The Gift of Freedom: Remembering September 11, 2001

Editor’s note: This piece originally ran 9/11/12. We are running it today in honor of Patriots Day.

By Angela Atkinson

“The attacks of September 11th were intended to break our spirit. Instead we have emerged stronger and more unified. We feel renewed devotion to the principles of political, economic and religious freedom, the rule of law and respect for human life. We are more determined than ever to live our lives in freedom.” ~Rudolph W. Giuliani. December 31, 2001.

Before September 11, 2001, I was patriotic, but in an “I take it all for granted” kind of way. The idea that someone could penetrate our country’s borders and fly planes into three buildings, killing nearly 3,000 people, was unfathomable to me. As an American, I felt so secure in my country that I never even imagined that something like that could possibly happen.

I knew that tragic things had happened in the past, but I hadn’t experienced any of them firsthand, so they seemed somehow less real–and less possible. This kind of thing had never happened in the America I knew.

Where Were You?

The morning of September 11, 2001 started off like any other for me. I got up and got myself and my my then 4-year-old son ready to go. I dropped him off at daycare and made my way to work.

My company had recently been bought by another company, so that day, we were in a meeting to discuss our new benefits packages.

As the human resources company rep explained the details, the big boss in my office stuck his head in the door.

“Um, folks, there are some serious things happening in the United States right now,” he said.

When he first said it, we all laughed a little bit. I thought maybe he was about to tell us a joke.

But the punchline never came.

Tragedy Hits Home

The next few minutes are a blur–a 13 inch television was brought into the conference room and we huddled around it, watching the events unfold, unable to peel ourselves away.

Though my first thought was to leave the office and go pick up my son, our bosses told us to stay and work as usual, so I stayed–but the rest of the day was anything but usual. We brought the television into the office and took turns watching it and keeping each other informed.

A few of my friends and family members happened to be planning to fly that day, but all ended up stranded in airports–thankfully, the lesser of two evils.

When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I left the office and picked up my son. We went home, where I planted myself in front of the television to stay updated on the situation.

My brother was in the Navy on a submarine, and I received a call from him that evening. It turned out he was due to finish his trip that day. He had been under water for three months at that point, and he was ready to be back on dry land.

But that night, he had called to tell me he was being deployed again. He couldn’t give me any details–he could only say that he was going out and didn’t know when he’d be back. (It turned out that he was in that submarine for the next nine months, save a day or two here and there when the ship came up to restock supplies.)

“It’s really bad, Angie,” he said. “I’m scared.”

Scared wasn’t a word I expected to hear from him, and he could tell me no more.

I was scared too. More afraid than I had ever been before.

Everything Changed in an Instant

I cried a lot during the first few weeks after the event. Every time a patriotic song came on, I couldn’t help but cry. Every report on the news brought out the tears, and I basically watched nothing but 9/11 coverage for three weeks.

I felt a new camaraderie with every American. I saw people on the streets in a new light. I found a whole new respect and gratitude for police, firefighters, the military, doctors, nurses, the president and even the average American Joe.

I hung on the words of the president and Giuliani, as well as the newscasters. I watched the footage over and over, I watched as the fallen towers were searched for survivors.

I had nightmares, really scary ones. I struggled with my beliefs. I developed a completely new kind of patriotism–a stronger, more powerful one.

I looked around my life and though not much had appeared to change, I felt very different. I was affected on a profound level–and even though I wasn’t in New York, I felt connected to those people who were.

They were my fellow Americans, and they were real people–not just some random people I couldn’t identify with–but MY people. Regular people, like me.

I didn’t understand it, and I still don’t understand it today. And to this day, I haven’t found a rationalization that makes sense to me–so I won’t even pretend to offer one.

Time to Move Forward

After three weeks of seeing me cry every time a patriotic song came on the television, my 4-year-old son noticed. One day, he was watching one of his Blue’s Clues tapes and a song came on. He turned and looked at me and asked me if I was going to cry now.

That was the moment I decided I needed to stop focusing on the tragedy so much. I stopped watching the non-stop coverage that day, and I just caught up through a half-hour news program in the evenings, and slowly, my life began to feel more normal again.

Even so, I have never been the same, and that’s not a completely bad thing.

For me, one positive thing that came out of the tragedy was a renewed sense of love for my country. It was a renewed sense of connection to other Americans, a new perspective on what really matters to me.

And another thing–I found a new sense of gratitude for the freedom I have been blessed to have since the day I was born–and for the brave souls who fought to defend that freedom.

So, while I may never have the answers I really want about that day, I have found a way to move forward.

We Will Never Forget

I wasn’t as directly affected as the thousands of families who lost their friends and loved ones in those towers and the Pentagon, those whose lives changed completely from the tragic events of September 11, 2001.

Today, I will be thinking of those families and individuals and the lives that were pulled out from under them after the tragedy.

I will be thinking of the firefighters, paramedics, police officers and other first responders who risked and in some cases gave their lives to help their fellow Americans in their time of greatest need, those whose selfless and tireless searching saved lives and answered questions for those who lost family members.

I will be thinking of the innocent men, women and children, Americans and those from other countries, who were senselessly killed just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And I will never forget.

Where were you on the morning of September 11, 2001? How did your life change? Tell me in the comments, below.

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