9/11 Never Really Goes Away…Nor Should It.

The hashtag #NeverForget, a seemingly cliche sentiment that is trotted out every September 11th without fail, is also just a truthful description of my feelings about that fateful day.

I will never forget. Even if I wanted to, I can’t forget.

Having spent the past few days in New York City for the first time and staying in a hotel that was about a block from the 9/11 Memorial, my memories of and emotions about the events of that devastating Tuesday were more palpable than they usually have been in the subsequent 16 years.

For my work with Catholic Extension, I was traveling to the Big Apple with a group of about 35 religious sisters. Even in a city that’s seen it all, many people stopped to take photos of our caravan as we roamed the streets of New York.

I arrived a day before the sisters and explored the neighborhood surrounding my hotel, which included all of the new World Trade Center structures and the memorial. As I walked the streets, I wondered how many of the businesses I passed were there in 2001. How many of the people walking and working around me had experienced those acts of terrorism firsthand or knew someone who had died? How did they even begin the physical cleanup process, much less the emotional one?

I have read so many accounts of the chaos in the streets after the planes hit — as the buildings swayed precariously and bodies fell from the sky. I have seen hundreds of photos and video of everything covered in dust — including people who walked around in an astounded, confused daze after their workday or New York vacation had taken a turn for the horrific.

I had nightmares about the attacks and the haunting images of people jumping from the burning buildings for months after September 11th — and I had no direct connection to anyone who lived through or died from the experience. I can’t imagine what it was like for the people who did…or what it continues to be like.

The effects of 9/11 continue to rear their ugly head to this day. Even while I was in New York, there was a headline about a ferry captain who saved hundreds who just died of cancer related to the toxins released by the collapse of the buildings — like so many others who lived through the experience only to tragically die from it years later.

The memorial itself is beautiful and moving. Two separate square fountains take up the footprint of the twin towers, with water flowing endlessly downward into a square hole in the middle of the base of the structures. The outer edges of the squares are enscribed with the names of everyone who perished: office workers, firefighters, police officers, tourists — I even saw a reference to the unborn child of one of the victims who was pregnant. Loved ones commemorate the birthday of their beloved deceased by placing white flowers on their name. There were several flowers on display yesterday.

The sisters — all from Latin American countries — prayed a rosary next to one of the memorial fountains. A young sister from Puerto Rico — who couldn’t have been very old when 9/11 occurred — seemed particularly moved by the experience and led a beautiful prayer asking for God’s grace on the victims and their families and for mercy for the people who commited the atrocity.

Of all the exciting attractions that I wanted to experience in New York, this was one place to which I always felt called to make a pilgrimage. The experience reminded me anew of why I will never forget — and why we can’t.

Missing Joyce

147HI saw Joyce this morning.

I stepped out of the train station into the crisp air of a perfectly autumnal day in Chicago, checked the crosswalk signal, and proceeded through the intersection.

Joyce was a few steps ahead of me.

I saw her dark blonde, shoulder-length hair and when she turned to cross another street, I saw her smile— her default face that always faced the world.

But it wasn’t Joyce. It couldn’t be Joyce.

The world hasn’t seen that default smile in more than five years. The world has also missed the more joyous version of that smile that so easily spread across her face and on to the faces of those around her.

So as I continued walking to my office this morning, I found myself suddenly missing Joyce — despite the fact that I barely knew her and had not thought of her in years.


Remembering Robin Williams, One Year Later

One year ago today, I remember getting a text from a friend with a message that left me stunned and chilled.

Robin Williams is dead!

I immediately jumped on my phone in disbelief and Googled it for myself. It couldn’t be true, could it? I remembered hearing recently that he had voluntarily checked back into rehab, but I also had randomly started following his Facebook page and seen upbeat posts (from him or his publicist) about the upcoming Night at the Museum sequel.

