SMALL MOMENTS – A 9/11 TRIBUTE (2016)

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Today, on the 15th anniversary of 9/11, I am posting the memorial I wrote on the 10 year anniversary with updates on a surreal encounter and a promise kept.

melissa harrington hughesHer message was my wake-up call.  She inspired me and changed my life forever. Yet I never met her.

Melissa Harrington Hughes died at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  She didn’t work there; she was on a business trip for her San Francisco-based technology firm. She was an extremely accomplished 31-year-old, who had traveled the world and had been married her sweetheart, Sean Hughes, for the past year.

On that fateful morning she was attending a meeting on the 101st floor of the North Tower when the first plane struck just 6 floors below her.  Many people remember her for the harrowing voicemail that she left Sean minutes after the building was struck.   In that voicemail she said, “Sean, it’s me. I just wanted to let you know I love you and I am stuck in this building in New York. A plane hit or a bomb went off – we don’t know, but there’s a lot of smoke and I just wanted you to know I love you always.”

The first time I heard Melissa’s voicemail, Sean was speaking to Chris Jansing on MSNBC and played the recording on air.  Ms. Jansing completely broke down upon hearing it.  Clearly, Melissa’s final words resonated with a lot of people.  The internet site dedicated to Melissa filled with posts from people who were touched by her story.  I was among them. When the buildings collapsed I thought about all of the people that worked for my company in those towers.   Three of our employees died that day but Melissa was the one that stood out. Somehow, amongst the overwhelming tales of tragedy, her story elicited the strongest emotions from me.  But why?

I suppose that, in part, I could relate to her on some level.  I was also employed by a large Bay Area-based firm and had spent most of my adult life working in San Francisco.  At one point I made several business trips to NYC to meet with staff housed in the North tower at the World Trade Center.  I remember navigating the unusual elevator and escalator systems in that building as I rushed to early morning meetings, just as she must have done.  I was also struck by Melissa’s beautiful wedding picture taken up in Napa, California, close to where I grew up.  I knew that she had appreciated what a special part of the country that is. But it was more than the similar business trips and her picture that stayed with me; it was her voicemail to Sean that was seared into my brain.

MHH North Tower (Medium)

In her voice I could sense so many of her emotions: fear, panic, bewilderment.  But mostly, in her final minutes on earth, she wanted Sean to know that she loved him.  I thought about her, and all of the people that died that day, who went off to work as they normally did.  Kissing a spouse or child good-bye, grabbing a cup of coffee, making plans for the weekend ahead.  And none of them came home.  Plans and hopes and dreams were gone in an instant.  Sean Hughes said that he and Melissa were excited about their future and talked about all the things that newlyweds do: moving to a new home, getting a dog, having children.

Her final words to Sean started me thinking about my own life.  My husband had taken early retirement in 1996.  He wanted to travel, spend time with our new grandson, and enjoy time with friends.  I had wanted to continue working.  But I kept thinking about Melissa’s message.  What if that had been me?  Is that how I would want my life to end, without ever having enjoyed what my husband and I had worked so hard to build?

The weeks following September 11 were frightening and incredibly busy for me.  My division of the company had locations throughout the United States and for weeks after the twin towers fell we received bomb threats in our major office buildings. Of course, all of them were false but that didn’t lessen the hysteria of my employees who were in those buildings.  I understood – my office was on the top floor of our Los Angeles headquarters and I jumped every time I  heard a plane or helicopter go by.  After a month or so, I began to hope that the turmoil would pass and that my life would get back to “normal”.   But then I thought about Melissa.  Life doesn’t get scripted.  I knew that the odds of being killed in a terrorist attack might be low, but there were no guarantees that I could escape a car accident or a terminal illness.

So the first week of November, after the initial frenzy had died down, I told my boss that I wanted to resign.  We negotiated that I would stay until March 1, which I did.  I have never regretted that decision and would not trade all of the memories and experiences I’ve had since then for any amount of compensation I gave up.

The author Judith Viorst once wrote that it is the small moments in life that make it rich.   Melissa made me realize that I needed to grab the small moments while I could; that sitting with my husband every morning, sipping coffee and watching the news, is a gift not to be squandered or go unappreciated.

So to Melissa Harrington Hughes: thank you.  Someday I hope to get back to the new September 11 Memorial where I will touch the steel engraving of your name.  And in the hollows of those letters, we will finally be connected.

2016 Update:  This past March I went to New York with my niece and her two daughters.  Visiting the National September 11 Memorial and Museum was one of our highlights (I wrote about it in The Museum of Sadness and Strength post).  I read that buying tickets in advance was key so on February 24 I went on to their website to order ours.  On that same day I received an email that someone had commented on my original post about Melissa.  I thought that was a coincidence – that maybe something that I had typed in the computer had caused an old comment to be recirculated.  But it wasn’t an old comment  – it was this:  “I came across your blog after my son and I just prepared an required oral presentation for his English class about a life event of mine that had great impact. I think of Melissa almost every day –  I was her best friend since childhood.  She was a shining light and people were drawn to her. I miss her and the memories are still clear with detail. Thank you for seeing how her passion, love for life, and love for her husband and family was that shining light, even if it was her last words. She called her Dad and Mom and Sean from that burning building because she loved them deeply. She is well remembered and will never be forgotten.”  I still get chills when I read this note and think about the timing of it.  There are no coincidences in life, of that I am sure.

