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Don’t Wait To Say Good-Bye – September 11th continues to hold powerful lessons 16 years later

Don’t Wait To Say Good-Bye – September 11th continues to hold powerful lessons 16 years later
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BY KATHLEEN HEINS

September 11, 2001 began with a crystal clear blue sky in New York City. It was certainly not a day that you would peg for unimaginable horror. A native New Yorker, I was living in the Midwest the day that evil came to call. I still remember the shock and disbelief I felt as I watched the tragedy unfold on my kitchen television.

During a recent visit to the former site of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, I spent some time taking in the 30-foot waterfalls set in the Towers’ footprints. I ran my fingers across some of the names engraved in bronze around the pools of water. One World Trade Center looms over the 9/11 Memorial. Looking up at the Freedom Tower for the first time, it was difficult to forget that it would not be there had so many not lost their lives that day.

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At the 9/11 Memorial Museum, I was most struck by seeing photographs of those that perished that day; 2,977 in all, including 400 first responders. In their faces you saw the vibrancy of who they had been. Their smiles spoke of lives that were happy and full and in many cases just beginning. I found myself worrying about them all these years later. Were their deaths for the most part mercifully quick? What about those who tried desperately in vain to survive? It’s difficult to think about how their final moments unfolded and truly impossible to fathom.

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The day terrorists attacked the World Trade Towers my grandmother, at age 92, was in the final stages of bone cancer. We knew the time we had remaining with “Grandma Ree” was fleeting. In the summer months before 9/11, her home was filled with those who traveled from around the country to see her . . . and say goodbye. “Gee, I should have told everyone I was dying sooner,” she said, laughing heartily as her ever-widening circle of visitors smiled sheepishly and shifted in their seats.

As dreadful as the prospect of losing our family matriarch was, we knew that her diagnosis had given us the chance to tell her what she meant to us. The room where she spend most of her days, a cup of coffee before her, was a photo gallery of family members. Nothing made Grandma Ree happier than someone paying her an impromptu visit, and, better yet, joining her in a game of cards. She cherished letters and cards from friends and family members. Phone callers were always greeted with “Darling, how wonderful to hear from you!” When a hospice worker came to call she said “Never mind about me; tell me about your day.” Grandma Ree found the good in everyone even when we found it difficult. She was spunky when women weren’t supposed to be. She taught us the Charleston and hosted a dozen sleepovers complete with apple pancakes and platters of bacon. She never said no when the ice cream man pulled up at the end of her driveway.

After her diagnosis, I thought of how to go about saying goodbye. What I came up with never seemed sufficient and just thinking about delivering the words caused tears to well up in my eyes. “You’ve been like a second mother to me,” I blurted out one day as we sat together. “I will never forget all the time I spent with you growing up and how good you have always been to me,” I added, struggling to get the remaining words out.

“I appreciate that dear,” she said quietly.

I was grateful that I took the opportunity to say goodbye; a first for me. I thought a lot in the days and years that followed 9/11 how I’d passed up the chance to say goodbye to other loved ones in the past; even when death was truly imminent. I thought of the 9/11 victims’ familes and friends; those who would have given anything for the chance.

I took a trip to New York just weeks before the attacks with my two daughters, Mary and Sarah, then 11 and 8, in tow. How fortunate they were, I told them, to spend time with their great grandmother. I remember thinking, as I watched them laughing together, that my grandmother looked so much better. Perhaps, I thought, my words of goodbye had been premature. Maybe she really could, as she hoped, beat this.

My daughters and I left the house that afternoon in a mad rush when I realized our flight was earlier than I had recalled. Instead of the painful partings of past visits, wondering if it was the last, my daughters and I kissed and hugged Grandma quickly. Rushing out the door, I called out a joy filled “See you soon!” Unlike my other visits, I was absolutely certain I would see my grandmother again.

We spoke by phone just days after 9/11. “Have you been watching, Grandma?” I asked, cautiously, almost afraid to upset her by broaching the subject.

“Yes, it’s horrible . . . all those young people,” she answered, expressing guilt that she should live so many years when their lives were just getting started. Her voice, normally strong and full of laughter was now sad and faded.  Days later she suffered a stroke.

Grandma Ree passed just weeks later in her sleep. When my father called me one quiet Saturday morning to tell me my grandmother was gone, the sun caught my eye as it rose behind the branches of distant trees, winking poignantly at me.

A year after 9/11, I returned to New York and visited the site of her home which had been bulldozed to make room for two new houses. As I walked around the property, I had difficulty even remembering where the driveway had been. I pocketed pieces of slate from the rubble that had been parts of the path to her front door. Passing the demolition pile, I headed for the backyard.

Turning my back on the debris, I willed myself back in time. I could see myself running joyously across the yard. I could still see the dandelion bouquets I had picked for my mother. I remembered how Grandma would carefully wrap my bouquets of weeds with the care of a Park Avenue florist. Laying on my back, I took in the clouds moving across the sun-drenched sky and breathed in the sweet summer air of my childhood one last time. “What does that cloud look like?” I heard Grandma ask the child within me.

Later that week, I returned to Ground Zero, now a construction site surrounded by a chain linked fence. For the second time that week I felt disoriented. I could no longer recall the angles from which the massive towers had risen from the ground. A place once shrouded in terror was now filled with the hushed movement of people from around the world, making their pilgrimage to the hallowed ground to pay their respects.

Turning away, I could still imagine the towers soaring endlessly into the sky and recall my visits to the south tower’s observation deck. I remember the drink I had with a friend in the famous Windows on the World restaurant located on the 107th floor of the north tower. How we reveled in the view of the millions of twinkling city lights that seemed to mirror the stars above. Turning back to face the site, a cloud of dust rose and circled above before disappearing into the sky.

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The anniversary of that tragic day again reminds us that we can never predict how the most beautiful of days may unfold. It’s frightening to recognize that any parting may be our last and starling to think about how quickly those 16 years have passed. What I’ve learned since that day is the importance of saying our goodbyes in the way we treat each other; by being truly present, reaching out to others in need and not taking anyone we care about for granted. By doing so I hope to pay tribute, in some small way, to those so brutally taken from the arms of their loved ones without the chance to utter as much as a whisper of goodbye that most heartbreaking of September days.

 

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Kathleen Heins
Kathleen Heins has been published in Better Homes & Gardens, Woman’s Day, Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, Reader’s Digest, Runner’s World and USA Weekend, among other publications. She has also written for a number of major city newspapers. A native New Yorker, she now lives in Greenville, South Carolina.