In Memory…9/11/2001

by on September 11, 2011
in Farm Life

I know that I am just one of many who will be posting their thoughts and feelings on this day of remembrance of the events that occurred on September 11, 2001.  I have read blogs and articles, seen photos and read captions, and each one has brought some new understanding and perspective to my life.  I hope that my words of remembrance can do the same.  This is one of the stories from my book “Walking My Father’s Fields: Love Letters from a Daughter of the Land” which will be available later this year.  I realized as I read this again today that so much in my personal world has changed and yet so much of what is most important is still the same and will never change.  For that I am profoundly grateful.

The Love of Family

It would seem that the title of this love letter is self-explanatory and universal.  It’s generally expected that most people love their families, either the one they come from or the one they create or are welcomed or adopted into.  It’s a fundamental, foundational belief across generations, cultures, languages, religions, political parties, and creeds…love your family.  I think I’ve been very obvious throughout this work so far about how I feel towards my own family and the intensity of the love I have for them.

The idea of familial affection speaks to the best that is within us because (let’s be perfectly honest) sometimes it is a struggle to love your closest relatives.  It’s nearly impossible to live near and have a relationship with your parents and siblings, in-laws and cousins, grandmas and grandpas without friction developing from time to time.  Tempers can flare over something as inconsequential as dirty socks or as seemingly insurmountable as adultery.  Those who love one another deeply can jump to choose sides, misconstrue motivations, misinterpret words, judge harshly, or withhold affection, support, and any outward sign of kindness in an attempt to remain uninvolved in personal differences of opinion and perceived slights.

It can be a rough road to travel at times, especially since we all drag along our collective baggage with us.  And sometimes when one member of the family finally lets go of his own baggage, there are others who, not as ready to let it go, feel compelled to go through that dirty laundry and stuff it in with their own bags and bring it along on family vacations, to reunions, and on cross-country road trips.

As family members we can support one another better, defend longer, wound deeper, and disappoint more than anyone else on Earth.  No one else’s studied disregard or casual indifference can hurt so deeply, and no other gentle hug and whispered, “Good job!” means so much.  We are often privy to the best and worst in each other and are by turns both less and more forgiving than the rest of the world as well.

We may love or loathe one another; we may distrust or admire or envy or pity one another because so many emotions are tied up with family relationships, but at the core of it is one basic idea; we belong to one another.  “Warts and all,” as my mother says.

This belonging requires a conscious effort on the part of all family members to look well beyond their own comfort, their own well-being, and their own satisfaction to seek out the needs of each other and help to fill them.  I don’t know how old I was when this notion really took a hold of me, but I’m guessing it was sometime around the summer I turned eight.  Up until then I had derived great pleasure in being the evil tormentor of two of my older brothers, Aaron and Jared.

We would sit in the back seat of our old green Cadillac as it cruised down the narrow two lane highways, Aaron and Jared by the windows, me in the middle, and I would worm my hand down by their legs and pinch them.  There was a reason for pinching their legs and not their arms; Mom and Dad couldn’t see me do it.  My brothers, not being as sly and devious as I was, would respond with a good honest punch on my arm, which mom and dad could see.  I would proceed to bawl and carry on with a wonderful dramatic flair after which mom and dad would launch into the “Don’t hit your sister” talk.  I’d smirk or stick out my tongue at my brothers, and they’d frown and silently threaten to pulverize me later.  I never felt sorry about this until my eighth summer when I did it for the last time to Jared.  I pinched, he punched, mom and dad lectured, and Jared gave me such a look of utter distaste for my behavior that I actually felt bad.  I was shocked.  The punch was nothing, that was just a couple of kids playing around, but that look?  It really knocked me for a loop and my mind started working.

It made him feel bad when I teased him?  He felt bad when we played nice one minute and I was mean the next?  It was hard to shed my little narcissistic cocoon; it was painful to find myself experiencing emotions outside of myself.  It would be nice to say that I never went back to teasing my brothers, but remember I was eight and it was a relatively habitual behavior.  But I gradually learned not to as I began to understand remorse and empathy the older I got.  Although I should clarify that I only felt guilty for pinching Jared, Aaron liked to flip my ears and I figured he deserved it.  Actually he still flips my ears by way of greeting, but since we live about 2,500 miles apart it has now become more nostalgic than annoying.

