9/11 and Life's Lessons

UPI - October 22, 2009

by GARY GATELY

(Editor's note: Sometimes it's hard to tell whether you're tackling motherhood in the 21st century -- or being tackled by it. This is the latest in a series of reflections by UPI writers.)

BALTIMORE, -- Joseph reaches up to touch the fireman's helmet, and I tell him about heroes who have gone to heaven.

We're standing together in front of the 56-foot-long bronze memorial to firefighters who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Here, across from Ground Zero, I wonder what to tell my 4-year-old son, and what not to tell this boy who loves firefighters and would like to become one someday.

We use pencil and paper to make a rubbing of the name of one of the 343 fallen New York firefighters inscribed in the wall beneath the three panels. (Later, we'll say a prayer for John K. McAvoy, Ladder Co. 3 fireman, Staten Island hockey coach extraordinaire, and those he left: his wife, Paula, and his children, Kate and Kevin.)

On the side wall of the "Ten House," home to Engine Co. 10 and Ladder Co. 10, the bronze memorial, the first large-scale monument at Ground Zero, captures an instant of horror, heartbreak and heroism.

Like ancient memorials, this wall tells a simple story, one that is at once visceral and horrific and timeless. In the center panel, flames shoot skyward from each of the towers, and firefighters tug at hoses, shout commands, point to the blazing skyscrapers and rush forward clutching bars used to pry open doors. Two firefighters kneel before a hydrant to splash water on their faces.

Under a brilliant blue sky that recalls that morning in 2001, a cluster of firefighters amble about and talk firefighter talk. Joseph beams when one of them reaches out to shake his hand. He's awed by the bas-relief scenes of firemen in boots and helmets and the ladder truck like the one he got for Christmas.

But then he asks the inevitable question: Why did they all go to heaven?

Something terrible happened here, before you were born, I tell him, but good triumphs over evil, hope over despair, light over darkness, love over hatred. We gaze at the memorial together, and I'm thinking what's not portrayed on the bronze panels not only bears testament to its genius and eloquence but also makes it easier for us to talk about it, father and young son. Both towers, though ablaze, still stand, and the firefighters, still alive, do what firefighters do -- run in to save lives. There's no hint of planes crashing into buildings or of the nefarious doings of the terrorists inside the cockpits.

On another gorgeous September day, four years later, the talk again turns to Sept. 11, 2001, and Ground Zero.

A first-grader, Joseph still savors every day of school and relishes telling about it as soon as he gets home.

"The teacher told us about how the planes crashed into the buildings today," he says.

I gulp, hard, and prepare for one of those father-to-son conversations everybody warns you about.

"Uh. What did she say?"

I'm failing, utterly, I think, and surely, he knows it.

"We saw a book about it, about how the planes crashed into the buildings in New York. Kids wrote it."

Oh, no. A book. Hasn't he gone to the library just about every week of his young life? Why didn't we get him a book about Sept. 11? We could have explained. Just who is this teacher anyway and why did she show them that book? He just started first grade, for God's sake.

I wince.

"What'd you learn from the book?"

"About the planes that crashed into the buildings in New York and what kids saw."

"Did you talk much about it?"

"Not really. We just looked at it and the teacher read parts of it."

"Do you remember when we visited the memorial at Ground Zero?"

He beams.

"Yeah, I remember the firemen who went in the burning buildings to save people."

"You know we pray every night for victims of violence and war and terrorism and genocide -- and we pray for peace?"

"Yeah, Daddy."

Never mind that he doesn't know what all the words mean yet. I know he will when the time is right.

I want to leave it at that now but know it will come up again, before long. For now, I don't want him to know too much, too soon. Some illusions should be preserved as long as they'll last, for time will steal them away soon enough. Besides, I can never answer his questions adequately, and knowing we'll never know some answers is itself a vital lesson, but one for another day.

Later, he comes and visits me in my home office. We look at the photo from our visit to the memorial, still tacked on my office bulletin board. There's Joseph shaking hands with a fireman, and behind them, on the brass panels, it says: "Dedicated to those who fell and to those who carry on. May we never forget."

Joseph never will, I know, even if there's so much I can't, or won't, tell him yet.

If he knows that we must pray for and strive for peace, always, then he's learned one of life's most important lessons already.