But it was true. Robin Williams, a boundless source of energy, laughter and mirth, had committed suicide. And I felt a shocked sadness and a keen sense of loss–as acutely as if a not-so-distant relative had unexpectedly passed away. Over the next week, as I rewatched Mrs. Doubtfire and Aladdin and sought out numerous Robin Williams tributes on TV and YouTube, I found myself tearing up rather frequently–and also struggling to understand why his death was hitting me (and seemingly many others) so particularly hard.

One year later, I’m now regularly blogging and have a platform for sorting out my thoughts on this. I think the answer lies in both his body of work (as I’ve previously discussed, Robin Williams reigned supreme at the box office throughout my 1990s childhood) and the somewhat hidden nature of his tragic addiction (alcoholism) and disease (depression and apparently Parkinson’s and dementia).

When I was growing up, it’s safe to say that I idolized Robin Williams a bit. I didn’t carve any graven images or anything, but I was certainly a huge fan. From a young age, I prided myself on my ability to do impressions, so Robin Williams served alongside Jim Carrey and a few others as the teachers in my impressionist master class. I loved watching late night talk shows and if Robin Williams was set to appear, I either recorded it or made sure to clear my pre-bedtime schedule to watch it live. Merely seeing Robin Williams was enough to elicit a smile of anticipation at the laughter to come. He rarely failed to deliver a frenetic and out-of-this-world performance that left me howling and awed by the speed of his wit and the hilarity of his one-liners and impressions. To this day, I could still quote you some of those lines and a quick YouTube search of his TV appearances has validated my memories.

Robin Williams entertained me in the movie theater, too. From Popeye and Hook and Aladdin and Jumanji to Mrs. Doubtfire and Ferngully and Bicentennial Man and Robots and Dead Poets Society. Sure, there were tons of duds mixed in along the way, but who else has been that consistently entertaining in my lifetime? (OK, Tom Hanks has. But my love for Mr. Hanks requires its own separate blog post.)

The sad reality is that for all his hilarity and the laughter he provided to mbillions of people throughout his lifetime, it simply wasn’t enough to make his own smile real. The demons he battled are battled by plenty of people who don’t appear on TV shows and do killer Jack Nicholson impressions. But we expect normal people to have demons. Funny celebrities should be immune. One of the great awakenings (no pun intended…I’ve actually never seen that Robin Williams movie) for me as a fan of comedians was when I started to realize that many of them have incredibly sad dark sides to their life–whether it be drug and alcohol abuse or severe bouts of depression. In a way, it unfortunately taints the comedian’s comedy for me, because I can’t help but picture the sad clown on the inside who is too busy suffering to enjoy his own show or let my laughter bring him any true joy of his own. After hearing the sad details of Williams’ life that led to his suicide, I now find myself looking at photos of him and detecting an underlying sadness in his smile. I guess it’s always been there–it’s that “weight of the world” quality that coexisted with his childlike sense of wonder that made him so believable in dramatic roles or lent some levity to his comedic roles. When he wanted to reveal it, he was a lot more than just a funny guy. But more often than not, the mask of comedy was probably his repressive crutch to hide everything else that was going on in his head.

Robin’s life and death are also a testament to the power of these addictions and diseases. I remember watching an interview with him in which he confessed that he had been sober for nearly 20 years when a voice in his head convinced him he could get away with a sip of whiskey. That one sip led to a relapse, and he returned to rehab for alcoholism. It’s these internal battles that are the scariest–you have no idea what the person next to you might be dealing with.

I remember thinking about that when I was first diagnosed with cancer, too. I rode along on my morning Metra, listening to a podcast and fighting for a seat–nothing about my appearance revealed me to be a cancer patient. No one around me knew that I was about to embark on the most difficult six months of my life. And maybe someone next to me was dealing with something even worse.

Whether it’s cancer, depression, the tragic death of a loved one or the tragic death of a beloved comedian that you felt like you knew…all of these are opportunities to realize the importance, beauty and fragility of life. Don’t take yours for granted, and don’t assume the person next to you doesn’t need your love and support to not take theirs for granted.

Thanks for the laughs, Robin. We still miss you.

robin williams