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.

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Four Years in Our House

Four years ago today, I moved into my house. In that time, it’s safe to say that I have fulfilled the cliche and turned this house into a home. 

I remember the first time I pulled up to it — back when it was still just a house. It was one of those fluffy snowy days in Chicago when the flakes are falling furiously and beautifully and the accumulation is swift. My then-future in-laws had endured the weather to drive up from southern Indiana to check out this house’s potential to be a home for me and their daughter. We weren’t yet engaged, and I already owned a condo in another suburb. My longterm visions had us getting married eventually and her moving into the condo with me, where we would save for a house and move out whenever the timing worked.

But when a family friend offered me a once-in-a-lifetime deal on a house in the suburb where I grew up — 10 minutes from my parents’ house — it was too good not to investigate the possibility. The friend was not listing the house, so I hadn’t even seen any prettified, wide-angle real estate photos of the interior, just the Google Street View exteriors, via my limited Internet stalking of the property.

I can still remember exploring the largely empty rooms for the first time with my girlfriend — what an odd word to use for her now — trying to picture a future together in rooms that have since been filled with our furniture, our thoughts, our feelings, our offspring and four years’ worth of memories. As I wandered around the basement, growing more fond of the house itself and my imagined version of that future, I remember praying that my Mr. Fix-It father-in-law wouldn’t find any devastating structural dealbreakers. I also remember being silently grateful for my Can’t-Fix-A-Thing self that the house was recently flipped with a new paint job and new appliances. I liked this house.

The house ultimately passed the test and has been silent witness to so many momentous and mundane moments of my life ever since. I asked my wife to marry me in the living room. I jokingly carried her through the front doorway on our wedding night.

We have played countless board games in our dining room. We have watched hours of television and worked through countless fights on the living room couch. We have hosted outdoor parties and built a shed in our backyard

I slept off the effects of chemotherapy in our bedroom and spent six months working remotely from the confines of this house. We keep adding new mementos to our Chicago Cubs bathroom. We have hung wedding photos and baby photos everywhere.

We have passionate debates about if or when we should knock out the wall between the living room and the kitchen.

Our guest bedroom turned into a nursery where I rock my daughter to sleep every night. My Northwestern University-themed office room turned into the guest bedroom. The office-turned-guest-bedroom is now transforming into another nursery, where I’ll rock my son to sleep. The house is constantly evolving to meet the needs of our home.

Our unfinished basement holds memories of our past stacked against the walls. It stores our bikes during the winter. It hides some still unused wedding presents. Most excitingly, it holds the promise of the future evolution of our family. There are new rooms still to be created that will be the setting for even more memories to come.

We’ve crammed so much life into this house in four years.

It’s our home.


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A Brief Lesson in Humility

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You’re not humble enough. And neither am I.

I ran into a friend on my commute home this evening, who told me a story about one of his friends. This simple story was an instant lesson in humility.

My friend is a lawyer, and his friend — let’s call him Alex for the sake of this recounting — is also a lawyer. But there’s something else you should know about Alex: He has cerebral palsy.

I’m sure those two facts alone are enough to make you pause and reflect on all the challenges he had to overcome to embrace that vocation — and how relatively easy your path has been to get to wherever you are right now.

Alex’s life is a daily exercise in humility. Imagine being the person who holds up the train every morning so that the ramp can be employed to get you aboard. All I do is complain that the train is late. Imagine going to lunch with a friend and having to ask that friend to physically help you to use the restroom. Sometimes I wonder if I would even have the humility to be the helpful friend.

If you struggled daily against such overwhelming physical challenges since the day you were born, how would you be different? Would you complain as much about the petty daily annoyances that often seem so difficult and important in the moment?

If it was a physical struggle to get from Point A to Point B, I think my whole perspective would have to change. The challenge of doing simple things like getting on a train or having to wonder if a new location is handicapped accessible would probably force me to embrace the beauty of the even simpler things. The sun is shining today. Someone smiled at me.

The humbling part is that I don’t have such challenges, and yet I am usually unwilling to pause and recognize the blessing of the simple or the even simpler things. The sun is shining today. I have to stand on the train, but I am blessed to be physically capable of standing on the train.

It’s always a good time to be reminded of something that Alex proves every day: Our only real limitation is our inability to embrace what we do have.


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Three Years After Chemo: A Look Back at the Toughest 6 Months of my Life

It’s almost the third anniversary of the day I started chemotherapy. It has been three years since chemo went from being something that my grandfather did when he was losing his life to lung cancer…to being something that I had to do to save my own.

