Blog of a Patriot Coward: Where I Was, Where I Am, Where I Might Be

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Harley Davidson flagI don’t watch TV on 9/11. Partly, it’s because I can’t take another replay that tears open grief, fear and love for people I didn’t know. Partly, it’s because I don’t want the barrage of footage to detract from my own memories of that day. News ruins memory. We layer, unknowingly, images and video played over countless hours and years, onto our own original track, until we “remember” seeing, watching, hearing the entirety of those horrors.

What I really remember, which is as close to truth as I can get, having watched the footage for several days and then not again for the past eleven years, is this…

 

Where I was…September 11, 2001

I worked in an office building called Twin Towers—a four-story structure in a Pittsburgh suburb. We bought and sold raw materials for the chemical and steel industries. I was Customer Service Manager. Nothing heroic. I remember hating, after that day, that our office building was called Twin Towers. What was once a cliché name for any paired buildings like ours became taboo, became a way to thieve drama from someone else’s reality.

Calls came into the office urging us to get to a television. A plane had flown into the World Trade Center. We thought it was an accident. Everyone crowded into the conference room and we watched on our clunky analog TV as a plane flew into the second tower.

In the office, we watch the plane fly into the second tower. In the office, we watch the plane fly into the second tower. I will replay this in my mind more often than they ever can on television.

That morning, we also heard about a plane somewhere over Pennsylvania. We heard that one flew into the Pentagon. I thought, (as we watched the television, heard about the Pentagon plane, heard about the plane over Pennsylvania) I thought about the people, the hijackers, and we talked about our air force jets, rushing to shoot it down. Was this a thought brought to us by television, or did we come to that conclusion on our own?

I remember wondering if it took off from Pittsburgh, because somehow it mattered. Is it because there might have been locals on the plane? Is it because it meant our airport isn’t secure? We heard about a plane somewhere over Pennsylvania and I thought about how some boy in a flight suit would have to shoot civilians from the sky.

In this office, where I played a management role, I tried not to overreact. I thought I must not overreact. I cried at commercials and movies, but this… This forced stoicism, distance. I was in a movie, playing the part of manager, of employee, of level-headed woman. This was not real.

Where I Am…September 11, 2012

I have actively avoided the news showing the events for 11 years. I watched it so obsessively immediately afterward that I had become terrorized by information, by visuals that burn into your mind in a dirty and violent way. I was like a child memorizing a new layer of existence and understanding.

The images embedded themselves, replaying like the time I saw a kitten run over by a car as it crossed the street to greet me, like the first time I saw a woman spread-eagle on a Hustler calendar, like the first time I saw a dead body, like the first time I watched someone die.

Now I was expected to watch thousands die and have those images analyzed, hear the grief and terror and empty voices of survivors, spouses, witnesses.

No, I can’t watch or hear or read about it anymore, although getting my daily news means being forced to see headlines and occasional images. I know I’m not “normal” in this regard. I keep my eyes straight ahead when I pass an accident. Seeing someone else’s suffering, grief, despair feels invasive and violating; a boundary I wouldn’t want crossed in my own struggle to allow only my happiness to be external.

 

It doesn’t mean I don’t remember, because nobody who was alive in America that day can ever forget. I am a Patriot, in the way that I believe in patriotism. I don’t believe patriotism requires watching and re-watching a scene in which we know someone’s father, mother, sister, brother, aunt, child is falling or jumping to their death, is praying to God to make it fast, to protect their family, to spare their life.

Not watching lets me grieve in private. It allows me to think about it humbly and cloistered, without the pomp of politicians or the agenda of any one organization, without the clamoring of citizens who weren’t there, had no affiliation, trying to show they are a better patriot than most.

I remember wanting to participate last year in the 10-year memorial for Flight 93. Daughters of the American Revolution were planning to participate. In D.A.R., members trace their ancestry to one or more “Patriots”—someone who participated in securing the nation’s freedom in the Revolutionary War. It isn’t always a soldier, because there were many ways in which a person could be a patriot.

I believe there are still many ways a person can be a patriot. I changed my mind about attending the memorial last year. I couldn’t bring myself to be part of what I saw as spectacle instead of memorial. And I realized I am not comfortable with public, or collective, grief.

The flaw is mine, I know. In not watching, I separate myself from a shared moment with America. The way most people heal is by remembering, honoring, celebrating lives of the heroes of that day.

 

I would not have been a hero. Maybe this is why I can’t watch. Maybe it’s because I know that I would have cowered, would have begged for mercy, would have prayed for a spared life. I would never have been a person who said “Let’s roll.”

I remember another thing from the days after 9/11. I remember hearing people talking about how our attitude toward terrorists had changed. We would no longer obey the rules and be good hostages. We would rise up and challenge. I heard men and women talking about what they would have done, how they would prepare if it happened again.

This is another scene that runs through my mind when the images from 11 years ago return to my mind. I think we’ve all imagined ourselves on one of those planes, in one of those towers. It’s a natural response to create a life-and-death scenario. These are the instincts which keep us prepared and alive.

 

I wanted to be a different and better person after 9/11. I wanted to believe I would be the type of person who would be a hero.

