This column ran on Sept. 11, 2002, the first anniversary of the terrorist attack that “changed the world.”
Did the world change on Sept. 11? That’s what everyone has been saying for the past year.
So I reviewed the past year to see how my corner of it had changed. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I helped put together this newspaper. World-shaking events swirled around us like a hurricane, but we stayed in the eye, working our usual six-hour-straight Tuesday-morning marathon. When it was over, one of our layout designers burst into tears — a delayed reaction to the horrors happening elsewhere.
The following week, this newspaper once again came together even though the world “as we knew it” had ended.
A month to the day after the attacks, I stood on the 26th floor of a federal office building in downtown Chicago, looking out at a breathtaking view of the city’s lakefront and marveling at what a clear path there would be for any plane to fly directly into us, which suddenly seemed like an unsettingly real possibility. Then I walked into a courtroom and listened to a judge officially and legally declare my marriage terminated. “But,” he said, in a surprisingly un-bureaucratic way, “the family goes on.”
He was right. When a child is involved, family continues. Tied still by our mutual love for our son, we have done our best, and in the process, I learned a post-Sept. 11 lesson about what’s real and lasting.
In January, my father went into the hospital. Surgery is tough on a 77-year-old in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease. He stayed in West Suburban Hospital for a long time. I wouldn’t have bet on him surviving, and if he did, I wouldn’t have bet on him being able to continue living at home. He proved me wrong on both counts, and I re-learned what I first learned as a boy: That I should never underestimate my dad.
I also learned a post-Sept. 11 lesson about the resiliency of the human body and spirit from an old man who wasn’t ready to give up on life, however diminished that life might be.
In March, I moved into a new apartment in downtown Oak Park — more room, meaning more space for my son, as I slowly begin to create a second home for him and a home for myself. It’s three flights up, so the move was physically taxing, and the disorientation of dislocation unsettled my life for weeks. But I’m learning what it means to make a living space an expression of who you are, and in the process, I’m learning more about who I am.
In June, I turned 50, three days before my son graduated from high school. A couple of weeks later, I flew to South Carolina, my first acquaintance with the increased security at airports, and wondered vaguely what I would do if my plane were hijacked. I spent a week on the beach with four friends from high school and contemplated growing older with grace and acceptance. I learned that turning 50 could be an occasion for genuine celebration.
In August, we drove my son to college. I learned that it’s almost impossible to say a proper goodbye at such moments, but how you say goodbye isn’t as important as both of you recognizing not only how much you’ve shared, but also how much still lies ahead. After 9/11, I realize how lucky that makes me.
Though it doesn’t begin to compare with the families and loved ones of the victims, since Sept. 11 of last year I’ve learned a few lessons about what love demands of us. Everyone’s life has changed in ways large and small since last September. In the post-Sept. 11 world, there are only two certainties:
The world will change, and life goes on.
Ten years later, a few lessons I’ve learned from 9/11:
1) Americans are truly remarkable in times of national trauma.
2) Some politicians will take advantage of a national trauma to advance their questionable political agenda.
3) Lashing out mindlessly in revenge (Iraq) usually has unanticipated (and unwelcome) consequences.
4) When you seek justice, go after the real perpetrator (Osama bin Laden), not some convenient villain (Saddam Hussein).
5) Never combine two wars with massive tax cuts.
6) Never underestimate a determined opponent.
7) We have increased our security, but we can never guarantee our security.
8) If you adopt the methods of the bad guys to defeat the bad guys, you will eventually become the bad guys.
9) Don’t react to an attack in ways that make the rest of the world lose sympathy for you, thereby making your enemy’s job easier.
10) To defeat your enemy, learn from your own mistakes and shortcomings.