Choose Your Choice

I am lucky enough to still get to walk to and from school with my youngest daughter, Sophie. She is just starting Grade Five so, I know it is a matter of sooner, rather than later, that one day she will tell me that she wishes to try walking home from school on her own. My heart will crack a little at the moment but, such is life as your children leave their childhood behind and enter their teenage years.

But, for now, I still get to pick her up each afternoon. On nice days we walk. When we walk, we talk about all manner of things to do with her day or with mine. This past Wednesday, we had the following chat:

Me: So, Sophie, how was your day?

Sophie: It was hot, Daddy! It was soooooo hot! I nearly died from the heat!

Me: Come on, now. Its not that hot. Its barely 23 degrees out.

Sophie: You don’t understand, Daddy! Its so hot in our classroom and then, for Gym, we had to run laps! I’m gonna die from dehydration! Would you like to die from dehydration?!

I did not answer her question. She waited a beat and then asked if I preferred the temperature to be hot or cold. I said I would pick cooler because I can add layers in the coolness and be fine but, there is only so much one can do in the heat. She jumped on that answer and declared, “So, you would rather die from hypothermia than dehydration!? Ha!”

I replied, “I wouldn’t like either one because they are both bad choices.”

Well,” she said. “You have to pick one. Choose your choice, Daddy. Choose….your….choice!

We had that conversation on September 11, 2019. The Anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy has become a day of reflection and introspection for a great many people, whether we wished for it to be or not. As my eldest daughter Leah wrote in her blog, “As you know, today, September 11, is a very sombre day.” *You can read her blog here. As each anniversary rolls around, there is a small part of me that feels sorry for anyone having a birthday or anniversary on 9/11. How can you go out in public and be happy and celebrate when those searing images of dust and fire and death are flooding TV and social media and, consequently, the thoughts of most people around us?

But, Life is like that. Sometimes, you don’t get to choose. Sometimes, the choice is made for you. That seems to be the case with 9/11. It was a day in History filled with choices made and choices taken away. A day that began like any other day and ended like no other. It was a day that continues to reverberate around the world, all these years later.

So, let’s play “Choose Your Choice: 9/11 Edition”, shall we?!

Here we go. I am playing the role of God and I am offering you a choice of how you are going to die. Cheery choice, eh? Would you like to (a) die instantly, in the blink of an eye, without even having the time to feel any pain or to even realize that your end is coming or, (b) be granted an additional twenty years of life but with the realization that over the course of those twenty years, your health will suffer, breath will become precious, your body will begin to rot and decay and that pain and suffering will be your constant companion…..but, you will live to see children grow up, your team win a championship, perhaps and, best of all, you will have those years to spend with the one you love. Choose Your Choice.

As the years have gone by since that day when the Towers fell, the nature of our remembrance has begun to evolve. Initially, and rightly so, we focussed on those who lost their lives that day. The victims of the attack. This included the First Responders who raced toward the burning buildings as everyone else ran from them. The victims, also, included those regular folk who were earning their pay cheques that day in offices of The World Trade Centre. Finally, the victims included those airline passengers who boarded their flights that morning, confident in the knowledge that they would safely arrive at their destination in mere hours and then, would go on to enjoy the rest of their day. For all of these victims, the choice of how to die was made for them. When those planes crashed or when those buildings fell, death was unavoidable. In fact, it was as close to instantaneous as it gets. The mere fact that so many of the bodies of those killed in the Twin Towers were never recovered, speaks to the violence that comes with being buried in an avalanche of concrete and steel. That their deaths were tragic is a given. But, as time draws us ever further away from that fateful day, the question that begs to be asked now is, were these victims the lucky ones that day?

On that September morning in 2001, fate or circumstance instantly divided random groups of people into two categories: those who died and those who survived. For those who survived, they were given God’s second bargain. They lived. But at what cost? So it is, with each passing 9/11 Anniversary, I am finding myself increasingly drawn to the stories of the people who lived and how they were affected by what happened that day. It is a different type of tragedy that, unlike the collapse of the Towers, is happening entirely in slow motion.

One of the most striking aspects of all of the images from that terrorist attack was the massive amount of dust that was thrown into the air when the buildings fell. That dust then fell in such a dense fashion that it covered anything and everything in its path. The dust helped give NYC a ghost-like appearance and has lead to many striking, haunting photographic images.

But, as time has come to reveal, that dust was every bit the killer that the falling concrete was. Tests conducted on the World Trade Centre dust revealed that it contained many toxic carcinogens including asbestos, as well as, a laundry list of construction chemicals. This dust, also, contained pulverized glass, insulation fibres, as well as, human bones. In many ways, the toxicity of the dust created when the Twin Towers fell was no less in danger to humans than was the radiation released in Chernobyl or Fukushima. And yet, as thousands upon thousands of images clearly depict, those who survived were exposed to this dust on a massive scale, as it became their oxygen as they attempted their escape to freedom and to life. None of these survivors chose to be in this situation but, they chose to live. They accepted God’s second bargain because of sheer will power and adrenaline. In the passing years, they have come to realize at what cost.

