Even after 13 years, the ritual remains remarkably fresh, as if to honor an event that just happened. But it didn’t just happen. It’s been 13 years. That’s what makes the ritual so real, and so sad, and so…consistent. Because on this day we remember the heart of the financial world being attacked, not a single person laments the stock trading that was halted, but all those lives that were halted. It remains a day when even hardened money guys bear something close to a soul.
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It’s not that we still honor the victims of 9-11 after all these years. It’s that we haven’t changed a single thing about the way we do it. For some reason, time is not healing these wounds, or remotely altering the script. Not even close. The bells still toll to the exact minute that first plane hit the World Trade Center. Then the second plane. Then the Pentagon. Then Shanksville, Pennsylvania. And through the reading of victims’ names that has become an annual staple of this tragic anniversary, the stunning breadth of the first large-scale terrorist attack on the United States remains unmistakably palpable.
What’s particularly remarkable about this 13th anniversary is how anyone could easily mistake it for the first anniversary or second anniversary. Through different presidents, and governors, mayors, and changed communities across the nation, on this day…the same nation, the same ceremonies, the same remembrances.
If anything, it only seems to get more painful watching it all, and hearing loved ones, some of whom were only infants when they lost a parent, now reciting as teenagers that parent’s name. Even sadder, those who hadn’t even been born, honoring fathers they’d never know. Now honoring a ritual older relatives had passed onto them. Each year, every year, now 13 years.
They say rituals are cathartic events for those dealing with tragedies. What seems particularly tough for relatives of 9-11 victims is how they must keep re-living those tragedies. We’ve all lost loved ones before and since, but few of us are reminded of the brutality of that loss, courtesy a cued up video tape.
Yet with all that, I like to think there is only good that comes of this – this ritual, this repetition, this reading of names most of us don’t know, but through their sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, we wish we did know. All we do know is that all those victims whose names we hear recited today are gone. They’re gone, long gone. They’d be 13 years older if that day hadn’t happened. Young Dads then would be older Dads now. Senior Cantor Fitzgerald bond traders then, likely would be retired now.
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We’ll never know. Because they’re all gone – robbed of the everyday rituals of life that rituals like today’s help us appreciate. I always think of all the baseball games those Dads would never see, or all those Thanksgiving gatherings and that one empty seat. All those kids whose own rituals of life they could never share. All the graduations. All the first dates. All the weddings. And births, family trips, and reunions.
That’s what anniversaries like today’s jarringly bring back to life – all that was robbed from so many lives – not only those who we lost that day, but those who had to carry on since that day.
Yet in this 13th year we look back, what strikes me is how little those loved ones have let go. Because they still read the names. They still share the stories. Some funny. Some sad. All precious.
It’s just amazing to me that the staggering reality of that day is not lost one bit on those whose lives were forever changed that day. And they don’t want us to forget that, or them, or their loved ones. It’s as if, in rituals that for some seem tiresome, these families remain tireless.
I suspect the time will come when remembrances such as these will lose their impact. People get older. People forget. Then it’s the grandkids remembering or the nieces or great nephews trying to keep the fire. Until the fire is gone, and they…are gone. It is the nature of anniversaries to move from gaping wound not yet healed, to solemn reflection not quite the same.
They say at Gettysburg, there are numerous monuments commemorating such anniversaries of that epic Civil War battle through time – 10 years after the conflict, then 25 years, then 100 years. At each dedication, and sketched on each monument, there’s a remembrance and a quote from a President or dignitary. Yet in time, none matches the simple, painful eloquence of the first such dedication by Abraham Lincoln – maybe because his was AT the time; before he was gone, and all those people who listened to him and marveled at him were gone. And the presidents who’d commend HIS words were gone, and their audiences were gone. The palpable pain of the moment successively giving way to dignified, but tearless remarks commemorating the moment.
That’s what happens with anniversaries. Catharsis goes through a metamorphosis. Stunning becomes somber. Somber becomes stately. Stately becomes…static.
Not so this anniversary. At 13 years, it’s still too fresh. It’s still too real. The images are still too constant. And perhaps in this heightened terror alert world, it’s still too all around us.
So it’s good we reflect exactly as we have, and today, exactly as we did. It makes some sad, I suppose. But it makes me sadder thinking of the inevitable day we stop doing things this way, exactly this way. Because that’s when something becomes history – when the way we felt, and the victims whose names we heard, and whose stories each year we learned – becomes history.
It’s as if we’re putting a tragedy in a big box, subliminally making room for the next one that invariably follows.