Tuesday, September 11, 2007

And Now for Some Good News on 9/11

from James Grippando

Happy Birthday, Ryan!
My son turns 9 today. Yes, on September 11.

He was 3 when the world changed on his birthday. My wife and I were trapped in Australia, unable to fly home and be with him. It took us a week to get home, and we made it that quickly only with extraordinary luck and with the help of total strangers who (back then) were eager to help Americans. Ryan has no memory of any of it. But as he grew—turning six, seven and eight—he did have questions.

"Why is the flag only halfway up the pole on my birthday? Why do people seem so sad?"

These were valid questions. Showing up at preschool with your four-year-old son, cupcakes in hand, while the rest of the world mourns the first anniversary of the attacks, is an experience than can only be described as bizarre. So, Ryan and I have talked about it. I thought he understood. But unless you’re eight going on nine, I don’t think you can ever really know what a child of that age understands. Which led to a bit of a surprise this summer.

In July I attended the ITW's Thrillerfest in New York. I skipped the Saturday events to take my two older children (Ryan, then eight, and his eleven-year-old sister Kaylee) on a bit of pilgrimage. First stop was going to be Ellis Island. Forget it. Have you ever tried to hit Ellis Island on a beautiful Saturday morning in July? Three hour wait. Not gonna happen.
So we walked up the street to our second stop: Ground Zero.

I had not been to this sight since the attacks. My children had never been to the World Trade Center and had seen only pictures of the twin towers. The gaping hole in the ground made a lasting impression on all of us. The memorial at the fire station—the first firefighters to respond—was even more powerful. The names and some of the faces of the fallen were etched in bronze on the side of the building.

“Are all those people dead?” said Ryan.
“Yes, they died that morning. Along with a lot of others."
“When the plane hit the building?”
Ryan seemed puzzled. “Why did the plane hit the building?”

That was the hard part. How do you make an eight year old understand that something like that happens on purpose?

That evening we went to dinner for sushi. Ryan was playing with his chopsticks. He stood them on end, side-by-side.
“Look, daddy. It’s the twin towers.”
It had been hours since we’d left ground zero, almost that long since we’d talked about it. Clearly it was still weighing on his mind.

We did Broadway that night, and after laughing our heads off at Legally Blonde, we went back to our hotel room and slept Grippando-style in our room with two double beds: one bed empty, the four of us in the other bed. Around two a.m., Tiffany woke me.
“Ryan’s crying.”
We talked to him. He couldn’t fall asleep. He was thinking about the twin towers.

I don’t know if taking Ryan to Ground Zero was the right thing to do or not. I think it was. I think it’s important for him to know why his birthday is different from most kids’ birthdays. “It’s like the old days and the kids who were born on December 7,” my dad says. He fought in World War II and enlisted the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Maybe my dad is right—September 11 is a day that will forever “live in infamy”— but I wonder about that. Last year—the five-year anniversary of the attacks—I published an article in an Australian magazine (“Good Reading”) to thank the folks down under for helping Tiffany and me home from Sydney after 9/11. I’m glad it was published, but I was distressed by the reaction of the Australian editors who rejected the piece:

“Sorry, but the world has moved on from 9/11.”

For Ryan’s sake, I sure hope they’re wrong.

P.S. Paul will be back next Tuesday


  1. No one here has moved on from it, and we shouldn't. But unfortunately, the way the rest of the world sees our Iraq war has, I believe, diminished what happened that day. The Bush administration went into Iraq under false pretenses and continually tied Iraq to 9/11 when it's clear Iraq had nothing to do with it. And bin Laden is still out there, making videotapes, threatening more death, and our administration's mouthpiece, Frances Townsend, goes on TV and calls bin Laden "virtually impotent," diminishing again what happened 9/11 in favor of the rah-rah Iraq theme. Until we have an administration that sees reality and goes after the real enemy, this, I'm afraid, is the way it is.