It lasted for six months.

When I think about the enormity of that experience and its defining effect on my biography, it’s hard to believe that it can be fully encapsulated in a short hyphen between January 2015 and July 2015. That’s only half a year. That’s shorter than a pregnancy.

But when you’re pumping poison into your veins on a bi-weekly basis, you start to measure time differently.

You’re measuring the time between lying on the floor on a mattress in the living room and going back to lie down in your bed. (Healthy folks call that a “day.”) You’re measuring the time between weekly oncologist visits. You’re measuring the time between meals you’re forcing yourself to eat. You’re measuring the time between when you start to feel a little bit better and when you have to go back for more poison.

I was dealt the cruel hand of starting out with a treatment plan calling for three months of chemo that suddenly evolved into six months somewhere around the middle of the first three. Time seems to move a lot slower when you think you’re halfway done with something and it turns out that you’re further back than where you were when you started.

When other people find out you had chemo, you get instant credibility. You must be so strong. So resilient. It’s unimaginable having to go through that. They can’t believe you actually did it.

Chemo 10 of 12. No eyebrows is a great look.

The distance from the chemo experience and the relative lack of reoccurence scares in its wake has led me to sometimes rewrite the narrative in my mind. I think back to how it “wasn’t really that bad” and that maybe I don’t even deserve to claim the vaunted title of cancer survivor, with all its rights and privileges and instant respect. There are so many others who have it so much worse and are fighting so much harder. But that’s no way to honor my own struggle or the struggle of anyone who battles cancer. Chemo is chemo. We were all worthy opponents and we are now blessed and thankful survivors.

But heroism and strength aren’t exhibited simply by doing something that you’re forced to do. It’s the way you endure it that defines you, and there’s something about cancer — for all its wickedness — that seems to bring out the best in its victims.

You are a cancer survivor long before you can actually claim to have survived cancer. Chemo puts you in survival mode.

No matter how much time has passed, there are things about chemo that I will never forget. Dreading the appointment all morning. My wife coming home early from work to join me for the treatment. Putting the chemo parking pass on our dashboard so we could park right by the hospital door. The distinct smell of the waiting room, where insipid daytime television droned on, oblivious to all the sick and worried people watching there. Being the youngest person — by a mile — in that waiting room.

Accessing my port for my first chemo treatment.

Unbuttoning the first few buttons of my shirt so the nurse could access my port for the day. The smell of the disinfectant solution applied to my port before they inserted the needle. The unpleasant pressure and pinch of the needle entering the foreign lump on my chest just above my heart. Watching the vial of blood fill up and knowing I wouldn’t get woozy like I did when they drew from my arm. Getting my port flushed and cramming animal crackers into my mouth to hide the taste of the saline.

Settling into our chemo room and putting the pink pillow behind my head on the less-than-comfortable recliner. Debating whether we would get the nice nurse or the cranky nurse. Getting the cranky nurse. The first round of painkillers and anti-nausea medication that sometimes had weird side effects that almost made me nauseous. The impossible-to-fight feeling of drowsiness that would overtake me. Drifting in and out of a weird sleep to the sounds of the “Arrested Development” episode that we watched on my laptop as a distraction.

Awaking more fully when it was time for the nurse to switch out the IV bag. Getting up to pee and dragging the IV stand behind me. The nauseating metallic taste of the “red devil” component of chemo that the nurse had to manually and all-too-slowly push into my IV line. Desperately munching more animal crackers and wondering how I got to this point and how I could possibly keep doing this.

Enduring the short drive home in a semi-nauseated, completely exhausted state. Collapsing into bed without knowing what time it was or what time it would be when I awoke. Finally waking up and feeling a tad more human. Hearing my wife making dinner in the kitchen, but knowing I wouldn’t really want to eat any of it.

I did that 12 times. I’m not sure if that sounds like a lot or a little, but it certainly felt like enough.

Now that I’m healthy, it’s easy to sometimes feel a disconnect from the person who went through all of that, even though it changed me forever in so many ways. I see the fading scar on my neck from my surgery and on my chest from my port, and I feel like someone who was abducted by aliens. In this case, the bodysnatcher was cancer. The scars help me know it wasn’t just a dream.

There was undeniably so much good that came out of this experience, and I think of that often. But when I reach the anniversary of various stages of my cancer fight, it’s important for me to remind myself of these grittier details and memories.

