I stood motionless at the far corner of the Memorial, moving only to blink when someone stepped into my peripheral vision, or when a beeping camera phone interrupted my efforts to trace a drop of water as it traveled from the top of the wall to the pool below. The water cascaded further down from there, into a black hole that seemed to go to the center of the Earth, and it lulled me into a sad trance as the names engraved in the hard steel frame surrounding the falls started to blur behind my sunglasses. New York air is thick and heavy in August, and under my blouse I felt drips of sweat pushing through my pores, reluctantly jumping out in an effort to escape the sad sweltering heat inside of me.
I had just experienced two hectic days at a New York City blogging conference, spending the bulk of my time with a small group of military spouse writers. We knew we couldn’t leave New York without visiting The 9/11 Memorial.
To enter the memorial we careened through amusement park like lines, becoming quiet for the first time in days as the heavy security screenings suddenly reminded us what a naive country we had once been. Looming like a swollen, hard-learned lesson, the largest and most conspicuous signs in the entire complex marked the many emergency exits lining the walls.
There were varying levels of solemnity among us, but once inside the Memorial we separated without saying a word. I wept openly as my fingers grazed across the heartbreaking words, “and her unborn child.” Like so many others that day, I didn’t bother to wipe the tears from my face. I felt relief; like ten years of grief spilling out. And there I stood, in my trance, watching the tears flow down the Memorial’s sheer grey walls.
As I walked along touching the engraved names, I startled at a concept that I had not considered until that moment. I had tried unsuccessfully in the past year to find ways to bridge what media and researchers refer to as the expanding military-civilian divide. I had stood shaking behind a podium reading about my military experience to thousands of strangers. I had corresponded with a journalist in an attempt to accurately depict what it feels like to hear casualty news during a deployment. And in an attempt to help civilian families understand that homecoming is not the magic pill that cures deployment I had, on national television, discussed the day I contemplated leaving my husband.
I’m not sure why I long for that connection so desperately, but I felt it at the Memorial. Somehow 9/11 feels like the one place in which the military and civilian worlds actually overlap: the great loss of life was universally felt, and a nation stood ready to defend it. It is where we, as Americans, intersect.
It embodies the notion that each of us, if faced with a terrible dilemma, would have what it takes to become a national hero. Each of us lost something that day or on the long days of fighting that have followed – family, friends, relationships, innocence. And that is something military families and civilians share.
I noticed that at the top of the square pools there were small L-shaped caps in the corners where no water flowed. Yet as the water fell it spread, and the two streams eventually overlapped. At the bottom corner of each pool, the water – the tears - intersected.
That water is the American community. 9/11 is officially celebrated as ”Patriot’s Day” in honor of the 2,977 lives lost on that day in the Towers, the airplanes, and at the Pentagon. This September 11, 2012, let us also remember the military sacrifice of life that has now eclipsed the lives lost on September 11th. We can remember their sacrifice by realizing that these struggles and losses are something we share. We can honor all of them, military and civilian alike, by taking our own small struggles and converting them into an opportunity to become everyday heroes for our friends, our families, and those in need – not just within our own civilian or military communities, but beyond them.