  2. First of all, Happy Birthday to Ryan. I don't know what it would be like to have a birthday on an infamous day. I suppose if I went back in history I'd find something awful that happened on mine. My mother was born on a Friday the 13th and although she's not superstitious, I think it gave her the creeps. Her luck has never been that great, either. I'm sure Ryan knows that whatever happened at the World Trade Center his friends and family will always celebrate September 11 as the glorious day he was born.

  3. Not to rush to the defense of someone who utters, "The world has moved on," but I think that what happens is that there is a movement toward life going on, but with remembrance - and without that remembrance being paralysing. Remember, the rest of the world has had terrorism on its doorstep for centuries, and has come to reflect upon those events without remaining in that time, so to speak. This is rocky ground, and I tread carefully here, as such things are not always able to be explained very well.

    Just after 9-11, a young diplomat from the State Department - I assume he was young, for his grasp of recent history was woefully inadequate -- was interviewed (I heard the radio interview, but it was also on TV), and said, "Maybe Europe and the rest of the world will come to know what terrorism is all about." I wanted to scream! How about ETA, I thought, How about Baader-Meinhof, Black September, the IRA, the Red Brigade ... and on and on and on. And how about the terrorism that walks among us every day and is perpetrated by our own - the US loses far more every year from gun-related deaths than were lost on 9-11. In fact, it loses far more to inadequate health care just with the numbers who die from the flu.

    The fact is that there will be remembrance, reflection, as there should be and as is only right, and just as there is in other places in the world where death of a most terrible kind has taken place. But at the same time, life goes on, and though we never forget, the present is to be lived, and the future is waiting for us. We should strive to make it better, even if only in some small way.

    And I agree with Karen - this administration has used horror of 9-11 and our collective grief as if it were currency in the political arena. And they have lied through their teeth. They have used us all to promote an agenda that has resulted in an unconscionable loss of life. Yes, we are marked by 9-11, and so is the rest of the world, but it's no wonder that some may want to move on.

    By the way, it's my God-daughter's 11th birthday today, and she has also come to wonder why so many adults are sad and reflective on her day - and she lives in a small village in England.

  4. Wonderful post, James. And Karen, Patty, and Jacqueline: you ladies are so eloquent. This day saddens me still and I act accordingly. Overactive demonstrative wailing leaves me cold - especially when so much time has passed. Heck, RI still celebrates VJ Day - victory over Japan day. When a Japanese friend - who spoke English with a fair degree - came to stay with us a few years back, we were reluctant to let him wander around and take photos by himself for any length of time. Not sure what the reaction would be to that. He's an artist, and we know only too well how artists are seen in this area. Sigh.

    Anyway, I posted something remotely commemoratative on my Muse du Jour blog at some ungodly hour this morning. Creativity was involved.

    Happy birthday Ryan! Celebrate your life and the day you were born - both are special. :-D


  5. No one has moved on from that horrific day. Not only did thousands lose their lives but we saw the actions of heroes who placed their lives on the line and heroes who died to save others. We saw a nation pull together in a single cause, supporting those who had lost so much and finding those responsible. We can argue until the cows if there was WMD in Iraq and if we should have gone in . . . but the important part is that 9/11 forever changed American

    Happy Birthday to Ryan. Please remind him of all the heroes who came to the forefront of our eyes on this day and what a privilege he has to have been born on a day that should and does celebrate the heroes as well as the victims.

  6. Happy Birthday, Ryan!

    It's my friend Ariel's father's birthday today, too. He lives in Manhattan, and I doubt his birthday will ever be the same.

    My husband was born on November 18th, the day of the Jonestown suicides/murders when he turned 16.

  7. Lisa Olsen stayed in Washington D.C. an extra day to share a birthday dinner with her husband, Ted Olsen, the winning lawyer from the Supreme Cort Decision of Bush v. Gore.

    Lisa's plane crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11/01. I pray Ryan will never have a birthday as haunted as Ted Olsen.