A personal take on a day of national remembrance Derek Alger From the Editor

perm_identity A personal take on a day of national remembrance

by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 172 ~ September, 2011

I wasn’t planning to write anything about 9/11, but since it’s been ten years since the initial terrorist attack where planes hit and destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center, my awareness of life has never been the same.  I could recount my personal tale of September 11th, though such experiences have been recounted by so many others over the years, and so many who were right on the scene in lower Manhattan, while I was in my apartment in New Jersey, one town down from the George Washington Bridge, which runs across the Hudson River to New York City and points beyond, watching everything unfold on cable television, truly stunned and apprehensive about what might happen next.

In the ten years since 9/11, some members of my immediate family are no longer around, which can’t help but make me feel differently about life, more aware of personal mortality, and the world around me.  I was fortunate in that death didn’t strike any family members until I was at an age older than most when they first experienced such loss.  My brother-in-law was in a hospital in Canada, dying of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma when 9/11 brought a new reality to the United States, and specifically, to those in New York City.  He died at the end of September, leaving my sister with two kids, ages eight and three, to raise as a single mother, and raise them, she did, with both of them teenagers now.

Both my parents were alive ten years ago, my mother up at the cottage at the lake in Ontario and my father, the psychiatrist, in his office on the Upper Eastside of Manhattan on 9/11.  I went to sleep the night before 9/11 after listening to a political friend complaining that he had to be up and out before six in the morning because of the Primary Election in New York the next day.  Of course, all that changed in an instant on 9/11, with no one even thinking of the Democratic primary for Mayor in New York City, much less voting, after the first plane hit the World Trade Center.

I received a phone call from a friend, a Hudson County maverick from Jersey City, who told me an Assemblyman we knew “got good coverage” in The Daily News, and “Oh, by the way,” he mentioned, as an afterthought, a plane just hit the World Trade Center.  Similar to many, I  turned on the television just in time to see the second plane strike, with a ball of fire appearing on my television screen as it struck the building, leaving little doubt about what was happening.

Instinctively, I immediately called my mother at the lake in Ontario, where my brother was staying with her.  Based on my call, she turned on the television and we watched events unfold together, six hundred miles apart, in stunned disbelief.

It was only later I realized I hadn’t called my father in nearby Manhattan first, and when I eventually did, I couldn’t get through by phone.

I only knew one person who died on 9/11, Father Mychal Judge, who served as the chaplain for the City of New York’s Fire Department.  I met Father Mychal through a friend of mine who had known Father Mychal for years; in fact, Father Mychal presided at my friend’s wedding at St. Joseph’s Church in East Rutherford, New Jersey, in what must have seemed like a former lifetime.  I did an article for a Bronx newspaper on the altruistic work of Father Mychal, something he never felt the need to speak of on his own, preferring to allow good deeds to speak for themselves, while he was assigned to the monastery of St. Francis of Assisi Church on West 31st in Manhattan, where he lived and worked until his death.  He was a warm, sensitive, and compassionate guy, and though I have no real experience with the Catholic Church, except hearing stories from friends who attended parochial school, upon meeting Father Mychal I automatically trusted him and felt as if I had known him all my life.  I’m still haunted by seeing his face in a documentary on 9/11, where he is wearing a fire helmet and looking up, dreadful recognition on his face, a stark image foreshadowing his own death, and that of so many others.

I have difficulty understanding many around me who are planning 9/11 anniversary ceremonies as if it was New Year’s Eve or a day to celebrate and party.  I don’t remember any such excitement and exuberance on anniversaries of December 7th and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  I will never forget 9/11, and certainly never forget how I felt that day, so I don’t need anyone to tell me anything.  For me, grief and mourning have always been a private affair, and so, too, will be the recognition of the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

Much more personal, and of more significance in terms of loss, is September 10th, the day my mother died after a long fight with breast cancer, with me by her side.  That was in 2005, and I can’t believe it’s been that long.  I do remember thinking it was appropriate that my mother — a quiet and unassuming person, who had natural empathy for others of all walks of life, and was a perfect example of how others should never mistake kindness for weakness, because she was indeed a strong character, and very wise — died the day before 9/11, so naturally, the day of her death would never be marked by any hoopla or inappropriate spectacles of mindless revelry as subsequent years pass.

As I write and finish this up, for me 9/11 is comparable to what the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was for my parents, the world could never be viewed the same.  Of course, I don’t have a crystal ball, and was never adept at predictions, as proven by my record on losing more often than not in selecting winning teams in NFL games, so I don’t have a clue what lies ahead for me, my friends, my family, or anyone else.  What I do know is the value of people who have influenced me within my life, and I like to remember a note written by my mother on a scrap of paper, which, read in her familiar, smooth handwriting, “Death doesn’t end a relationship,” a sentiment with which I completely concur and understand, and don’t need to do anything special to remember.

  • Crissa

    A beautifully moving piece Derek, thank you.

  • Jennifer

    Derek, thank you for a very moving account of your experience during and since the attacks. I, too, do not understand the need for public reunions and memorial services every year. However, knowing how it touched people close to me in personal ways is always somehow comforting to my own memories of that day. As one of my closest friends works for the Port Authority, I still cannot forget being shaken to my core over his safety that day before I was able to speak to him and find out he was far from the towers when they were hit. 

  • Daveva

    Derek – I am glad Crissa posted your essay – therefore the opportunity for me to read it. 
    By the way best to you.