Today I attended a memorial service for the victims of 9/11. Not in a church. Not in a park. Not even on the ground. I was on board a plane that took off from Boston, just as four other jets took off 11 years ago.
My departure from Logan was delayed, strikingly, until 9 a.m. Once situated in 13C, I was greeted by an odd reminder of the September 11 attacks: In the seat back in front of me was a live feed of the memorial service taking place in lower Manhattan. At first I thought this was a cruel reminder. Airports aren’t known for showing images of plane crashes. So it was odd being inside a plane and reliving memories of the worst day in U.S. airline history. But for some reason I didn’t change the channel. I didn’t even look for a switch to turn it off.
Settling in for a long flight to a business conference, I opened my summer read to where I left off — Chapter 29. “The Art of Fielding” is many things baseball. As I recommitted to finishing the book as summer temperatures make way for the fall, I realized this book is about life, adversity and life’s expectations.
As I combed through pages, I couldn’t help but glance at my monitor from time to time to see the memorial continuing at ground zero. Work colleagues sitting on each side of the aisle kept me away from the screen. I even tried to obstruct the monitor with my book. But it was no use fighting my impulse. Fiction lost out to reality.
Without headphones, I watched in silence. And in this silence, perhaps my sense of sight was stronger. While I saw the victims' names and faces at the bottom of the screen, it was the cumulative effect of seeing this ritual go on for hours that impacted me. The choreography was simple, yet without hearing a word I could tell what was being said: families alternating their words from two podiums; the stoic stare of firefighters and police standing guard just over their shoulders; the tired eyes of speakers whose tears resurface before us on this day; the soft, comforting touch on a speaker’s back just as the roll call gives way to a personal, loving and longing, tribute.
I wondered if anyone else on board my flight was watching this unfold. Cameron Diaz was on some monitors, “Men in Black” on others. A row ahead sat what appeared to be a retired couple whom I bet was headed to Vegas to play blackjack. With matching headsets and their eyes glued to CNBC, the couple's ”outside” voices carried their disbelief of Coke’s stock price. But nothing about the memorial.
I continued to watch as family members alternated and read the names of the victims of the Twin Tower attacks. I was drawn more and more to their names, ages and photos, and the communities where they lived. As a native New Yorker, I knew these places well; more than a few victims were from my own hometown. Somewhere in the roll call were people whose wakes my family attended 11 years ago. Families with husbands, wives and children. Families whose kids were young back then, who grew up without a parent and who have since walked down the aisle at weddings with a father missing from their arm. Families with big, gaping holes in them.
I was struck by how many victims were in their 20s and 30s and I couldn’t help but think how old they’d be today, how close to my age they’d be, what they missed out on in the past 11 years and what their loved ones truly missed out on too.
Hours into my flight and I was still watching the roll call. As the “T"s turned to “V”s, a name from my childhood appeared: a cousin of a classmate I’ve known since junior high. I wondered where they were grieving today.
Before my flight left the gate a few hours before, my son and I exchanged texts about today’s anniversary. He was only 8 back then and, on that day, we were doing all the things we did to get to school and work on time. A morning we stopped, watched and talked. Today he wrote “I remember sitting on your bed seeing it on the small TV.” I replied, “Me too. Me too. Have a good day. I’m taking off now. Luv ya. Dad.”
If I were on the ground this morning, there’s no doubt I would have experienced today’s anniversary in a less significant way. I would have glanced at the TV, listened to a radio report, seen a photo online — and certainly not written about it. But being on a jet out of Boston put me in a different seat … one of their seats for a few minutes. When I finally set aside my distractions, I savored the solitude to remember. No matter where you sit, today is not an ordinary day.