“Remission” too often means being remiss in my pledge to never take my good health for granted again.

And neither should you.

Acting Your Age: When Will I Feel Like A Real Grown-Up?

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Today I turn 35 — a number so foreignly close to 40 that I’m questioning its veracity before I even finish typing this sentence. I was born in 1982, which puts me in that confusing is-he-or-isn’t-he camp of “cusper” millennials who remember the eras when phones had cords and Facebook was just for college students. I feel too old to be on Snapchat, but not too old to understand the appeal. I feel too young to already be a decade into my career, but not too young to be in a managerial role commensurate with my skills and experience.

Mostly I guess I just can’t account for the passage of 35 years — especially the last 10. Time is flying, a condition that marriage and parenthood have only exacerbated. At this rate, it seems that I’ll be 50 before I know it. But when I am 50, I’m sure I’ll have no trouble knowing it.

For now though, I’m 35. As it is, I woke up this morning feeling roughly the same as I did when I was 25. Despite an unexpected and victorious cancer fight, I have no physical indications that the hill is approaching and I’m bound to go over it. Sure, when I look in the mirror, there’s a little less hair on top and a little more thickness around the middle than I’d like, but my daily activities are still blessedly unconfined by my advancing age. I can run. I can jump. I can accidentally sleep in an awkward position and wake up with minimal stiffness.

Physical abilities aside though, I sometimes feel like I’m still waiting for a switch to flip me psychologically into adulthood. I’m waiting for the secondary Pinocchio moment: When do I go from Real Boy to Bonafide Adult?

Now I’m well aware that I have been “hashtag adulting” for quite some time. I know this because whenever I see someone use that insipid hashtag, it’s usually describing some mundane activity that is par for the course of my everyday life and not something I’m compelled to brag about on social media. That kind of restraint is a sure sign of adulthood, right?

I also know that I’m not the youngest generation in the workforce anymore. When I walk into the office lunchroom and hear someone say that the food truck grub they’re eating is “straight fire” or that they are “low-key in love with the new Taylor Swift album,” I have no idea what they mean and little interest in finding out. I must be an adult — I’m officially out of touch.

When I pull up in the car that I’ve owned for several years to the house whose mortgage gets the bulk of my paycheck to greet my pregnant wife of three years and my one-year-old daughter, I guess I realize just how embedded in adult life I really am.

When one of my parents has a health scare or a knee replacement or a number that starts with 6 on their birthday cake, I realize that they are swiftly moving into the years when I will be taking more care of them than the other way around. It’s an inevitable role reversal that is decidedly adult.

But none of this makes me feel any older — it all just leaves me confused about where the time has gone and wondering if I need to start acting my age. And then I start wondering what that even means.

In some ways, I think social media is responsible for my inability to feel like a real adult. It has turned us all into perpetual 14-year-olds, snapping selfies as we pay our bills and raise our children. Maybe recent generations of adults are just more self-absorbed than their predecessors. Adults be #adulting, and we want the world to know it. If we pass a major life milestone (or even a mundane one) and we haven’t marked it with a commemorative digital record, did it really happen?

I used to joke disbelievingly in college about still being on Facebook in my 30s, sharing photos of my children. Well…been there, done that. And it doesn’t even seem so weird anymore. All of this leaves me wondering if perhaps adulthood is a myth and no one ever fully accepts the title of “adult.” Maybe even the “established” adults in my life are holding mental images of themselves as 20-somethings and experiencing the same confusion I am about where the time has gone — but they’re wondering where the last 30 years went, while I’m only questioning the last 10.

So if adulthood is a myth, perhaps what I’m really seeking is a worthier pursuit: maturity. Between marriage and children, I think the realities and responsibilities of maturity are slowly coming into focus for me — no matter how young I feel or how many social media posts I share each day. True maturity has less to do with playing the part of a “serious” adult who is too mature to participate in certain behaviors than it does with the ongoing recognition that life is more meaningful when you’re living it in the service of those around you — whether that’s your spouse, your kids, your family or your community. A life lived for others is a life well-lived. Maturity is recognizing your gifts and talents, and using them toward a purpose outside of yourself and your own self-interests. You can do all of that and still enjoy tweeting memes or live-streaming your daughter’s Saturday morning playtime on Facebook.

If my next 35 years are a similar blur to my first 35, I hope I’m looking back as one happily mature 70-year-old who left a wake of kindness, service and love — and who’s just fine with still not technically feeling like an adult. I wonder what the hashtag will be for my retirement party.