this post and suddenly decided I needed to re-experience the events of the day by watching it on YouTube, almost as a way to honor those lost… and the day we all joined hands. It doesn’t take a college professor to realize that September 11th changed us a country forever. We began to torture our captives to get answers and information about possible threats, while our freedoms and rights to privacy were attacked by our own government in exchange for perceived safety. Hatred was given a license to operate by many, and that permission has grown exponentially… all in the name of patriotism. The horrible events of September 11th had been burned into the collective psyche of so many, that any demonstration of anger or resentment to our own country or people, was akin to being a traitor. I remember this kind of mentality even inserted itself into my own consciousness for a while, after becoming so incredibly upset during a phone conversation I had with a guy I was courting online. I was literally scared that his anger towards the United States would cause him to be flagged by law enforcement, and I quickly found myself avoiding him at all costs. I considered him to be radical, and in retrospect, he was simply being truthful about our nation’s involvement overseas. His remarks weren’t any different from what many commentators and journalists say on the news today, it was literally just “too soon. “
I find myself feeling angered at times when I see younger people posting about geopolitics online, and what we should or shouldn’t be doing about certain situations abroad. I know it’s not fair to them, but they’ll never know what it’s like to be so aware of the events of September 11th as they unfolded live almost twenty years ago. Many of them were still watching Saturday morning cartoons and knew more about brands of cereal than they did about the names of countries in the Middle East. They will never know about how our country used to be like, how it was to walk your family members directly to the gate of an airplane, and kiss them goodbye with your shoelaces still tightly secured. They will never know how unified we were, and don’t realize the hatred they spew towards flag kneelers has part of its roots in that awful day. Their version of “freedom” is not the same as mine, and they’ll never know the world used to view us as one of the good guys, and not just a military power kicking ass everywhere. Maybe I’m just getting old, but I’ve learned when they say to “never forget” September 11th, it wasn’t about holding a grudge towards a certain faith, it was about how we felt the day after… a nation undivided.
In the early morning hours of June 9th, I found myself almost sitting up in bed, my arms reaching out into the darkness, trying to grab, or even hold onto, a female presence. I didn’t know who she was or what she looked like, only that something was concluding… a dream of some kind maybe. I didn’t put much thought into it and fell back asleep. I’m often visited or have interactions of some sort while sleeping… sometimes they are subtle, just an awareness of someone watching me or present… sometimes it’s a loud voice yelling, sometimes a whisper. Strange as it may sound, I’m seldom frightened and usually tell who or what ever it is, to just “go away, I’m sleeping.” I still wonder if the interaction that morning was actually much more than it seemed, perhaps it was even my mom… saying goodbye.
I was working from home when I noticed the phone call from my brother in Atlanta. He usually texts me, so immediately I knew something had to be wrong. I instantly thought of my mother, recent events having me somewhat anticipating this call. I wasn’t thinking of what happened much earlier that morning, but I had known for some time my mom was giving up on the battle against the lung disease that would claim her life. For over six years she had been tethered to an oxygen machine of some sort, having been diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis… basically scaring of the lungs. Little by little breathing had become more difficult for her, while her desire to live less and less. About a month before her passing she had shared my post on FaceBook, probably the first time she had done so, about my Uncle Joey that died in World War II at the age of 21. “I remember the day you picked me up from school…” she had written, and I immediately knew what she actually was saying. It was like I could translate her words into some kind of higher meaning, and I began to sob at the dinner table the evening I read it. My partner Eric became extremely concerned and asked me what was wrong. I explained to him that my mom’s post was actually her way of asking her brother to come pick her up once again. I sobbed and expressed my sense of knowing she wouldn’t be around much longer.
My brother’s voice on the phone was very caring and at the same time almost professional sounding. Being a minister for a large hospice organization, he had done this many times before… although never for his own family.
“Where are you right now?” he asked with almost a quiver in his voice.
“I’m at home, I’m here.” I responded with an escalating level of anxiety as the sensation of deep concern and loss began to build up inside of me.
“Mom has passed, Bibi found her on the floor. She’s on the other line.”
