Remembering September 11th: An Existential Reflection

Before 2001, the date September 11th held little to no context for most, apart from those few who perhaps celebrated a birthday or anniversary on the date. Everything changed after that fateful day in 2001. The world as we knew it shifted, and now it is a date that is universally recognized and charged with a whirlwind of emotions. Simply hearing it said out loud is enough to usher in feelings of sadness, patriotism, or even anger. For those of us who remember where we were and what we were doing on this day in 2001, we may even find ourselves reliving that experience. We may replay the day in the mind, recalling who first told us or seeing that first bit of footage on the television. We may remember those feelings of fear, shock, and utter horror that surfaced when we witnessed innocent lives under attack on American soil. This is a snapshot of my response to 9/11 and the story of how my family made meaning out of this tragedy.

On September 11, 2001, I was just nine years old, but I remember it as if it were yesterday. I remember it was a Tuesday, because on Tuesdays my mom was off of work and it meant that she would pick me up from school. Before anyone had actually told me what had happened, I knew that something was wrong. Students kept getting called down to the office because their parents had come to take them home, my teacher walked out of the room and returned with a look on her face that never left her for the rest of the day, and the faculty all stood together in corners whispering to one another. So, by the time I got into the car after school, and my Mom said that she had something to tell me, I was not surprised. Her voice choked as she said, “a plane crashed into a building today,” and I remember thinking “what’s the big deal, don’t planes and cars crash all the time, why is she so upset?” When we got home, and I saw the television, I understood. I remember feeling shocked and completely in awe. I could not tear my eyes from the television even when my mom commented that maybe I was seeing too much. I couldn’t stop thinking about all of the people in those buildings and on those flights, and I couldn’t stop thinking about their families. I remember being scared that these men would crash into the Sears tower next, but my mother assured me that we were safe and far away from the chaos. We shortly found out that the assistant pastor from our church was on Flight 93. Suddenly, something that was so far away felt very close to home.

My mother, a naturally empathetic person, took all of this very harshly. I remember her being distraught for some time after the attacks. Her heart ached for all those lost and all those left behind. Years later, we found her old prayer journal. Inside, she had written her prayers for those souls just moments after the attacks took place. She even had an entry that was written before the second tower is hit and her reaction as she saw this second disaster unfold. Reading through this, after all this time, brought her right back to that moment. She felt sadness, terror, anger, confusion, and despite all this, she felt something else altogether. She felt the existential freedom that can sometimes come from staring into the face of death, and she knew that there was something she needed to do for our family.

For years, I had hounded her about getting a dog. It was the only thing I truly wanted. I could get by without the Gameboy or computer, I just wanted a puppy all my own. I was an only child, and I wanted a friend. To my mother, it was never the right time. We had to wait until I was older, until my Dad had steady work, until I was more responsible, the list went on and on. After 9/11, something changed in her. She realized that life was short, that it can end at any second, and that all her daughter wanted was a puppy. So, two weeks after the planes crashed into the twin towers, we went to the local pet store and bought a puppy. That puppy became my best friend and companion for the last 16 years. He taught me about love, patience, responsibility and joy. He sat by my side through two surgeries, countless heartbreaks, academic achievements, and even multiple moves away from home. He saw me graduate middle school, then high school, and even college. He did not make it to my graduate school graduation, but I know he would have been proud, or as proud as a dog can be. He watched me grow up, and I would not be who I am today without him.

Rufus was how we made meaning out of what happened that day. This is not to say that the life of a dog makes up for the loss of thousands of lives because nothing could. My point is that he brought so much joy and happiness into our lives, and I do not know that we would have met him had those events not occurred. So, for me, I cannot think of September 11 without remembering Rufus and his wonderful presence in my life. This serves as a reminder to me, and can be a reminder to us all, that meaning can be found even in the darkest of circumstances. Even if it is simply a reminder to hold our loved ones close and to be thankful to be here and to be alive. Sharing our memories of that day is honoring those who have passed as we show that we have not and will never forget.


By: Hayley Nelson

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