Tuesday, October 2, 2012

8th New Thing ~ September 11th Memorial

Each year since 2001, I've tried to find the best way to observe September 11th.
Each year, wondering how I could personally reflect on the events of that day, honor the memory of those who were killed:
Port Authority
Pentagon Military Personnel
Firefighters & other First Responders

I had no direct connection to the attacks. I knew no one killed that day. I'd never been to New York, Pennsylvania or Washington D.C. I watched from the other side of the country. Yet, the attacks felt incredibly personal.

I spent the first anniversary reading back over the pages of journal entries I'd written in the days and weeks just after the attacks a year previous. Emotional, confused writing. About my children, my country, my life, my fury and shock. Writing, in a futile attempt to make some sense.
I watched one year anniversary coverage. Reading newspaper and magazine articles. I continued to write, my emotions from a year's distance. Saturating my day with remembrance.

In years two & three I checked out library books and documentaries. Spending a few days, absorbing and remembering. The networks were not airing as many shows. Media observance was lessening. I understood the temptation to push the difficult, painful memories away, into a mental dark corner but I found the lack of attention disturbing. And sad. I felt even more determined to set the day aside for my own healing. To honor the loss.

In 2005, I began a personal, yearly tradition of taking bouquets of flowers to local fire stations on September 11th. Armloads of dahlias. Fire stations in Tillicum, Graham, Lakewood.

Along with leaving flowers, each year I worked at the Tillicum library, I filled the display window with books and DVDs on the subject of September 11th. I needed such gestures. Trying to heal my heart. Determined to look at it directly. Let myself feel the pain. Remember fully.

In spite of my private determination to observe the anniversary over the past eleven years, I had never attended a public commemoration on September 11th, until this year.

A couple weeks prior to the anniversary this year, I searched online for local events.

I found two.
  • A morning remembrance at the Fallen Firefighters Memorial on Ruston Way, Tacoma
  • An evening dedication service at 9/11 Reflection Park in University Place  

The morning event was reverent and somber. The sky, clear blue overhead. A faint gray haze on the horizon over the water of Commencement Bay. The peacefully landscape of the
Fallen Firefighters Memorial.

The Tacoma Fire Department Honor Guard presenting colors, so moving in procedure and tradition. The silence heavy, when the flags were lowered to half staff.

The sorrow-filled sound of the bagpipes, as the Pierce County Firefighter's Pipes and Drums marched by, playing "Amazing Grace" and "Scottland the Brave."

A couple of local officials spoke. A choir sang. White doves, released. 
The understandable attitude and energy that I expected at a public memorial service. 

Then something I was not expecting....

New York Police Lieutenant Anne Verbil took the podium. I was startled to find myself listening to her first hand story of September 11th. This woman, this New York City first-responder standing before me, was in Tower 2 when it collapsed. In a stairwell with eight other people, all of whom got out alive. She said she has horrible survivor's guilt. She spoke of the countless funerals she's attended of those lost. Of the pain and grief in NYC. Tears rolled off my face, and the faces of those around me. She reminded us that the emergency workers of New York City responded no differently, no more heroically than our own local police and firefighters would respond under such crisis. I hope to never find out.

It was incredible, listening to her story. Looking into her eyes, as she and I spoke after. Shaking her hand. Telling her how sorry I was for the loss of her friends and co-workers. How glad I was that she survived, that she was here, eleven years later to share with us. To tell us the story. She gave me a long hug. And handed me a New York City Police Department patch. I handed her the white roses I'd brought with me to lay at the statue of the Fallen Firefighter. It was an honor and one of the most emotional and moving experiences of my life, meeting this woman.    


Following the ceremony at the Fallen Firefighters Memorial, everyone was invited to gather at The Ram Restaurant next door.
"In keeping with traditions, we will raise a glass and honor our fallen." 
I was not certain if this invitation was to the general public or if it was implied to be for those in the 'brotherhood' of first responders. I walked across the street to my car, hesitant and uncertain, not wanting to crash this memorial tradition. The hesitation looked a lot like fear, so I locked up my car, walked back across the street, down the sidewalk to The Ram. And into the bar.