My heart sank so very low. The moment my sister and I had dreaded since we were young children had finally arrived. The knowledge of how it would occur, where we would all be… it was all known in the present moment, part of my awareness… and part of my life forever. My brother connected my sister to the call and I could hear her sobbing loudly and painfully. The memory of it brings me to tears as I can clearly hear her voice… and the pain, with amazing clarity. I doubt as the years pass it will ever dull, become less loud, or become a whisper as so many memories often do. I became choked up and called to my sister, speaking about how much I loved her, how sorry I was… and that I would be over there soon to be with her. My brother began giving me instructions and for some reason, I can’t hardly remember them. He wanted my sister’s children to be able to see their grandmother one last time, but that would mean removing her body from the floor and placing her in bed. The wise decision was made to leave my mom where she was until the police could arrive an conduct their investigation.
After hanging up the phone I immediately called my partner Eric and told him what happened. The memories of calling others to pass on the information of my best friend’s death over twenty years ago came flooding back to me. This was a horrible but necessary action, one that would potentially become more frequent as I got older. Eric was completely shocked, the emotion in his voice easily recognizable. He said he would immediately leave the office and meet me at home. I ended the call and jumped into the shower… the first ever without the awareness of my mom being alive and just a phone call away.
When I arrived at my mother’s home with Eric, there were a couple of police cars outside and a female officer standing under a tree in the parking area. As I approached the front door, a neighbor approached me, masked and keeping her distance, as most concerned people do during the COVID19 pandemic. “I’m so sorry to hear about your mom, I loved her very very much.” It was easy to see the expression of sorrow in her eyes, even though she was speaking through a facial covering. I felt bad I didn’t recognize this neighbor as I was somewhat in a state of confusion. I thanked her and walked inside, immediately catching a glimpse of another officer standing by my mother’s bedroom door which was shut. My sister immediately ran up to me and we hugged, sobbing as we embraced each other. My brother Gary and his wife Ana we also there, and after embracing them as well, we all sat down, having the conversations one does after losing someone unexpectedly. What happened… who saw her… who didn’t want to see her… did she look bad and the like. It was such a bizarre feeling and at the same instance, a time of coming together and knowing this was a part of life, and that we weren’t experiencing it alone. Yes my father had passed away decades before of cancer, but the experience was completely different in every way… this was our mom, the matriarch of the family.
I don’t think two days had even passed when Eric came up with the idea of heading back to the Florida Keys, and enjoying Key West together as a family. Eric and I had taken my mom there in 2014, and she so enjoyed the drive and the food. The keys was actually a favorite place for her, having taken many road trips there with my Aunt Olga and Uncle Gene. It also wasn’t uncommon to take my mom to the Keys for spontaneous lunches or Mother’s Day, she loved looking at the water and she absolutely loved seafood. My entire family embraced the idea with a level of enthusiasm never seen before. It would be such an appropriate tribute to my mom and the very first time ever… yes ever… that we would all be together for a period longer than a few hours. It seemed like my mom’s spirit was thrilled as well, to have most of her kids together at the same time. The only possible exception would be my eldest brother Jon, whom I hadn’t really spoken with or seen in over ten years. A complicated history of family trauma, hurt feelings and anger had been keeping us apart. The question in everyone’s heart’s and minds was whether my mom’s passing would be the spark of love we needed to begin healing… in more ways than one.
Weeks passed and the news was suddenly flooding the group text chat on our phones… something we had done for several years, with an occasional lapse in participation mostly by me, in an attempt to assert my individuality and or importance. Being the youngest of five children isn’t easy at times, and I’ve often felt like an afterthought in the grand scheme of family politics and social interaction. Still, recent revelations had brought us all together with one exception, my brother Jon… and we were all missing him tremendously. “Jon and Michele are coming to the keys!” one of my brothers, I can’t remember which one, texted in a joyous excitement that could be felt in the illuminated characters on the screen. We all became instantly excited, not only because we would see him and his wife again, but the prospect of being all together for the first time in a very long while. Of course the prospect of being a family again was also on our minds, something my mom would be credited with as one of her final accomplishments. The knowledge of all this coming together with such ease and a minimal amount of effort could not be overlooked. Our family was absolutely horrible to plan anything with, and in the time frame of just a couple of weeks, had managed to locate an open resort in Key West during a pandemic, charter a sail boat for my mom’s memorial service, and reunite with my brother Jon and his wife Michele. Truly amazing, and clearly a miracle of divine proportion and design.