I understood sympathy as it related to my own pain.  I didn’t want to make Jared feel bad because then I’d feel bad.  It was still a kind of self-serving niceness, an avoidance of pain rather than a conscious seeking to do good in spite of it.  I spent the better part of my teenage years trying to understand that principle better, the wanting to perform good works out of a sincere desire.  Sometimes I got it right, more often than not I didn’t.  The blessing of a family is that you get the opportunity to keep trying.  Each new day you have the opportunity to try again to serve with love, to develop compassion, and to better understand mercy.

Becoming a mother in 1998 intensified my feeling of selfless love.  The first time I held my eldest son in my arms I began to realign my thinking, the way all mothers must, into recognizing that he wasn’t “me” anymore.  Not my body, as he had been, not just an extension of myself as I thought of him at first.  He was Ezekiel; he was unique, himself, totally new and undiscovered.  I couldn’t wait to hear his thoughts and know his feelings; and I was certain as I held onto him that I would do anything I could to protect him.  It was a strange and terrifying emotion to love that deeply and recognize in the same instant that it was my job to raise him in such a way as to ensure that he could survive without me.

When I found myself pregnant with my second child I was worried.  I honestly couldn’t comprehend loving another child as much as I loved Ezekiel; he was just such a wonderful little boy.  How could anyone else come close to touching that depth of love I felt for him?  I didn’t think my heart had room for any more love and I worried about whether I could be a good mother to both of them.

But then Ephraim was born and it was as if my heart had grown inside me just as surely as he had.  When I held his tiny little body to my breast, stroked his cheek as soft as a butterfly’s wing, and felt his little fingers hold tightly to mine, I could feel it swelling into new life, beating stronger than it had before.  I hadn’t realized until then that there was more love to be had, that it is not a finite commodity.  With the birth of Ephraim I found more love for Ezekiel and William as well, more love and gratitude for my parents and grandparents, more appreciation for my brothers and sisters, and a greater tenderness towards other children that were not mine.

Zeke was three and Eph was one in the late summer of 2001, and life was exciting.  William had worked for Doc Windom for over five years as a veterinary assistant.  He loved the work, loved working alongside Doc, who was a wealth of knowledge when it came to animals and the progress of agriculture in the Midwest over the past 40 years.  William learned so much more than husbandry on those trips with Doc.  He learned the impact of subsidies on farm families, the real cost of CRP and he saw firsthand the gradual dismantling of the greatness that was mid-America.  A desire was born in William as he and Doc drove those once thriving back roads, a desire to teach people what farming used to be about, that it was more than profit and loss statements, more than insurance claims and government handouts.  He wanted to show people that it has the capacity to be the foundation, the role it has always played, in a civilization.  He read, studied, and listened, and the more he learned, the more determined he was to be a voice for what farming could be, what we’ve always felt it should be.

He decided that summer to attend Northwest Missouri State University.  It was only 50 miles away; he would learn everything he could in their agricultural education department and then he would teach.  Little did we know then that it was not the answer he was looking for, that the education system was not geared to support and sustain independent land-owners or teach them relevant information.  We hadn’t heard of Joel Salatin then.  We didn’t know anything about groups like Local Harvest.  We didn’t know any of this yet and so we made plans to attend.  We looked for housing in Maryville, and William still worked with Doc, treasuring the last few months he had to learn from him.

It was a beautiful Indian summer day in northwest Missouri that September when I drove William into town to Doc and his wife Joan’s office.  Doc did the vet work, and Joan took care of the books and customers.  I drove over to my Mom’s house with Ezekiel and Ephraim to visit.  We sat at her kitchen table while the early morning sun filtered in through white Battenberg lace curtains and cobalt blue glass figurines and talked about my sister-in-law Joy’s harvest party coming up in October.  The boys were playing with building blocks in Grandma’s play room; it was a simple, pleasant morning.

Then Aaron called.  He knew Mom and Dad didn’t have cable or satellite TV, so he said, “Mom, you need to turn on your radio.  A plane just flew into the World Trade Center.”  She handed me the phone and raced over to her kitchen counter to flip on the old radio.  Every network was talking about it.

