INFLECTION POINTS

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Inflection points –  events that not only change the course of  history but our collective psyche as well.  For many of us the first such event was the Kennedy assassination.  Prior to November 22, 1963, we were a nation energized by a young President with fresh ideas and plans – plans that were to be carried out by those “born of a new generation”.  When JFK was cut down it was shocking and unnerving.   And, one could argue, changed who we are.  There is a much-quoted conversation that took place after the assassination between journalist Mary McGrory and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then assistant secretary of labor.  She lamented, “We’ll never laugh again.” He replied: “Mary, we’ll laugh again. It’s just that we’ll never be young again.” Many hopes and dreams died that day, as well as our collective feeling of security and our way of life.  As some sociologists have noted, November 22, 1963 was the end of the Fifties.

The assassination changed us in ways we could not have predicted at the time.  After that, Americans increasingly distrusted the Federal government (particularly after publication of the Warren Report) and yet, ironically, it also precipitated the largest expansion of government into our everyday lives.  We became embroiled in a war that many argue Kennedy would not have supported and our culture was flush with sex, drugs and a whole lot of anger.  Of course, there were good changes as well – civil rights and the women’s movement to name two – but certainly the innocence of the prior decade was gone forever.  It also marked the rise of television over newspapers.  Everyone was glued to black and white screens, watching events unfold for three days.  And why not?  It was compelling and the only way to stay abreast of changing events.  For me, I remember watching Lee Harvey Oswald being escorted down that fateful corridor in the Dallas police station when Jack Ruby shot him.  The experience of seeing someone killed in real time was jarring and disturbing.  Millions of people experienced that same shock.  Coupled with the assassination, how could we not be affected going forward?

The next time I saw anyone murdered was sixteen years ago today – September 11, 2001.  I flipped on CNBC that morning while getting ready for work.  The first plane had already hit Tower One and the hosts were speculating that it was a freak accident.  They mused about whether it would have an affect on the stock market since so many trading firms were in that building.  Then the unimaginable happened – the second plane hit.  I watched it in horror; this time it wasn’t one person I saw killed, but thousands.  Thanks to the 24 hour news cycle we were all witness to  explosions and fire and falling bodies over and over again for weeks.  I’m not sure we yet fully understand the toll that it took on us. Surely our national mindset was altered after watching all of the carnage and grief.  A grief that I believe is still evident after all these years.

To this day many of us tear up when recalling the image of the Twin Towers collapsing.  It remains hard to think about the people who perished that day – people who left home for work on a bright, blue-sky Tuesday morning and never returned.  The very notion of that was – is – frightening and causes us, once again, to question how secure we really are.  The fear of an imminent terror attack began impacting our everyday lives that day.  Suddenly we had to remove our shoes at the airport and limit the amount of shampoo we carry on a plane.   Socially, it brought on a lot of change too.  For the first few months after 9/11 it seemed we were able to put our differences aside, but that fraternity soon dissipated and has now devolved to a point where divisiveness rules the day .   In many ways, it has been the 60’s all over again with an extra dose of anger thrown in.

Which brings me to the unintended consequences of 9/11.  At some level we live with fear on a daily basis – fear that it could happen again to us or someone we love.  We  witness repeated terrorist attacks carried out all over the world that target ordinary people doing ordinary things.  I believe that the discord in our society is, in part, a manifestation of that fear.  I hope at some point we can recapture the unity we had in the aftermath of 9/11 and once again pull together.  Hurricane Harvey, as devastating and heart-breaking as it’s been, has shown me that people really can come together when fellow citizens are in need.  Sandra Bullock put it best when she Tweeted:  “There are no politics in 8 feet of water.  There are human beings in 8 feet of water.”  Amen.  Maybe this is a new beginning.  A new inflection point that causes us to remember that more often than not, most of the time we’re all just human beings in 8 feet of water.

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.

THE MUSEUM OF SADNESS AND STRENGTH

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

2016-03-30 09.01.50 (Small)There is a quietness about the 9/11 Museum.  You can see the trepidation on everyone’s face as they enter – do we really want to re-live that horrible day?  And yet we all file in, bracing ourselves for what we know will be a roller coaster of emotions.  The museum allows you to wander through the various exhibitions on your own, you can also download an app that provides information as you walk by each display, or you can buy tickets for a guided tour.  We chose the tour and were glad we did.  Our guide was a young man from New Jersey who had lost neighbors in the terrorist attack, so for him, this was personal.  I reflected that we are fortunate in our generation to be guided by such people; future generations will experience it from a more distant perspective.

2016-03-30 09.41.50 (Small)

  The Last Column

 

Our guide first took us to the bottom of the museum, to Foundation Hall,  where the famous “slurry wall” stands.  It was a wall built to hold back the Hudson River, which lapped at the side of the Trade Center when it was built in the mid-60’s.  After the attack, when the site was being excavated, the workers were astounded to find that the slurry wall had survived.   Daniel Libeskind, the architect heading the redevelopment of the site, pushed to keep a portion of the original slurry wall in place.  He proclaimed that it was a testament to the determination and resilience of a nation; a document “as eloquent as the Constitution itself”.  Also in Foundation Hall is the “Last Column,” a 36-foot girder that was the last to be removed from the site, marking the end of the recovery effort.  During the excavation it quickly became a makeshift memorial, plastered with Mass cards, rosary beads, flags, photos of missing innocents, and patches from fire and police units.  When it was finally cut down it was laid on a flatbed truck, draped in black, with an American flag over it, and escorted by first responder honor guards to a place of safekeeping.  It now stands again in Foundation Hall as an exemplification of our resilience and hope.