It was a packed crowd, primarily men in various versions of uniform. A few people in 'street clothes.' Just as I walked in, someone that I could not see in the crowd, across the room, shouted over the noise, "So raise your glass and keep it raised through the playing of Amazing Grace."

It was clear that drinks had already been served in one form or another; everyone raised their glass.

I stood empty-handed, no glass to raise.

On the table of the booth next to me, there was a wallet, a cigar and a full mug of beer. Unattended.

Glancing around my immediate vicinity, I saw everyone in sight already had a drink in hand. I could see no one without a glass raised in the air.

So I picked up the mug and held it in the air, as the Pipes and Drums played Amazing Grace.

At the end of the moving musical tribute, I sat the mug back where I got it.

A moment later a uniformed fireman walked up to the table. Clearly, the beer's owner.
"Sorry," I said. "I borrowed your beer."
"No worries," he said.
"I didn't drink any, I just needed to raise a glass."
"You should have helped yourself," he said. Well, alright then.

The song of the bagpipes continued, in that enclosed area. The rhythm and momentum increased. It was intense. The room was wall-to-wall Alpha Males. The energy of courage and brotherhood: Impressive. The beer wasn't the only substance of intoxication in that room.


The dedication of 9/11 Reflection Park that evening was not quite as solemn as the morning.

Of course there were similarities: uniformed fire fighters, police officers, active military and veterans. Many familiar faces from the morning. Again, the Pierce County Firefighters Pipes & Drums. Lieutenant Verbil was there.

And, as with the morning, there was a speaker from New York. From FDNY Engine 42.

Eleven years ago, he was just a young firefighter. 2001. He said that he would not elaborate on the things he saw that day. Understandable. My heart broke for the pain he must have felt. Must still feel.

In spite of the commonalities, the evening event didn't hold the same serious quiet of the morning. It was a park dedication. There were many more civilians. Families, children and teens. A troop of young Boy Scouts. The social chatter was louder, more casual and free flowing. Like the reception at a gallery opening.

And like a gallery, there was art. The new concrete pathways and sidewalks were decorated with the chalk drawings and literary expressions of local elementary school students.

The service was concluded with one of the most engaging public speakers I have ever heard. An active duty Special Forces soldier from JBLM. The 4th Stryker Brigade. I wish I remembered his name. This man was a compelling presence. Physically imposing. Commanding. Charismatic  He carried himself with absolutely convincing authority. Simultaneous calm and power. Absolutely nothing to prove. Undeniable confidence. Not only do I not remember his name but also can't recall the details of his speech. Yet I was completely riveted. There was a microphone but he didn't need it. I shook his hand after. Thanked him for his service to our country.

This dedication ceremony was more lively and relaxed than the memorial that morning. Yet more lonely for me. This had nothing to do with who did or did not attend. Who I did or did not speak to.

But instead, it had everything to do with the centerpiece of the park. The focal point.

A piece of steel from The World Trade Center.

      I cannot wrap my mind around how first responders run straight into burning buildings, up flights of dark, smoky stairs while everyone else is running out.
But I am so very thankful. 

I reached out and touched the cold steel.

We remember 9.11

I set out the morning of September 11, 2012
to attend a public 9/11 memorial for the first time. 
To lay my hand upon a piece of steel i-beam from the World Trade Center. 
In addition, I got to shake the hand of Lt. Anne Verbil, NYPD. 
It was more than I'd thought to hope.


  1. What a beautiful thing to do, Barbie. We were all affected that day and it is easy to go on without bringing back all the pain of the losses from all over the world. Everyone mourned and then we moved on. Thanks for reminding us so brilliantly to remember 9/11. I'll raise a glass to you too.

  2. Wow, you conveyed this beautifully, I was there with you.