I asked Aaron to repeat again what was happening and he said, “They don’t know who it was but someone flew a plane into the World Trade Center in New York.”  My mind couldn’t wrap around it.  I think I asked, “On purpose?  It wasn’t just some horrible, freak accident?”

“No,” he scoffed grimly, “It wasn’t an accident.”

“How did they get an empty plane into New York airspace, right into the city like that?” I asked.

“It wasn’t empty.  They hijacked it.”

I think I handed the phone back to mom then.  Not empty?  I shuddered.  How many people? I wondered.  How many survivors?  We didn’t know about the second plane yet, we didn’t know about the collapse of the towers.  All I could think of was the plane.

William finished work early that day; I told him what I knew while I drove him up to his parents’ farm, eight miles from our little house in Denver, Missouri.  We watched videos on the TV of New York City.  We saw the planes hit the towers again and again and again and again.  Each time it was like a new wound.  We saw the towers collapse and the gray dust and rubble cloud cover the city streets.  As videos from amateur photographers emerged, we watched the same horror with new eyes.

William drove himself to work the next day while I sat, safe and warm on my couch, watching the war zone that New York had become.  I watched as images of the Pentagon emerged, as a field in Pennsylvania appeared with a giant black scar on the farm fields marking where flight 93 had crashed.

And again all I could think of were the planes.

I imagined myself on those planes.  The networks showed pictures of the passengers and I wondered what would I have done if I had been one of them?  If my child was sitting beside me and I knew we were flying to our death, what would I say?  How would I comfort my child?

And suddenly, as I sat there contemplating the unimaginable and the terribly real, I was seized by an emotion I had never really felt before…hate.  I had never known before that moment what it was to really hate another human being.

I hated, with an almost perfect passion, the men who had calmly looked into the eyes of their fellow passengers and then willingly murdered them.  The hate was so huge it burgeoned up inside me like a bomb.  It made my skin sensitive to touch, my ears attuned to more sound, and my heart cold.  It wasn’t enough that their bodies were disintegrated in the fire and buried beneath thousands of pounds of concrete and rebar.  I wanted them to suffer more than death; I wanted them to know a greater torment.  Hell was not even enough for me.  I wanted them to be cast down past even the burn of the fires of brimstone to where they could rot in the cold and empty silence of nothingness, where they could exist in nothing but the horror of their own barbarism, cruelty, and damnation.

For hours and hours I could feel nothing but that all consuming hatred.  I fed my children, I changed diapers, I started dinner, but I couldn’t move my heart past the cold of my emotions.  Finally I sat, with my children spread at my feet, watching it again and again and again.  I don’t think I realized I was weeping until Ezekiel put his little hands on my face and said, “Mommy, why are you crying?”  I told him, as simply as I could that some very bad men had flown some planes into the buildings and that I was crying because so many people had died.

“Why did they do it Mommy?” he asked.

I had no answer for him and none for myself so I just pulled him to me and hugged him until he squirmed away to go play with his blocks again.  His tender, baby boy hug calmed the hate inside, but I could still feel it threatening to overcome me.  It drove me to my knees, and I pleaded with God to take it away, to remove the hate from my heart.

I believe in God.  I believe in His active participation in my life.  There have been too many miracles and moments of transcendent beauty and strength in my life to deny Him.  This was one of them.

As I knelt there on the floor of my living room, my two sons playing beside me, pleading with the God of the universe to take the hate from my heart, I felt something shift inside my soul.  I have discovered over a lifetime of praying, seeking, listening, and receiving answers that God doesn’t just take things away.  He replaces with something else.  He doesn’t exist in or create vacuums and voids in our lives.  He replaces, fills, compensates, and redeems.

I didn’t know it but that is what I was pleading for: redemption.  And it came, as surely as sunrise and seasons, and was as painful as birth.  Because in removing the hate from my heart, He replaced it with something else.  Something I had felt twice before, only now it was deeper, richer, and more encompassing than I thought possible.  It was painful to grow and to accept what He wanted to give me—to accept a parent’s love.