Those who reap the greatest glory are often the ones who pay the greatest price. First Responders are all very special people. They sign up for careers that ensure they will experience the darkest that humanity has to offer. It takes a special type of person to willingly run toward what others seek to flee. Bravery and courage are part of their uniform. We throw the word, Hero, around too cavalierly, at times but, it applies to all of those who attended the fires at The World Trade Centre that day in 2001. It applies to every person who helped another to safety down those stairwells. It applies to every person who entered Ground Zero, digging through smoking rubble, desperately trying to find anyone who may have survived. It applies to everyone who brought water to those people wandering the unrecognizable streets in the aftermath of the collapses, dazed and confused, choking on dust. The word, Hero, is a label universally-applied and justifiably earned by all First Responders that day.

These men and women got to make their choice. The consequence of that choice, however, is a slow and painful death. Such was the exposure to the toxic Tower dust that entered their bodies in such large amounts, that it was only a matter of time until the tumours appeared and the cancer began to spread. Lung cancer is one of the most prevalent of the diseases afflicting First Responders. Many have suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder since that day, too. As you know, medical expenses can quickly pile up in the U.S. and many of the men and women who were First Responders that day require much in the way of expert physical and emotional treatment. Thanks to the efforts of people like Comedian/Talk Show Host Jon Stewart, the United States Government has agreed to pay for the medical bills that these heroic people are incurring.

While First Responders were compelled by their sense of duty and their brave hearts to put themselves in danger that day, not everyone had the luxury, as it were, of making such a choice. For many people, they were simply doing their jobs in banks and offices and then, suddenly, found themselves experiencing the unthinkable. Their exposure to the toxic Tower dust and to the unbelievably high levels of personal stress they underwent that day, has changed their lives forever and, not for the better. One of the most famous examples of this is a woman named Marcy Borders. She was working as a Legal Assistant at The Bank of America that morning. As she ran for her life, after the first Tower fell, she became coated in dust. A photographer named Stan Honda, from the Agency France Presse, snapped a photo of her in an otherworldly setting. The photo became one of the most iconic images of that day. Borders became known to the world as “The Dust Lady”.

But, fame does not always equal happiness. Mrs. Borders was a real person; a wife and a mother and a skilled worker. But, to most people who only knew her from a photograph, she was an unknown figure covered in dust, almost statue-like and, she was soon forgotten. There were many survivors of the 9/11 attacks like Mrs. Borders. They were real people with real lives and they all experienced real hardship as a result of that day. In Marcy Borders case, PTSD manifested itself in the form of Clinical Depression and Drug Addiction. Her marriage collapsed and she lost custody of her children due to her mental illness and addictions. She developed cancer a few years later, eventually dying alone in 2014. There were many people like Marcy Borders whose lives were forever altered because of 9/11 but who have been forgotten by the world. They did not choose their choice. They were given life but, their lives were scarred and painful.

NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 07: An American flag t-shirt covered in ash and dust from the destroyed World Trade Center towers is seen at a media preview of the ?Elegy in the Dust: Sept. 11th and the Chelsea Jeans Memorial? exhibit at the New York Historical Society September 7, 2006 in New York City. The exhibit features racks of clothes covered in dust from the Chelsea Jeans store in Lower Manhattan that were preserved by owner David Cohen as a memorial. The fifth anniversary will be obsserved of the September 11. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Two summers ago, I went to NYC and took my family to the 9/11 Memorial. We were completely unprepared for the emotional impact of being there. The atmosphere was so reverential. The respect accorded to the victims who lost their lives that day was evident everywhere you turned. I always tell people that it is the place most like Church that I have ever been in. Among the many excellent exhibits there is a wing dedicated to artifacts recovered from the debris that rained down from above or else, from the downtown area adjacent to where the Twin Towers were. In that wing of artifacts is a display of a flag and some clothing that appeared in a clothing store window on the day of the attack. Everything in that glassed-in display is covered in a layer of toxic ash. To view that exhibit is to understand how little choice survivors had that day. There was no escape from the dust that caused/is causing slow, lingering, agonizing deaths. God’s second bargain is no bargain for those people. But, some survivors beg to differ and they accept their ailments and view their survival as a testament to the strength of America and as a rebuke to an alien enemy from the other side of the planet. Marcy Borders claimed that one of the things that most inspired her to quit drugs and alcohol and become sober in her later years was the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

Which brings us back to our game. What choice would you make, if given a choice at all? Would you opt for a quick, almost painless, sudden death or would you claw and scratch for every extra minute, regardless of the cost to your mind and your body?