I’m not. I’m still the type of person who would cower, beg, pray. It’s strange to imagine myself having come from any type of patriot ancestor. I have six patriots from the Revolutionary War. I have ancestors who fought in The War of 1812, in the Civil War, in World Wars I and II. My father was in the Cuban Blockade.

I am a coward.

 

Where I Might Be…Maybe

I’d like to say analyzing these things about myself and coming to the revelation that I am spineless would change me. I’d like to believe that when the scene is laid bare and I am in a cornered position, some previously unknown strength might surface. What gives me hope, keeps me from feeling like a total failure of humanity is the “Maybe.”

Maybe I would run toward instead of away. Maybe I would stand up instead of cowering. Maybe I would pray for strength or resolve instead of mercy. Because I actually don’t know what person I might be until faced with something beyond what I think is my capacity.

And maybe that’s the good that comes from watching the memorials: “Hope” that we ourselves could be something stronger than we are; “Inspiration” from those heroes to be brave, be self-sacrificing, be beyond our perceived weakness; “Unity” that in collective grief, a shared memorial, we move beyond red and blue to just being a big dysfunctional family again.

So “Maybe” it’s time to turn on the TV again, to start layering my freeze-frame with stories of character I can aspire to obtain.

I still don’t believe patriotism requires the watching of 9/11 events every year, any more than it’s my duty to watch a train wreck or rubberneck at an accident. But I also realize that it’s because I’ve focused on the obligation, the sensationalism and the disgusting opportunism of celebrities and politicians to position themselves with 9/11 that I don’t want to watch.

But I do believe in the firemen, the policemen, the office workers, the plane travelers, and the volunteers who worked, fought, and died more heroically than my own character can conceive.

And for them I think I can turn on the TV again.

Love, Marla

16 Comments on “Blog of a Patriot Coward: Where I Was, Where I Am, Where I Might Be

  1. Pingback: My Kind of Patriot Day | MarLa Sink Druzgal

  2. Just thought I would share what I’ve always thought an interesting story about 9/11. On that fateful day, I just happened to be working in one of the local social security offices installing a tile floor in the public waiting area. as with all federal agencies on that day, not long after the second plane hit tower 2, a directive was issued to all government agencies asking them to please conclude all immediate business and close the facility for the remainder of the day in fear that other small scale attacks may also be planned….we were asked to please stay and complete our work.
    your brother: tile guy, construction specialist, expendable human being! 😉

  3. I think your reflection of what you might have done and contemplating your reaction to the coverage of the day every year makes you very patriotic and not at all dismissive of the day! You have been very thoughtful about it! We’re having opposite reactions to it. You’re recoiling from the coverage and see it as sensationalism, and I’m the exact opposite – I perceive a lot of people treating it as just another day. I wore my 9/11 ribbon to work and there were two of us out of close to 100 that outwardly memorialized. And, one person actually asked me what my red, white and blue ribbon was for. It just makes me think no one remembers…or honors the significance of the day. There were, as I predicted, three flags on my street, when immediately after 9/11, you couldn’t find a house without one. My daughter’s in 4th grade and has yet to have a lesson on 9/11. Sad to me…too important to not memorialize, but, you made me see that even without outward showing of it, the majority of the Americans (except that one person at work) at least are thinking about the day and maybe it’s just too painful to do much of anything except think about it. Maybe it’s just too painful to think too hard about it. With regard to cowardice, when I had heart failure and thought I was going to die, I prayed to God to make me die quickly because I was so terrified while I was not able to breathe. Every breath sounded and felt like sucking water through a sponge. In reflecting upon that afterwards, I was so disappointed that with a two day old baby at home that my first instinct wasn’t to fight for my life for her. What kind of mom was I? But, I just couldn’t…it was too terrifying. I think a small percentage of us have what it takes to do the extraordinary and not think about ourselves when faced with death or terror. And, there are lots of interesting articles about what kind of people do heroic things – some of them claim it’s just personality type – those not adverse to extreme risks and those with above average optimism. But, facing heart failure and fighting the anxiety every single day of maybe not being able to breathe again, losing a mom, losing a dad, having the circumstances of life alter our planned course to become a parent – I think most people you meet face the every day ups and downs of life with an awful lot of courage – you included, my Marla! I so admire your blog and putting your thoughts out there for all of us to reflect on. You make us all better people by doing it. love ya. (Looking forward to next year’s 9/11 blog.)

  4. I just don’t believe that anyone who died on September 11 who begged, cried, pleaded for mercy or did what they could to save themselves wasn’t also a hero. They died just because they were Americans – why isn’t that good enough? It’s certainly enough for me to call them heroes. It does make me upset that we seem to pass 9/11 like it’s just another day, without remembering, without altering any part of our regular routine, by honoring the significance of the day in some way – a moment of silence, a ribbon on the lapel, a flag in the front yard. But your blog made me realize maybe it’s still just too painful for most to remember. I’ve said for 11 years that I believe the day will change us all in ways we won’t even be able to comprehend. I guess we should all give each other room to grieve in our own way – be it private, or pompous.