At once, unbidden and clear the images of those planes filled my mind only now they were sharper and a terrible love filled me with joy and an aching sorrow.  In the clarity of that moment a thought, both beautiful and agonizing entered my heart.  It spoke to my mind words that changed me forever.  “All of the people on that plane were my children.  All are my sons and daughters.  All have need of my love and mercy.  Forgive, for your sake.  How much more need of forgiveness have my children who wound their brothers and sisters willingly?  Whom would you have me deny?”

All I could think in response was “None.” Somewhere in the Middle East there was another mother kneeling in prayer, seeking comfort in her loss; in England, New York, Japan, Australia, California, Mexico, Brazil, Kenya, China, and all over the world mothers were seeking comfort and peace in a world overrun with enough hate to fill an ocean.  I couldn’t bear to add one more drop.  There were already enough hearts given over to the cold nothingness of hate, revenge, and terror.  I didn’t need to be another one.

Love, compassion, sorrow, and forgiveness swamped me.  I trembled with the intensity and pulled myself up to the couch where I wept out my broken and newly bandaged heart.  Ephraim crawled over and I picked him up to rock and feed him.  Ezekiel climbed next to me and patted me on the shoulder.

I wept and wondered at the easy love between my sons, two brothers who had been friends all their short lives.  From his first view of him in the hospital bassinet Ezekiel had cried out “It’s Ephy!” as if he had just been waiting for his best friend to arrive.  I thought of the troubled relationships of adult siblings, marred by anxiety, loneliness, resentment, and envy.  I thought of parents who, no matter how old or young, worried over their children and choices they knew would lead to unhappiness and heartbreak, knowing every child must make their own decisions regardless.

My definition of family changed that day, and I was no longer just the youngest of twelve, or the last of the big parade.  I was a daughter of the divine, a sister to the noble, a mother of heroes.  I was also the daughter of transgression, the sister of fear, the mother of want and need.  I was no more and no less than one part of a tremendous whole, and I had a role to play on this stage of my existence.

I had to choose.

In the end that was the answer to my prayer.  God forced nothing upon me, because he never does.  He simply allowed me to see the two paths before me and let me choose.  Anger, hate, and a frozen heart or love, forgiveness, and a broken heart.  There was no easy choice, there never is, but there was for me a correct one.  I chose to love my family.

All of them.

Not just the ones that think like me, or look like me, or believe all the same things.  I had been well taught after all, by my own parents that we are a family because we choose to be.

Everyday we live we are given the opportunity again to love our brothers and our sisters, to look past perceived differences to what makes us the same in our hearts.  We all hope for a better world for our children, we all search for love and comfort, we all strive to find meaning in our day to day labors.  Each new day we are again shown our two paths—love and life or hate and death.  We walk in the paths our parents have shown us.  We forge new ones that lead us to greater understanding and peace.  We seek to know our legacy and either live up to or overcome it.  We do the work required to ensure that our name is synonymous with generosity of spirit.  We choose our place; and when we have chosen, we reach out to our neighbors, to those we come in contact with to build our family, our community, our world.

There is a need in the world for family.  There is enough and to spare of violence, bitterness, and condemnation.  It can be hard to stand in an angry mob and be a voice of courtesy, charity, and conviction.  Hard because it is difficult for some to understand that peace is not passivity and that humility is not weakness.   It is hard for some to understand that standing up for your personal truth does not equal a lack of consideration for theirs.  It takes many voices to make a choir, each member singing their own part.  An orchestra is richer for its diversity of sound—the melody, harmony, major, and minor notes all blending into a magnificent work of art.

The God that filled my heart with mercy on a beautiful late summer day in the middle of America made a world full of differences—mountains  and valleys, deserts and seas, farmlands and forests.  Opposites and opposition exist in the world, and all we can do is choose for ourselves.

I look at my brothers and my sisters, some that share no common blood with me, and I see only hearts that love as I love and hands that labor to do good.  The differences are lost in the depth of feeling we share with one another.  We draw no lines in the sand that separate us.  We have our differences and disputes but we draw a circle of love that welcomes everyone in to the warmth of family.

I look around me at the people I do not know, at the family I haven’t met yet, and I feel the yearning to draw them in, to know them better, to welcome them home to my heart so they will know they are loved, they will know that they belong.  Because in the end we all belong to one another.  Warts and all.