One never knows when God or Fate will intervene in our daily affairs and present us with such a question. For me, for now, I choose to publish this post. Then, I choose to mow my lawn. Finally, I choose to go to Sophie’s school and walk home with her together. For now, I have that choice. One day, thanks to Sophie, that choice will not be mine to choose. But, for now, it is.

So, for this moment, on this day, I am happy to be able to choose Life.

We Are With You

There are some events in History that are just so impactful and larger than life that we all know exactly where we were and what we were doing when they happened.

When 9/11 began to unfold in New York City, Washington and Pennsylvania, I was just welcoming a class of Primary-aged students into the Library at my school in Bowmanville, Ontario.  My only thoughts at the time were ensuring that everyone was sitting quietly so I could launch into my read aloud story. Just as I was to begin, the school custodian entered and motioned for me to come over. We are both diehard Toronto Maple Leaf fans so, for him to interrupt my class must have meant a big trade had happened or so I thought. But, unfortunately, the news wasn’t hockey-related. Both towers were on fire by the time he spoke with me. Moments later, he returned to say that one tower had fell. My custodian was a big, strong man but, his complexion was ashen by this point.

I’m not sure what any of us taught that day. The whole day was a blur. Parents showed up throughout the day to withdraw their children, keeping them as close as close could be at home. Teachers gathered around computers to watch CNN online.  The whole school seemed silent…..all 700 staff and students, silent. Some unbelievably serious stuff was happening and we didn’t know why. But, in times like that, as is so often the case, we automatically came together as a school community. We answered all student questions as best we could. We stayed calm, at least on the outside, and that helped keep the kids calm. We supported each other; especially, our one staff member who had a daughter who worked for National Geographic and who happened to be at a conference in Washington that day. It was four long hours before the phone call finally came and everyone allowed themselves to breathe again.  And then, we went home and watched TV and watched TV and watched TV.

The enormity of the violence remains surreal.
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This past summer, my family and I travelled to New York City and visited the 9/11 Memorial. The experience of doing so moves me still. It is hard to fathom what exactly happened that day at the tip of Manhattan Island, even standing on the very site of the tower collapses. The scale of the loss is almost overwhelming.

But, what strikes me most about the events of that day are the individual stories that arose as the dust was, quite literally, still settling. The phone calls to loved ones from those trapped within the towers before they fell. The First Responders who, despite lugging heavy gear, climbed up into the towers past those who were fleeing downward and out. The citizens in Gander, Newfoundland, who housed and cared for all those stranded passengers from the jumbo jets that landed there when U.S. airspace was closed.

The 9/11 Memorial Museum does a superb job at putting a human face on an inhuman tragedy. We entered the Museum to the sound of a perpetual roll call of honour for the victims. “My sister, _______”, “My father, _________”, “My friend, _________”, “My Captain, _________” and on and on it went.  Then, we entered a gallery that housed photos of each victim; some had displays of personal items with them that had been donated by their families. You could touch a computer screen to find out more about each person who lost their life that September 11th morn. Then, an exhibit showing a crushed fire truck, where we learned of the heroic deeds of the many police officers and fire fighters who gave their lives to save others. Cantor-Fitzgerald stationary, single shoes, photos in broken frames that once sat upon office desks, dust-covered articles of clothing…..the things that once belonged to people who lived and were real.  There was even a display dedicated to rescue animals who entered the smouldering wreckage. Lives forever changed. Heroes all.

As humans, we all have worth and value that becomes apparent when our stories are told. We are richer for this knowledge having been recorded and passed on. As individuals and as societies, we grow stronger when we honour the stories of those still around us and strive for a more peaceful existence for us all. That was the message my whole family took from our visit to the 9/11 Memorial site. Peace.

For us, the most powerful moment we collectively shared as a family occurred toward the end of our tour. We came upon a map of the world on a wall. Before it, stood a row of computers. Sophie touched the computer screen and was asked to enter the town or city where we were from. She did. Instantly, a point of light appeared on the map where Cobourg would be. Next, we were asked to offer a message of hope. Leah typed in, “We are with you.”  Sophie drew a peace sign. I drew four hearts; each one containing the first letter of each of our names. Then we pressed Enter. With the Cobourg light still flashing, our message of hope appeared on the wall. Along with our message, those written by other Museum guests appeared and disappeared all throughout the moments that followed.  Hope and Peace, rising up out of the ruins of the Twin Towers.  That was the only photo we took from inside the Memorial because, as Leah correctly pointed out, “This just doesn’t seem like the time to be taking pictures.”

There is a lot of ugliness in our world but, there is a lot of beauty, too. So, whenever 9/11 rolls around, I choose to focus on the stories of how humanity redeemed itself in the aftermath of that day. I place my bets on the goodness of people coming to the fore in times of tragedy and loss. I am optimistic about our future.

So, as 9/11 began with both, President Bush and I sitting in front of children while holding a book, it ends today with the affirmation, from my family to yours, America, that we are with you. We were on that day and we are on this day, too. God Bless.

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