“Holding back tears himself, he described how my mom brought us into this world through our birth, and in her death, brought us all back together.”
I so love walking down Duval Street in Key West, it has a unique energy that has this kind of charm to it. It’s within a part of the island called “Old Town Key West” and it’s perfectly named since so many of the buildings look the same as they did a century or more earlier. As Eric and I were walking this particular Friday afternoon, I received a text message that my brother Jon was with the rest of family walking in our direction. I had a mixture of feelings… apprehension, excitement, even a little bit of anxiety thrown in for good measure. As we turned a corner, there he was, looking much the same as I last remembered him. He smiled and approached me with love and open arms. I gave him a huge hug and started to tear up with emotion, holding onto him tight and letting him know I didn’t want him to ever leave my awareness again. Michele, Jon’s wife, was there too, complete with her infectious smile and a welcome equally as warm. It was the first of many miracles that would occur during our time in the Keys together, one that I know my mom extremely was proud of. Her spirit and energy was readily felt during our entire stay, and at times I found myself looking for her as if she was somewhere to be seen.
The next day we all boarded a beautiful sailboat that my brother Gary had located online. My sister had chartered it for the late afternoon going into sunset, a perfect ending to my mother’s journey in the physical. My father’s ashes would join her too, having been stored for years in the garage and even lost at times. We had never settled on a time and place to honor him, and this seemed like the perfect place for my mom and him both. In retrospect it almost seemed like their spirits planned this from the start, as a kind of perfect farewell. My father being an avid fisherman (even commercially at one point) and my mother loving the sea, made this all seem like a carefully orchestrated event. My brother would deliver a beautiful service, dressed in his ministry robes as my mom would have wanted… and been so proud of. Holding back tears himself, he described how my mom brought us into this world through our birth, and in her death, brought us all back together. The words couldn’t have been more appropriate as we gathered together once again as a family, our bonds stronger than ever. As my mom’s ashes went into the water, the winds on the ocean picked up fiercely, as a very dark and ominous thunderstorm approached… black massive clouds against the backdrop of a beautiful orange and red Florida Keys sunset. My mother’s spirit couldn’t have felt more present, she might as well have been there in the physical, as my memories of that evening seem to reflect that very notion.
The weekend continued onward with countless expressions of gratitude from every member of my family… my cousin Barbara and her husband Tom had even joined us, and even though their religious and political alignment are in stark contrast with my own, there was no shortage of love and compassion. My mother would have wanted no less, she was such a firm believer of forgetting the past and loving everyone for the person they are. She loved my cousin Barbara very much, often recalling how she took care of her and her sister Debbie when they were babies. I guess being the little girls of her own sister, they both had a very special place in her heart. Of course this gathering had to end eventually, and we found ourselves hugging and saying goodbye that Sunday afternoon after lunch. Although something was very noticeable… we were all very different people from when we arrived to these chain of islands in the Atlantic and Gulf waters… we were a family once again with he awareness and responsibility that goes along with it. Vowing to never be separated again, we parted ways looking forward to the next time we would all be together.
Today would have been my mom’s 83rd birthday, and I could see no better tribute than to publish this account of our journey. As I put my final words together, tears are running down my face, reminding me of the love that I felt for my mom. They aren’t tears of sadness at all, they are a reminder that special people exist in our lives and when they’re gone, their memory holds a special place in our heart. As human beings we are never perfect individuals, we make mistakes as we learn and continue to grow until our very last day on this planet. My tears reflect not only the memory of my mom, but the joy of knowing what it is to be a family once again. There could be no better gift to give my mom for her birthday other than the emotion of complete gratitude… for my life and for those that surround me today because of her.