Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Monday, September 12, 2011

Joy and Sorrow at Dawn

The danger of not having suffered any terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since September 11, 2001, is that new stories about that date take on a tall-story aspect; we’ve heard so many stories in these ten years that our tolerance for the horror has increased.  Instead of being horrified, we listen somewhat incredulously and may even inadvertently laugh at what was then a terrifying moment.

Perhaps it’s just that time has anesthetized us to the pain.

Carey Matthew came to the George Washington Bridge on Sunday morning with his infant daughter, Sabrina.  On 9/11/01, Matthew was a student at Columbia University’s Dental School.  He lived in the apartments just across the river.  That morning, he’d just gotten in from a long journey from his small town in Louisiana.  Having not gotten in until 1:30 in the morning on September 11th, he slept in and missed his first class.

He was surprised to learn that Flight 11 had flown over the bridge and very near to his apartment building at quarter to nine that morning.

“I never heard it,” he says.  “I got up late and turned on CNN.  While I was getting ready for class, I heard them announce that the Twin Towers had been hit.  I looked out my window and then I could see the smoke.”

A classmate later told him that the professor in their early morning class, upon hearing about the attacks, yelled at them, “Get out!  Get out!”  But nothing happened to Columbia University.  He and his wife live in Fort Lee now, a beautiful girl he met at a bar in Manhattan.  She and her friends spoke Spanish; he did not.  The other girls spoke to him.  Finally, his future wife turned around, after her friends poked her, and smiled at him.

“She was so beautiful!”  Carey says.

As we spoke, Sabrina studied the camera and the photographer most seriously.  A breeze was blowing that day, just as it had ten years ago.  Getting a picture of the stars and stripes was just as technically difficult as it was outside our then-office building in Wayne.  The trip to the bridge is as annual event as the day of the week makes it.

The trip there was to remember those who died on 9/11, to thank God for the trip to the bridge ten years and one week earlier, to thank Him for sparing, to pray He’d continue to protect the bridge and those who travel over it, ask forgiveness for weakness.

There was sorrow.  But in the dawning light of September 11, 2011, there was also hope in the voice of a young dentist in the midst of a new career of giving people their smiles and a new life.  There was also a new life itself in a wide-eyed, studious baby girl named Sabrina, named for the character in the film.

Feeling sad and mournful is difficult in the light of a new day and a new life.  Not that we shouldn’t remember – we forget at our peril.  Carey will probably bring Sabrina there every September 11th, as well as possible future siblings, and tell them what happened that day in 2001.  I hope he also tells her what didn’t happen that day.  The bridge did not fall to terrorism on September 11, 2001.  God willing, it never will.  In the light of dawn, every September 11th, we will know that while there’s sorrow, there’s also hope.

At a September 11th ceremony on September 10th on the Morristown Green, a first-responder who worked on the pile after the attacks noticed the rain clouds forming overhead.  He said he was glad; that ever since 9/11, he’s feared blue-sky days.  For those of us who remember 9/11, such a simple thing as a clear blue sky will always give a quick pierce to our hearts, make us cringe for a moment. 

But the morning of 9/11 was also notable for the coolness of the air.  A heat wave had just ended, and although it was still a warm, late summer morning, the change in temperature gave the air an exhilarating freshness.  That first responder, suffering from a number of lung ailments which will eventually claim his life, can no longer enjoy that experience.  The cloud of smoke from Manhattan would soon change all that.  As a photographer, while surrendering the joy of clear blue skies is unthinkable, that joy is now tainted with the memory of that day.  May Sabrina never know that grief, and gaze on clear blue skies all her life in peace and joy.

Watching footage from that day, you can see dust on the cameras photographing the event for posterity.  The videos of the people throwing themselves from the Twin Towers, for some reason, seems more horrifying now, ten years later, than it did then.  We have lived in relative peace for too long.  Since the footage isn’t often shown, it comes as a shock when it is broadcast.

You can feel your heart breaking all over again.  That’s when you thank God for the photo of a baby like Sabrina, and the new memorial at the World Trade Center.  They say the gushing of the waterfalls drowns out the noise and confusion of the city – and the echoes of the past.


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