A Dozen Years After 9/11, Has Anything Changed?

In a moving letter to her husband, who died in the September 11th attacks, Hope in Small Doses author Nikki Stern reflects on how she—and the country—have changed since the tragic events of 2001.

This article was first posted on Nikki Stern’s blog at www.nikkistern.com. Reprinted with permission from the author.

Dear Jim,

It’s been awhile since I’ve written; nearly twelve years. There was that flurry of scribbling right after you vanished, but I’m not sure I kept any of those letters. Obviously, I didn’t mail them. Maybe they disappeared during a computer malfunction…or a personal meltdown.

It’s early September again. We loved that time of year, didn’t we? The sun filtered through sleepy auburn leaves, the warm breeze, the cerulean sky. Great weather for biking or sleeping; a nip in the air promising better things to come. The chance to move forward, or start again.

Hell of a time to die, Jim. You really put a dent in my favorite season, robbed it of its glow, robbed me of my rhythms. Every autumn I try to rev up the old engines, get something new happening. Twelve years out and I can count the new on one hand.

Yet why blame you? You got up, kissed me goodbye, went to work and the rest is carefully constructed conjecture built around a narrative supported by the eventual recovery of bits and pieces of the lives snuffed out in one terribly violent and terribly public set of events.

I tried to imagine you were someplace else, perhaps even witness protection, but DNA doesn’t lie.

So: I’m older, of course; a little thinner, and every bit as cranky about growing old alone as I once feared I’d be. I’ve published two well-received non-fiction books, neither of which has made me wealthy or particularly sought-after, although I pop up in search engines more often. My folks died one after the other not long after you did. Yours are still hanging in there, resolute and remarkably accepting. Your father will be 94 in November. No surprise; you came from good stock.

The rest of my family manages, as does yours. We’ve moved far beyond email in 2013, Jim; technology lets us socialize (if that’s what it is) without leaving the comfort of our homes. You were a tech guy; you’d appreciate the advances. We do so much online: watch movies, read books, buy or bid on things we don’t need, gossip about or confide in people we’ve never met, make and break up with friends and lovers. Everything is more public nowadays. We’re online nonstop, young and old: monitoring, comparing, complaining, shaming, opining, and publishing. We’re all experts. That part you’d hate.

I’m still in the house we bought together. I didn’t move out or move in elsewhere, or move to France. I don’t move in grander circles, but at least I haven’t moved down in the world. I did bring a dog into my life. It feels risky, loving this little creature with a limited life span. Well, I’ve had experience. Besides, she is a long-lived breed and will probably be with me more years than you were. Which is just weird.

I’ve changed and not changed. I’m still a mix of strength and weakness, though a veil of sadness clings to me. There is a scar on my heart, a scar that has faded with time; it hurts like hell on rainy days.

I wanted to at least affect change after 9/11, Jim, perhaps make sense of your senseless death. So I plunged into advocacy and activism. I was part of a group of like-minded friends in the architecture community who imagined a bold new vision for the decimated World Trade Center site. We proposed a forward-thinking, life-affirming plan that provided not only jobs but also educational and cultural opportunities and a place to come together. Okay, maybe a little utopian, but I honestly believed this downtown would be a model of resiliency and optimism.

I was wrong.

Death has been granted a corner of the site, or rather, commemoration. Real estate has trumped all else. The memorial is quietly dignified and the museum that will eventually open will be moving, I have no doubt. But retail and office spaces are what bring in revenue. It is what it is, as my sister says, but I don’t go downtown anymore.

I thought our nation might change as well, our differences put aside in the spirit of unity and resilience that marked the early days after the attack. Those feelings dissolved into a poisonous cloud of fear and anger. Patriotism meant supporting whatever choices our leaders made, even if those choices included a war not against the country that produced the terrorists but against another country whose dictator made our leaders angry.

I can’t describe how bitterly I resented those who used your death to support revenge rather than renewal.  Complete strangers embraced your life as a loving husband, son, brother and friend; they also recast your death as ample justification for war. You would have hated that. I hated that.

But I had no say.

The United States went to war in one country, then another. A dozen years later and thousands of dead and injured troops later, we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place, our resources strained, our citizens infuriated, and the notion of moral authority in tatters.

I focus on the tiny steps forward we did make, ways in which outreach was extended, laws were strengthened, people were helped, stories were shared. I hold onto the possibility that I was involved in ways that made other lives better. I have met some terrific individuals; I’ve forged lasting friendships. There’s a lot to be said for that.

I’ve also tried to take the long view, Jim. I think I finally understand just how stubbornly we humans adhere to our ideals, for good or for ill. We seem peculiarly resistant to change. Sometimes history mounts a counter-offensive—gay marriage is legal in a number of states, we elected an African-American president—but then it persuades us to repeat our mistakes. 9/11 was not the seminal event some of us hoped it might be. It did not break our bad habits or jar us loose from our deeply held biases.

But hope is persistent, at least my kind of hope, which shape-shifts and mutates and stays resolutely flexible, but also close at hand. So I make note of the clarity that attaches to simple objects this time of year. Each day, I write without hesitation and plan without expectation. At night, I listen to the tree frogs, count the stars, and blow you a little kiss before crawling into bed, the dog curled at my feet.

As always,