September 11: Tragically Inspiring

On this day each year, I’m supposed to be remembering the thousands of lives lost as the Twin Towers collapsed 11 years ago. I do, of course, commemorate the innocent men and women (and children) who both passed away and risked their own lives to save others.

But to me, September 11 is also a day of gratitude and inspiration. My father realized — as he was running to Battery Park six blocks away from the Towers, face mask attached to his ears and debris raining down—that life is too short, too precious, to not be living it to the absolute fullest. In our family, living life to the fullest, I soon found out, meant saying goodbye to our charming lifestyle in Connecticut and flying over 3,000 miles, across the “pond,” to a little island of four-leaf clovers and major downpour.

One month before 9/11, my family and I were enjoying our annual summer vacation lounging on a Rhode Island beach, soaking up the last bit of summer. My little brother and I, seven- and nine-years-old respectively, were dipping our toes in the sea while my parents discussed their wildest dreams for the future.

“If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you go?,” my mother asked my father.

“The Motherland,” he said, laughing.

After I had returned to my towel, shivering from the icy ocean, my snickering mother joked to us about moving to Ireland. Unaware of their jesting, I collapsed to the ground, sobbing uncontrollably. Through my gasps, I asked my Mom if they have TV in Ireland, or even electricity. My biggest fear, though, were the leprechauns who I would encounter. A babysitter let my brother and I watch the R-rated horror film “Leprechaun,” I have been scared of the green goblins ever since.

The attack on September 11th, 2001, happened just one week after the talk of a move to Ireland was just that – talk.

But on that beautiful clear blue-sky morning in September, our lives changed. While the events of the day still remain fuzzy, the tears streaming down my mother’s cheeks are an image I can’t seem to forget. I had never really seen my mother cry before, and when I saw her swelling eyes of sheer terror, I knew something was very, very wrong.

I was in fourth grade at a little Catholic school in Connecticut, just a train ride to Manhattan. Many parents of my classmates worked down on Wall Street. If not in Wall Street proper, then close to the World Trade Center. Our school closed that morning and we all waited for our guardians to pick us up.

When moms and dads came to collect the school children, I was confused as to why almost all of them were crying. I had never seen so much weeping in my life. When my own mom came to pick up my brother and I from our classrooms, she took us to the church and, through uncontrollable sobbing, asked us to pray. Kneeling in the pew, head down, hands clasped, and eyes burning, my not-so-much religious mother prayed hard.

We prayed for the mothers and fathers who wouldn’t be catching the 5:27 train out of Grand Central that night. I had no idea, then, that that morning, my own father was in the city — he stepped out of the subway stop at the World Trade Center just minutes before the first plane flew into the tower.

A silent car ride home, we were asked to go straight upstairs as we entered the front door.  My mom had the news on, but had no interest in letting my brother or I see what was happening just blocks away from my dad. Due to my young, fearless age, I did not understand the concept of tragedy, and couldn’t imagine that my invincible father might be in danger. One of the biggest weights was lifted off of my mother’s shoulders when she got the call from my dad, explaining his situation and that he was alive and ok.

Years later, my emotional father still cries every time he tells the story of his 9/11 experience. He describes the scene as sheer panic and thick grayness when he was handed a facemask and told he would have to climb down multiple flights of stairs and evacuate to Battery Park. After 25 years of commuting to Manhattan everyday for his job, a terrorist attack occurring so close to him had never crossed his mind.

My parent’s fantasy a week earlier — of packing up and moving — became a reality after September 11. Being so close to death and attending memorials and funerals of those men and women who never made it home, my mom and dad took a step back and reevaluated what they truly wanted in this life.

A few months later, on the rare occasion when my father picked us up from school, he greeted us smiling. He announced that we were moving to Ireland! A truly life-changing two years, living in Dublin exposed me to a culture and people who really live life to the fullest.

Our move allowed our family to grow drastically closer to one another. Both my parents were able to stay at home while my mom was working on her book. Having grown up with babysitters for most of my childhood, the idea of both my parents being home when I arrived home from school had been a foreign concept. Sitting in the living room which overlooked the Irish sea, sipping our daily tea and eating biscuits, my family and I were mesmerized with the beauty of Ireland, the country where my father’s four grandparents were born.  On every school vacation, we traveled to other countries, including Spain, France, Italy, and England. And when we weren’t outside the country, we were road tripping to different Irish counties, including Mayo, Donegal, Cork, and Northern Ireland.

While many families had been ripped apart after the terrorist attacks, mine, paradoxically, grew closer. Although 9/11 is one of the most catastrophic events in American history, it revived our family life and taught us an invaluable lesson about love.

I think about the family and friends who have been impacted greatly by the attack on the Twin Towers 11 years ago, and I grieve for the lives lost on that day. But I also think of the new life and gift I was given in the form of a greater appreciation of my own family and the invaluable life lesson I learned from my dad: live each day as if it is my last.

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