SMALL MOMENTS – TWENTY YEARS LATER

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

This week, as we approach the 20th 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 hughesMelissa 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 a passion for life and adventure.  Melissa married her sweetheart, Sean Hughes just a year prior to her death.

On that fateful morning of September 11 she was attending a meeting on the 101st floor of the North Tower when the first plane struck just six floors below her.  Many people remember her for the harrowing voicemail she left for 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 bank where I worked had several divisions housed in the World Trade Center; three of our employees died that day.  But somehow, amongst the overwhelming tales of tragedy on September 11, Melissa’s is the one that stood out for me.  I was not alone.  Melissa’s final words resonated with a lot of people; thousands wrote on her memorial website.  Her phone message to Sean was played on news casts numerous times in the weeks following 9/11.  Each time I heard it I teared up .

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.

There were thousands of sad stories that day about love lost and children orphaned, but somehow Melissa’s story, above all the others, resonated with me.  I think that was partially due to some life experiences we had in common.  I had also made business trips from San Francisco to the North tower at the World Trade Center.  I remember navigating its Byzantine elevators and escalators as I rushed to early morning meetings, just as Melissa must have done that morning.  Melissa’s wedding photo also brought back memories for me; she and Sean were married in Napa, California, close to where I grew up, so I knew she also appreciated that beautiful part of the country.  But it was more than the similar business trips and her wedding venue that stayed with me; it was her voicemail to Sean that was seared into my brain.

MHH North Tower (Medium)

Her final words to Sean started me thinking about my own life.  My husband had taken early retirement in 1996.  By 2001 he was anxious to travel, spend time with our new grandson, and enjoy time with friends.  I wanted to continue working.  But I kept thinking about Melissa’s message.  What if that had been me?  Is that how I would want to die, without ever having enjoyed the life 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 bank received bomb threats in our major office buildings around the country and we were constantly on alert. Of course, all of the threats 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 fly 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 against a car accident or a terminal illness.

So the first week of November, after the initial frenzy died down, I told my boss that I wanted to resign.  We negotiated that I would stay until March, 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 successful projects or 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 the highlight of the trip.  When I was planning our visit I read that it was preferable to purchase tickets in advance,  so on February 24 I ordered ours from their website.  On that same day I received a message that I had a new comment on my 2011 post about Melissa.  I thought that was a coincidence – that maybe something that I had typed when researching the September 11 Memorial 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 a 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 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.

Note: On Saturday, September 11, I will publish my piece about the September 11 Memorial and Museum.

21 comments on “SMALL MOMENTS – TWENTY YEARS LATER

  1. A wonderful essay about a brave and loving young woman who knew her priorities well even and that tender age. She lives on in you, her family, friends and now your readers. Well done, and thank you!

    I never worked there but lunched there once and was very apprehensive about the height etc. I left early and was grateful to be back on earth. I worked the day of the attack in Phoenix after hearing the news. A customer needed something over the phone which I helped her with. Then she said in a mean tone, “You do not even know what is happening do YOu?” I replied , ” I do know and I came into the office to help people.” She did not respond. I grew up in New JErsey and visited NYC and worked there for several years for several different companies. It was and is one of my favorite cities. I miss it and my home state and the shore and all the memories with parents, grandparents, aunts and uncle who are no longer with us. While watching films of the event last night and the evacuation by ferry boats which I did not know, tears of loss, pain, pride in the valiant New Yorkers who found humor even that day, and patched up the city again…freely flowed and I was transported back to good times and bad summing up 76 years in one never to be forgotten event. Coffee with a loved one? You bet!

    • Thanks for your note, Fran. I agree that it does get harder to remember those we’ve lost as we age. I can certainly understand why you miss NYC – it’s still a great city, despite it’s problems. And for you, it will always be home. You’re very lucky.

  2. What a touching and heartfelt article, Suzanne.
    As you know, I went to New York as a crisis counselor
    shortly after this tragedy. I would love to know how especially one family is doing. I counseled with two very young kids who lost both parents. When I returned to see how all were doing, their aunt refused to let us see each other because they were becoming too attached to me. Broke my heart and probably theirs!

    • That is so sad, Janet. That aunt sure wasn’t doing those kids any favor by denying them your counseling. Hope you are able to connect with them some day. xo

  3. Beautifully said. I too am so thankful I stopped working when I did because I cherish the time I had left with my husband. I had similar work experiences going to the World Trade Center. Melissa’s story will not be forgotten.

  4. So very special and doubly meaningful as our group of friends begin to think about the final chapter of life. We must take every day and be thankful for what God has provided us, family friends, life and could continue on, must be more thankful!!!! Enjoy today!❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

  5. Yes, a wonderful memory and tribute. I think many of us are on edge as the 20th anniversary of that horrible day approaches following the events of the past weeks.
    I am in a constant state of prayer.

  6. Here I am on the 6th of Sept. 2021, wondering how different the 20th Anniversary of Sept 11th will be. I know that I personally am much more angry at 78 years old than I was at 58.

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