Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten years ago today.

The following text is reposted, with minor edits and additions, from reflections I shared on this date five years ago.

I remember that Tuesday morning very clearly. I was a couple weeks into my first semester of law school at Notre Dame. At the time, I lived a couple blocks east of campus in an apartment that I shared with three other students. I woke up at ten to eight (this being September in the days of Indiana East Time, South Bend was then an hour behind New York) and got ready to head for school in time for my nine o' clock Torts class. Listening to NPR during the short drive to campus, I heard what I first took to be a police tape of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Not recalling the exact date of the '93 attack, I briefly wondered whether September 11th was the anniversary of that event.

I didn't begin to understand what was really happening until I arrived at Notre Dame Law School. Walking into the law school lounge, I encountered a mass of silent, motionless people. All eyes were glued to a TV mounted on the wall. Casting a quick glance at the television as I walked by, I saw and heard Peter Jennings calmly state that the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had both been hit by airliners. The impact of Jennings' words left me feeling at once bewildered, stunned and numb, yet I did not feel any inclination to stay and hear more about what was going on: I simply kept moving, continuing on my way to class because I didn't know what else to do.

In those early hours, I lot of people faced the same predicament that I did, simply not knowing how to react to what was going on. While some of my classmates stood or sat in the lounge staring at the TV, seemingly too shocked to move, others went about their routine as if the impact of the still-fresh tragedy had yet to hit them. As I walked into Torts, I heard other students chatting in pairs or small groups about this and that, some discussing the attacks and some not. Our Torts professor seemed to be among those who hadn't yet felt the impact of the morning's events - after making brief reference to the unfolding tragedy at the start of class, he launched into a discussion of the assigned reading.

Some readers may be surprised that my Torts class went ahead as usual that morning, but I don't recall feeling any surprise at the time - what I remember, beyond the feelings of bewilderment and numbness already mentioned, is the sense of being caught up in a surreal experience akin to a waking dream. For a couple of hours on the morning of September 11th, the routine of an academic day continued at Notre Dame despite a palpable sense of disquiet and worry. The uneasy normalcy of those hours seemed strange to me then, and it seems even stranger now. By the time the university community gathered for a hastily-organized memorial Mass at three in the afternoon, an appropriately somber mood had set in. Though memories of that Mass and the rituals of mourning that followed seem more "correct," what I remember most about 9/11 is those surreal first hours when I - and many others - just didn't know how to react.

As a coda to the above reflections, I'll mention an experience that took place a little more than three months before 9/11. It was the morning of my graduation from Georgetown University. Identically attired in black gowns and mortarboards, my fellow graduates and I sat together in McDonough Gymnasium waiting to become "sons and daughters of Georgetown forever," as the University President, Father Leo O'Donovan, would anoint us during the ceremony. The graduates had been instructed to sit in alphabetical order, so I found myself seated beside a Chicago-area native named Vanessa Kolpak. Though Vanessa and I were classmates, we had never met before; we exchanged only a few words during our graduation, none of which I remember. What I do remember - and what I'll never forget from that day - is what happened during the recessional following the graduation ceremony. As we marched past rows of assembled family and friends on the way out of the gym, I heard a voice in the crowd shout, "Vanessa!" I glanced over at a woman whom I took to be Vanessa's mother, standing next to a man with a video camera recording the day's events for family posterity.

I didn't make much of this small incident at the time, but it came to mind in mid-September of 2001 when I came across Vanessa Kolpak's name in a news article listing those missing and presumed dead following the 9/11 attacks. Though I can't claim to have known her, I mourn for Vanessa Kolpak, who remains my most tangible personal link to the events of September 11th. I am sure that some readers can claim a much stronger personal connection to 9/11, having lost a friend or relative on that day. I'll be praying today for all who died ten years ago on this date, particularly those who may remain unknown and unremembered.

As a second coda, I shouldn't let this date pass without mentioning the other 9/11 (which was actually the first 9/11, predating the later one by twenty-eight years). As I pray for all affected by the events of September 11, 2001 in the United States, I will also be praying for all affected by the events of September 11, 1973 in Chile.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace, Amen.


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