A phone conversation between my older brother Marty (the “real”
doctor) and me is surely not a rare thing. Usually he tells me about
his children and his grandchildren, about his plans to retire or
about the worsening traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike. But late
in the evening on Sept. 11, 2001, he told me how he had walked down
the stairs from his office on the 62nd floor of the first World
Trade Center tower hit and, with the help of some heroic firemen,
had survived being trapped in the lobby of the Marriott hotel after
the tower collapsed.
There have been many phone calls between us since then. Our most
recent was just a few days ago. I asked him how he was feeling with
the anniversary of the attacks coming up. He said tersely, “I’m
not wonderful, but I’m fine.” He then went on to tell
me about his children and his grandchildren, talked about his plans
for retirement, and complained about the worsening traffic on the
New Jersey Turnpike.
On Sept. 11, 2001, my brother’s daughter Nancy was visiting
her older sister in Atlanta. She had been married for about a year.
Nancy was on her way to the airport to return home to Washington
when the attacks began and planes were grounded, so I got in my
car to pick her up. Locked on the radio on my way to the airport,
I heard about the attack on the Pentagon. So did Nancy on an airport
TV screen. I arrived to find my niece weeping uncontrollably in
the supportive arms of an Atlanta policeman. Her husband, you see,
worked at the Pentagon. It was as if all of the fears of this nation
were wrapped up in this innocent 24-year-old: Her father in the
World Trade Center; her husband in the Pentagon; she and I in a
car traveling north on GA-400 waiting for two phone calls.
We were still on 400 when she got a call from her husband. He was
in a different part of the building, he said, when the plane hit
the Pentagon. They had all been sent home. He was on the Metro.
As she told him she loved him, the news reporter on the radio said
that the first tower was collapsing. We didn’t know whether
it was my brother’s tower. We didn’t know if he had
He had been in the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. He
had stayed inside that time, to help with medical care. This was
his habit. I was sure he was dead. I began to think of how I was
going to help this young girl through this—how I was going
to become what my brother had been for as long as any of us can
remember: the head of the family. I tried to reassure her about
his being a survivor; I tried to reassure myself. As did all of
us, I knew that in that moment life had changed forever. I never
felt so helpless.
During the spring and summer of 2001, before the attacks, we at
Emory’s MARIAL (Myth and Ritual in American Life) Center asked
people to allow us to tape them as they shared family stories with
their children—family narratives. Family narratives, it turns
out, are critically important in a number of ways. They help families
to make sense of what happens to them on a daily basis, and they
are a way of passing on a family history that places each of the
living members into a longstanding, enduring context. It was not
until November that we listened to one of the first tapes we had
collected. We were shocked at what we heard. Sitting with his family
of five, a father began by saying, “Let’s talk about
the time that Uncle Billy was murdered.” The parents then
went on to tell of this horrific event in the family’s history
in some detail.
As time went on, we found that many of the other well-functioning
families we were studying also told of terrible things that happened
to them. How could parents tell such things to their children? Why?
We realized that, when the families told their horrible stories,
they were in fact telling them to children who were safe in their
homes, with moms and dads who were there with, and for, them. The
children were hearing of terrible things that happened but knew
also, by the security of their surroundings, that their families
had survived. The message to them was essentially this: “Uncle
Billy was murdered but we are here—our family can withstand
even that level of tragedy. We coped as best as we could. We were
resilient. We survived. We went on. So can you.”
By noon on Sept. 11, Nancy and I had gotten to her sister’s
house and began to wait. We were in contact with the rest of the
family in New Jersey. We just sat and waited. The girls cried, and
their cries were more plaintive than any I had ever heard—the
cries of lost, frightened children. Then the phone rang, and it
was my brother. He was in an office 20 blocks uptown from the World
Trade Center. He was alright.
The first words both his daughters screamed out over and over were
“Daddy, I love you,” almost as if that feeling had welled
to a level of intensity far beyond any they’d experienced
before. I spoke with him briefly; other people needed to use the
phone. He said he would call me later. I was crying. I told him
I loved him as well. I don’t think I had said that …
For four months after Sept. 11, my brother did not wish to talk
further about what happened. Along with reportedly half of those
directly involved, he elected not to talk with grief counselors
that came to New York believing they could help. He did not watch
any news stories or documentaries. He would read nothing about the
attacks in the newspaper. He shared few details with our family.
All that changed in an instant one day last January when he went
to the mailbox and found a small manila envelope addressed to him.
Opening it, he found his Port Authority of New York identification
badge—the one that had been torn from his neck during the
effort to climb out of the Marriott hotel lobby. It had been sent
to his address—not knowing if he were alive or dead—by
the people involved in the salvage operation.
He later said this moment freed him in an unexplainable way. Having
talked for hours with his wife and children, that very night he
also called me and started to talk about what happened. About the
fall through the floor, about the broken rib, about the firemen
and their strategy for finding their way out of the pitch blackness.
About the dust in his lungs. About the friends he had lost.
Here we are tonight, like the family in the research study I described;
we are sitting together telling the story of a terrible thing that
happened to us as a people. But we are here. We know that
we have bounced back personally and that America has bounced back
as a nation.
It is this knowledge of the degree of our resilience that will assure
we will never again be so completely shocked and shut down as we
were on Sept. 11, 2001, that dreadful day that changed us in such
fundamental ways. That day that drove us from a belief in our ultimate
safety and its accompanying absence of vigilance to an awareness
that we are vulnerable and must be watchful. That day that redirected
us from a parental and national goal and responsibility of trying
to prevent adversity in the lives of our children to the need to
teach them to be resilient in the face of sporadic, but inevitable
tragedy and upheaval. That day that moved us to a realization—incarnate
here tonight—that we must not forget this tragedy, as it has
been our national habit and tendency to forget past tragedies.
We must tell the story of Sept. 11 for generations to come. And
we must tell it in the smallness and warmth of our homes as well
as in gathering places like this one—large places—sacred
places. And we should tell this story to our children and they to
their children as long as this beloved nation exists. We must say
to them as my niece, Nancy, will one day say to the unborn child
she now carries:
“Know this: On Sept. 11, 2001, a terrible thing happened to
us as individuals and as a nation. We coped with this tragedy as
best as we could, but in so doing we never relinquished our nation’s
commitment to justice, fairness and civility. We were resilient.
We bounced back stronger than we were and were able to withstand
that which we once believed we could not survive. We went on, but
we went on with a deeper love and appreciation for this country
and for the essential human values upon which it has been built.
Gain strength from all this that you now know. Terrible things may
happen to you in your lifetime, but you are of us. Neither nature
nor God intended for us to crumble and fade when faced with adversity.
We righted ourselves. We did not lose our way. We bounced back.
So, too, will you.”
essay was adapted from an address Duke delivered at the University
Gathering held the evening of Sept. 11, 2002, in Glenn Auditorium.