Gratitude in the shadow of grief

Today is September 11th, 2011.  The tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. And as you go about your business today, you’re going to run into a number of folks. What do we say to each other? “Happy Patriot Day?” Not likely. There’s not much of anything happy about this particular “holiday”. Often we will discuss where we were when we heard about the attacks, much in the way people of my generation talk about the Challenger disaster and my parents speak of JFK’s assassination.

It’s easy to talk about where we were on 9/11/01; it’s not nearly as easy to talk about who we were, and how we were changed by the events of that Tuesday morning on the East Coast.

For my part, I can tell you that at about 6am PDT, I was leaving a warehouse about 2 miles from my house and returning home after having picked up my samples for the week (I was in the wine industry at the time). I turned on the radio and a couple of very confused DJs were talking about reports they were receiving about a plane that had hit the World Trade Center. At the time nobody was sure if it was an accident or not. I went home, turned on CNN, and started to watch the horrific scene unfold. About and hour later I called my boss and told him I wasn’t going out into the field because I was unsure if this was the end of the offensive or if there was more to come — and if it was still coming, and there was a potential for disaster here in SoCal, I wanted to be with my family. After that I went to my parents’ house, where my mom and I were glued to their (very large) television for the next several hours.

I doubt my initial response would have been any different if my life had been uneventful at the time, but the fact is my life was chaotic. Twelve days earlier — August 31st, the Friday before Labor Day — my mother had received a diagnosis of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. That was an overwhelming tragedy in and of itself, and I wasn’t coping very well with it. In the space of two weeks I went from a confident, successful wine sales broker to a defeated, 31-year old foundling. My sense of security had evaporated. I began looking at my career, my social life, really every aspect of my adulthood as being trite. I threw myself into volunteer work to attempt to give my existence some purpose. It didn’t work. Between 9/11 and my mom’s cancer I felt I had been dealt a one-two punch.

Now go back and read that last paragraph. I jut told you the 9/11 attacks happened to me. That my mom’s diagnosis happened to me. But here’s the reality check, one that was “lost in the mail” for so long: they didn’t happen to me. They just happened.  And really, they happened to others. Did I have cancer? No. Was I dead (like almost 3,000 people were) or injured (like more than 6,000)? Did I lose anyone very close to me that day? Mmmmm… no. So as devastating as Summer ’01 was for me, the truth was that I got off pretty much scot-free. And I am filled with humility and gratitude for it.

And in that spirit, I’ve started looking at the events of ten years ago with new eyes. As horrifying as 9/11 was to our collective American consciousness, it would have been so much worse if the passengers on United Flight 93 hadn’t been so heroic. We feel a surge of pride when we think of those men and women, instead of dismay that one more plane hit another high-profile terrorist target — namely, the White House.

As scared as I was about my mom being sick, I have to say that it could have been much worse. My mom is ALIVE, and she is AMAZING. She’s been cancer-free (aka no evidence of disease, to those of you who are up to speed on cancer-ese) for years. When she went through chemo, she didn’t lose her hair. I don’t even remember her throwing up.

There are so many aspects of my life that I’ve reframed as well. Yes, DS was born with congenital heart defects. But he’s growing like a weed, runs and plays and never runs out of breath; not many of the other children in the waiting room of his pediatric cardiologist can say the same. I was with friends in New Orleans smack dab in the middle of Hurricane Ivan. But as scared as we all were as the storm passed, I know we were all grateful that our trip to NOLA was in September 2004 and not August 2005, when Katrina battered the city without mercy.

Most of the planet (about 85%, according to wikipedia) claims to have a relationship with some kind of divine entity — God, G-d, Allah, a pantheon of gods, what have you. And the vast majority of the prayers of this population is made up of petitions: “Please make __________ happen.” We hardly ever go back and say thanks, let alone thanks-for-making-it-less-awful-than-it-could-have-been.

As much as we grieve for all the losses in our lives, the one thing for which we ought most be grateful is this: that over time, those losses are less acute in our psyche, the sting being replaced a sad wisdom. I sure hope so, anyway.

It’s Patriot Day. Be happy.

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