    • Thanks Michelle, I always love reading your comments, because they are always insightful. Someone who doesn’t know me made a comment on someone’s Facebook share that my title was insulting, particularly the combination of the words “patriot” and “coward” because by a definition from Google, a patriot can’t be a coward.
      I wasn’t angry with him, although maybe a little hurt that I think he didn’t get the point.
      Of course that was a big part of what I was questioning in myself. I think sometimes readers who don’t know me don’t realize that what I write is often ironic, like my own questioning of my patriotism and cowardice.
      In any case, it got me thinking. (All comments get me thinking, because I go into them with the assumption that the other person is right and I am wrong. I don’t know how I got to be this way but it has been surprisingly helpful in the way I navigate life.)
      Anyway, I did work through his comment trying to understand his perspective and surprisingly came back with similar to what you just said. Cowardice isn’t a disqualifier for patriotism, nor is action. There had to be people who didn’t act with bravery in the face of these acts, but they are still heroes and patriots.
      It made me think about pacifists. I would never disqualify a pacifist from being a patriot either. Another man then commented on the same post that he was a veteran and saw men in battle who didn’t act, and men who did. I would still call them all patriots.
      But I still understand the first man’s point. I think to some my post could come off as dismissive of today, or as lacking enough conviction to be patriotic.

      I think I’ve gotten to a point of rambling and you are probably thinking “why the heck is she replying to my post with this long comment?” Haha. Just timing I think. I am thinking on the page again.

      P.S. I think you will love the blog I found when needing something more personal today: http://whatstheformulablog.wordpress.com/2012/09/11/american-hero-ideal-son-todd-morgan-beamer/

  5. Thank you for your honesty, it’s difficult but so refreshing after all the pat BS that gets said today. I had left NYC for a semester abroad the week before it happened, so found out about Sept. 11 from Italian news after a day spent in the field. It was extremely surreal, and by the time I got home to NYC on New Year’s Eve the city had found a new normalcy. I feel some kinda way about it all, but, like you, I assiduously avoid news and images today. All to say, your words are moving.

    • Thanks for reading and taking time to comment about this one. I admire people who can grieve collectively. There is something about it that makes me shut down. After I posted today, I was thinking about what it is that I seek on a day like today. I realized I need things that are uplifting, that are personal. I read another blog about one of the victims of 9/11 and it moved me more than any of the broadcasts or news reports or the speeches.

      • I share with you one of the most uplifting responses to this anniversary that I’ve witnessed: every fall at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, they celebrate the Feast Day of St. Francis, and have a parade of animals. I was there in 2002 when, in addition to the elephants and llamas and snakes and eagles, they paraded in the service dogs who had dug through all that wreckage, led by firemen and first responders. The crowd had been directed to stay quiet so as not to cause the animals any stress, but when those dogs came in, the whole crowd stood up and roared and cheered and clapped and cried. The moment stays with me, and, frankly, I still get weepy when I see service dogs, because of that morning.

    • Alissa, your timing couldn’t have been more perfect. I fear writing blogs like this, because I’m never sure I fully get them across as I intend, which is always, always with respect for others while trying to be honest and taking a hard look at my own shortcomings. I never know until I hit publish if I’m alone in my feelings, or if they connect with the way others feel. Thanks so much for commenting and thanks for sharing it on Facebook.

  6. I guess I dont know you like I thought. I think you would be more brave than you imagine (judging by your attitude towards jelly jars not returned and the ne’er -do -well’s who dont return them) . Many heros find their strength during, rather than before and after a crisis…but it will be what it will be.

    I remember the dream of hearing something strange on the radio, slowly becoming conscious of what was said. I remember the way time seemed to slow to a crawl as each image took shape…one tower, another tower, and then the news of ‘somewhere in western PA ‘…where my family was, not in Michigan with me… and the fear that Mom’s safe rendezvous point wasn’t safe, and neither was I.
    BUT I realized something in the years since…I am okay with the knowledge that i am not safe…it is freeing in a way. I will not live in terror, but free with the knowlege that nothing is certain but death, and THAT I no longer fear. Live each day -it is all we are sure to have.
    take care, sis

  7. All of us HOPE we would react like Todd Beamer did that day,none of us KNOW if we would or not. Most of us pray we’ll never have to find out,a few us will or have.
    There’s no shame in NOT watching this play out again and again,so long as you aren’t hiding from it. I don’t seek it out,much like you I watched it all unfold and was shocked,horrified,sickened and most of brought to tears by both sorrow and anger at what was happening. I remember very well how it all felt,watching it again just refreshes that pain sometimes.

    We couldn’t just ignore it that day 11 years ago and we can’t just ignore it now 11 years later,but that doesn’t mean you should be forced to relive that nightmare. Once is enough for any of us.
    We must remember that day and all those who were murdered then, Your writing this serves that purpose. We all grieve in our own way and in our own time. No shame in that at all,Marla.

    • Thanks Walter. It’s so kind of you to take the time to post and give reassurance. I wasn’t even sure writing this was appropriate, but I thought I had bottled the concerns long enough and hoped on some level it might be relatable.
      Thanks again for your encouraging words.
      It’s impossible not to think about those victims, those heroes and what it means to each of us. <3

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