On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I sat in a poetry writing class at the University of North Carolina as fiery, unspeakable events unfolded in New York City, Arlington, VA and rural Pennsylvania. None of us had smart phones in those days, so when our teacher dismissed us, I walked outside and headed for my next class just as I would have done on any normal Tuesday. At the time, I didn’t notice the deserted quad, normally bustling with students at that time of morning.
When I climbed the steps of the journalism school and walked inside, I found what appeared to be the entire student body, crammed into the building lobby but yet strangely silent. They all stood frozen, their eyes transfixed on the journalism school’s large projector TV screen, where two commercial jets crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, again…and again…and again.
I remember when our professor’s voice broke the silence to announce that class was cancelled. But I don’t remember the rest of those kids clearing out of the building. At some point, I did float out of that lobby alone, away from those terrible images and onto the steps of the journalism school, where I found the quad deserted for the second time in one day. My body, guided by some power other than my own, eased down into a sitting position, at which point my 19-year-old lungs breathed in the crisp, clean air of a late summer day on an American college campus, and my innocent eyes drank in the image of an unmarred blue sky dotted only by the soaring, leafy green treetops that watched over bright minds and moonlit strolls and games of Frisbee.
In those moments, on that impossibly beautiful day, I realized our world would never again be the same.
On the morning of July 24, 2006, I sat at my desk at a hospital in Charlotte, NC – eight months into my new job and one month into my marriage to my high school sweetheart. It was a hot but beautiful day, and everything, so far at least, had fallen into place for me. My world overflowed with happiness and possibility.
When my phone rang a few minutes after 10 a.m. – about the same time I learned of the 9/11 attacks – I heard the phrase “neuronal ceroid lipofuscinosis” for the first time – and my world changed forever.
My parents live eight miles from the hospital. I climbed behind the wheel of my car shortly after taking that call, but I don’t remember a single moment of the drive. Somehow, a force from some deep, unknown place guided me home, where I was most needed.
I do, however, remember every single moment from the rest of that fateful day.
The tear-soaked embrace in the floor of my parents’ bedroom.
Seeing my little sister – and feeling alternately overjoyed and crushed knowing she was completely unaware of the deadly disease within her – when we picked her up for her therapy appointment.
Building matching teddy bears with Taylor at the Build-a-Bear Workshop, making a wish for her life, stuffing it deep into the bear before sewing it up tightly…and not feeling silly at all.
It’s amazing how, in a matter of seconds, our lives can transform from being buoyed by hope and joy to being warped by pain and the pure cruelty of fate. It’s amazing how quickly our concept of what’s most important can change.
Today and every day, I remember those who lost their lives on 9/11 and those whose lives have been impacted by the tragedy. I am grateful for all those who make it possible for us to feel safe. And though the news clippings may fade, the memorial crowds may shrink and the stories may become more few and far between, I will never forget.
Today and every day, I fight my own battle for my little sister, in hopes that one day, the worlds of children like her and families like mine will not be shattered in a single moment. And though my body may grow tired and – yes – I may lose her – I will NEVER FORGET.