2016-03-30 12.06.05 (Small)On March 30 I was finally able to fulfill the promise to myself that I would visit Melissa’s engraving at the Memorial.  Her name is carved into Panel N-22 on the large reflecting pool that stands in the footprint of the former North Tower.  I put my hand on her name and thanked her once again for all that she has meant in my life.  May she rest in peace.

20 comments on “SMALL MOMENTS – A 9/11 TRIBUTE (2016)

  1. Thank you for making September 11th a clear remembrance, Suzanne. We always remember where we were and how horrific those following days and weeks were. I am at a point where you were. My husband is retired and I am still having a great time working, but I will keep in mind, what you and Margie have said. Melissa has put a fresh face on that tragedy for me. Thanks friend! XXOO

    • Thanks, Marie. Yes, the decision to retire is a tough one. I certainly still miss all of the great people I worked with – like YOU – but the time I’ve had to be with my husband has been well worth it. Whatever you decide, I’m sure it will be the right one for you and Fred.

  2. This is absolutely beautiful, Suzanne. I am so thankful that I stopped working when I did because Don and I were able to travel and enjoy life together before he got sick. We had just arrived in York, England when the planes struck the two towers. We, along with everyone else at the hotel were hovered around the TV just staring in total disbelief. And as we stood there, another guest told me a plane had hit the Pentagon. My sister and brother-in-law were working at the Pentagon. I remember desperately trying to reach my sister and also trying to find out about one of my groups housed at the World Trade Center. We so badly wanted to just go home but the American Embassy told us there was no way to get home and that we would be stuck there for at least 3 weeks. I was finally able to reach my sister (thankfully they were able to get out of the Pentagon). I was also able to reach Theresa who told me about the three people we had lost. The people of York were so incredibly kind to us. We all became one family that day. I think of that trip so often. I cherish the memories Don and I made on that fateful day. I hope to get to the memorial sometime soon. And I will be looking for Melissa’s name.

    • Margie – I had forgotten that you were out of the country until I read this. That was such a scary time and I remember that we were worried about you and Don getting home safely. So glad you had those years with Don…no regrets. ❤️❤️❤️

  3. Tenderly beautiful piece Suzanne, I have had several moments today where a small tear appeared in my eye. How I treasure every day, and reflect on those who didn’t get the chances that I have had to live my life to the fullest. Thank you, my dear for touching ,y heart. Xoxoxox

  4. We had a moving ceremony at church this a.m. remembering 9/11. Our Pastor was an EMT in New Jersey and went with a team to ground zero. His memories, beside the obvious, were the HEROES walking the streets with food and water to help the first responders giving no thought to their time or safety…just knowing they had to do something, anything. Thank you for sharing personal thoughts with all of us

  5. Thank you, Susan. In the end and in the beginning and in the middle, our priorities are our loved ones . Nothing else matters.

    Amen

  6. Thank you for a most touching tribute, Sue. In tragedies such as 9/11, the human side tends to get forgotten as we look for closure and something to make sense of it all in the wanton destruction that occurred.

    When I logged on to my computer that morning, I remember looking at the videos in a state of disbelief. Was this really happening? What have i just seen? I have several cousins living and working in NYC and I needed to find out how they were. After a few hours of phone calls and emails, I was able to confirm that they were fine and had not come to harm.

    Our wedding anniversary was the next day, so my wife and I went to Port Townsend, Washington for a few days. However, our celebration was dampened by what had happened in our country. Life would not be the same for America and until we come to terms with what occurred on that dreadful day, it never will be the same.

    • Burt, thanks so much for your comment. What a frightening time for you with family back in NYC on that day. The world gets pretty tangled up at times but what persists is those we love. I guess in the end that’s all we can count on.

  7. Such a touching column and tribute. It makes us all think of what is really important in our lives – and how time flies . Thanks and love! Janet

  8. Woke up this morning thinking about 9/11, started to scroll CNN.com and then tried to watch the news with absolutely no feeling. I tried to remember my drive into the city from Evanston that morning when I heard the news…how I felt, what I was thinking. With a 5 year old running around this morning asking where his Batman Lego figure is, too hard to concentrate. But after breakfast, I read this, and it all came flooding back. My fear of being in a major city with tall buildings and the closest family over 2,000 miles away, sitting in the corner of my apartment waiting for cell coverage to come back so I could reach friends in NY. Thanks Suz, it was perfect and beautiful. Going to capture my small memories and find Lego Batman.

    • Del…thanks so much for your comment. It was such a scary day – we will all remember where we were and how we felt during that horrible time. Go give Liam a big hug and good luck in finding Batman.

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