I had come to New York to help make a difference after the horrific attacks. Little did I know how 9-11 would directly impact my life in the years to follow.
Our church group had come to New York to help paint and wallpaper a building that had been damaged during the 9-11 attacks. The building was being used to house families that lost everything after that unforgettable day, and we wanted them to have the best. My wallpapering skills left much to be desired, but the people who had no homes were very grateful for our efforts, even if every line in the wallpaper wasn't completely straight.
After meeting those who had been affected by the attacks, I wanted to visit the place where their loved ones were lost. I had visited the twin towers just a few years earlier, but this visit was excruciatingly different.
As I approached the observation deck, at Ground Zero, I was not prepared for the emotional walk I took toward that crater where the towers once stood. Pictures of missing family members, letters from children, and flowers lined the walls of the observation deck. Seeing it on television had been one thing. Reading letters where children, spouses, parents and friends were pleading for any information about their missing loved ones was entirely different. The reality was almost unbearable. I will never forget one particular letter from a broken-hearted mom. It simply said, “Dear God, please find my son. I miss him.”
As I reached the top of the platform and peered through the holes of the gate that surrounded Ground Zero, I froze. Watching the workers breathing through their blue masks, carefully dig through the debris, I couldn't help but wonder what was going through their minds. What had they seen that we would never know? How would they move forward after this job was done? I silently prayed for the workers and for those whose loved ones lay buried in the unending debris of twisted steel. I then placed three small flags in the fence and “flew them” over Ground Zero to represent my parents, my grandmother and myself. I was not married at the time, but hoped to share my flag with my own family someday. Since no one was allowed to leave anything on the fence, I quietly removed the flags, placed them in my bag and walked back down the ramp.
Three years after my trip to New York, I married a man whose son I had taught fourteen years earlier when I was a first grade teacher. My future husband was a single father at the time I was teaching his son and I remember vividly that his little boy named Sean did not have a mom. Teachers aren’t supposed to have favorites, but even then, I was drawn to this little boy in a special way.
One thing I especially remembered about Sean is how he would fly his fingers in my classroom like an airplane. I always had to say, “Sean Perry, land that plane.” Little did I know that one day I would have the privilege of watching Sean's dream of being a pilot become reality. It was a proud moment when I watched him walk out of the tunnel at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado and receive his diploma from the Vice President of the United States. I will never forget as he turned to me in the middle of one thousand soldiers dressed in their finest uniforms. He looked up in the stands at his father and I and mouthed three simple words, “I love you.” Immediately, my mind raced back to those days in Manhattan: the crushed metal, the men in blue masks, and the cross that was raised in the middle of it all. Now MY son was going to protect and defend all those whose letters and pictures once lined the walls of the observation deck. As I watched Sean walk the stage, I silently prayed a similar prayer to the one I had seen from that desperate mother, “Dear God, please protect my son. I will miss him.”
Sean is now currently flying C-17's for the United States Air Force. When I begin to miss him or become fearful, I remember those solemn days I spent in Manhattan after 9/11. I remember the cross that stood tall in the middle of the twisted debris. Not only does my son proudly serve our country, he proudly serves the One who holds him every step of the way.
I recently gave Sean the little flag that I flew at Ground Zero. It stands as a remembrance to me of the day we lost so many of our fellow citizens. And it reminds me why Sean and so many other brave men and women continue to stand in the gap. I will fly that little flag proudly until Sean, and all of our brave soldiers, return home safely.