Last night I sat in my recliner watching TV. Sitting in my lap, snuggled against my chest was my 15 year old cat, Monhegan Mist, “Miss Misty.” As remembrances of September 11, 2001 were unfolding in special programming, I was taken back to the evening of that horrific day. I was a 6th grade Assistant Principal in a suburban Philadelphia school district. I arrived home in the early evening hours at the end of the worst day of my life, closed the front door, walked to the couch, sat down and emotionally let go. Maggie, my 11 year old golden retriever, climbed onto the couch and lay down with her head in my lap. Miss Misty jumped into my lap and snuggled against my chest much as she did last night. Neither of my “fur kids” had any idea what was going on, they knew only that their “Mom” needed direct contact with a loving and living thing, and they were there to provide that unconditional love. They were my “furry heroes” allowing me to release much of the stress, tension, horror and fear that had accumulated in every cell of my body during that day. I sobbed uncontrollably for what seemed like an eternity. I feared that purging of pain would never cease.
In the ten years since that day I have struggled and pondered attempting to craft an accurate definition for the word “Hero.” It is definitely the word of the day on September 11th each year across America. Some aspects of that definition are obvious. We think of the firefighters and police officers who, as first responders, risked their lives that day and every day to preserve the safety and well being of their communities to the extent humanly possible whether those communities be local or national. We think of the passengers on that plane over Schanksville, PA who were consumed by anger that all they believed in and stood for was being challenged. They made a plan to act and gave their lives preserving those core beliefs. We thank those in search and rescue who for months after September 11th, including hundreds of canines, for their invaluable contributions to survivors and families that day and in the months following that tragic day. We think of those whose lives and hearts changed that day and led them into the military and other life commitments aimed at defending and preserving our identity and the freedom we had come to take for granted prior to September 11th, 2001. They are the heroes who will carry us forward.
To quote Oprah, “this is what I know for sure” after ten years… Heroes are living beings who are able to “rise above” when in the face of tragedy and reach out. They can put their personal fear and trauma aside to work toward a common good. They can temporarily set aside a gut wrenching desire to fall to their knees and crumble in an emotionally eviscerated heap to look beyond themselves and define what they CAN do. Heroes are those who ask “what can I do to touch another living being and do what I can to help them through this?” Heroes realize there is strength in community.
I have struggled these past ten years with anger. My anger at the terrorists has begun to heal with the realization that despite their horrific actions, those actions were driven by a belief in an idea that they were literally willing to give their lives to defend. That knowledge leads me to forgiveness, certainly not acceptance, but forgiveness. What I struggle with are those who fell to their own pain – those who had a responsibility to others and who let them down, leaving those who were depending on them with feelings of abandonment and solitude compounding their fears, confusion and anxiety. I do not understand what I perceive as the weakness of narcissism.
What I know for sure is that we are all put on earth with a specific purpose. Perhaps my lesson embedded in this anger is that one of the items on my “Life TO DO” list is to rise above and reach out, to bring my hard won strength to situations requiring the ability to temporarily set aside my own needs to serve the needs of others realizing that how I responded in that situation will be carried forever within all those with whom I came in contact.
Heroes are also defined as my 6th grade staff at Haverford Middle School and especially my secretary Penny. You were all the epitome of heroes on September 11th! You put the needs of others before your own. Your actions that day let four hundred forty-three 11 year old students be enveloped by the knowledge that they were embraced with human love and protected, even in the face of devastation and tragedy. Those feelings will always be within them. Thank you… you were everything I needed that day and more. You were, and always will be, MY heroes!