The Dream Bike

   The Dream Bike

There are many displays that feature recovered portions of the buildings – bent beams, the only remaining glass window and the staircase used by many to escape the burning tower.  But I suspect that the real reason most of us come is to pay tribute to the people that we lost that day.  After seeing incredibly massive beams bent and misshapen by the impact of planes and the heat of the fires, it gives new perspective to what the people who were in those structures must have experienced.  I still recall, on the afternoon of the attack, one of the news channels interviewing a fireman who had been at the scene.  He was understandably shell-shocked and said, “How bad must it have been up there that people thought jumping out of a window on the 100th floor was the better alternative?”.  There is a room called “The Wall of Faces” filled with pictures of the victims.  It is overwhelming to be in a room, with face after face looking down on you, and realize that we lost all of them in one day.  People who set off to work on a gloriously sunny Tuesday morning, kissed a loved one good-bye, and were never seen again.  And then there are the first responders’ stories, especially the 343 fire fighters who died trying to save people.  One particularly poignant display is of the motorcycle that belonged to Gerard Baptiste, a firefighter with Ladder 9 in Lower Manhattan.  Two weeks before 9/11 he bought a broken-down 1979 Honda motorcycle off the street for $100.  He had to roll it to the firehouse and the guys gave him endless ribbing about the worthless piece of junk they said would never start.  Baptiste died at the Trade Center and shortly afterward the surviving members of his firehouse decided to restore the bike in his honor.  With the help of Honda, some motorcycle shops and private donors they were able to make it into what is now known as “The Dream Bike”.  The bike was auctioned, with proceeds going to the education funds of the children of firefighters from Ladder 9 who were lost on 9/11.  The winning raffle ticket, selected by Baptiste’s mother, went to a woman from California who donated the bike to the museum so everyone would know his story.

The Wall of Faces

The Wall of Faces

Down the hall from the “Wall of Faces” is an alcove, a small space painted black with benches on all four walls.  On its walls is a projection of video remembrances of the victims.  Each person who died is remembered with a picture and a bit of personal background information.  For most of them there is also an audio remembrance from a family member or friend.  For me, this was the hardest room to experience, hearing a young woman talk about how much her children miss their dad and a father describing how proud he was of his lost son.  There was one woman who chose to remember her husband by recounting the story of a Thanksgiving dinner where they argued about who was supposed to have brought the gravy to the table.  They argued and both stalked off to the kitchen.  She said they imagined that all of the relatives thought they were in there fighting but, in fact, they were kissing.  She said “that’s just who we were”.  Some voices were clearly emotional as they described their loved one, some sounded wistful, and others like the woman with the gravy story, chose to remember a lighter moment.  No matter the emotion, the remembrances brought all of the people back to life and thus, made the realization that they had been so tragically taken from their families all the more jarring.  Our guide told us that if we see a guide with a tan vest, that person is a family member of a victim.  Some, he said, come every day to the museum as a way to work through their grief and talk about their loved one.

I should note that there is a small portion of the museum that describes the rise of Al Qaeda and the planning of the 9/11 attacks.  There are photos of Osama bin Laden and the 19 hijackers, along with video description of how they carried out their plot.  The photos of the hijackers are placed very low on the wall, much below eye level, so that one does not have to look at them if you chose to just walk by.  After seeing all that I had thus far, my instinct was to give those pictures a swift kick.  I questioned why we had to acknowledge them at all in a place of reverence and dedication.  But upon further reflection I realized what the museum designers intended – future generations will not recall the events of 9/11 from personal experience, they will need to learn about it from history books and places like the 9/11 museum.   So the “who”, “why” and “how” need to be included to present a complete picture.

Someone's birthday

   A remembrance

We finished our tour of the building and went outside to visit the plaza and the two reflecting pools where the names of the victims are carved into the steel that surrounds them.  The pools are built on the former foundations of the two towers and are symbolic of the sadness one feels there.  One person has described the water falling on four sides into the bottomless pit as the endless tears shed over the victims.  Perhaps the most touching site I saw all day were the single white roses stuck sporadically into the carvings of names.  I had assumed that family members had been there to lay a flower on the name.  But in fact, each and every morning the staff of the museum places a white rose on the name of any victim who would have celebrated a birthday that day.  Somehow, I found that to be such an elegant gesture and thoughtful beyond words.

The Freedom Tower

The Freedom Tower

We left the museum and went for a very long walk back to our hotel, reflecting on the gamut of emotions we experienced on the tour.  I picked up a copy of USA Today in the lobby; the front page headline blared “US Military Families to Evacuate Turkey” due to possible attacks.  Sadly, the beat goes on.  But thankfully, so do we.  The new One World Trade Center, also known as the Freedom Tower, is now complete and other buildings are going up where once the ground was but a scar.  Would I recommend going to the 9/11 Museum?  I guess that depends on your perspective.  One of the guest services workers at our hotel said he couldn’t go – that it is still too soon.  For me, it was well worth the visit; it is a place where we can reflect, mourn and vow to move forward.