“Be brave,” I commanded myself while riding the subway downtown.
I had whispered those encouraging words under my breath a lot since having moved to New York City four months prior. I was the girl who needed to keep being brave. Starting a new job had been scary enough, but when my new career as a flight attendant had also required that I move to the Big Apple, the task had been almost unthinkable. I was the girl who had grown up in a state in which more cows than people resided! For me, New York City was a faraway, mythical land; a place as foreign to me as China. Fortunately, with the support of many family members and co-workers, I had made the move and was thriving in my new home. Certainly there had been days of getting lost and hours spent figuring out the local transit system, but ultimately, I had grown as a person and adjusted to the strange, urban environment. I knew I could be brave, but with the thought of facing a gravesite, I felt my bravery would truly be tested.
There were only two more metro stops to go before reaching the World Trade Center subway station and so internally I reviewed my mission. I was finally going to visit the 9/11 Memorial. I was finally going to pay my respects to the men and women who lost their lives on that tragic day in 2001.
“Be brave,” I told myself again.
I had read online that the 9/11 Memorial is open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. and that more than 17 million have visited. I, however, was reluctant to go. In fact, a part of me dreaded going.
As a flight attendant, I held a deep connection to the plane crashes that brought down the Twin Towers. Although I was just a teenager when it happened, the significance of the horrific events that I had seen on the news that day were not lost on me. My father was a pilot for a commercial airliner and (Praise be to God!) he had just left New York that very morning of September 11th.
As a pilot’s daughter, I had flown frequently throughout my childhood and until 9/11, had never seen flying as unsafe. It was a terrifying moment to suddenly think that your father’s life, just like the lives of the people on the four crashed planes, could end in an instant. Perhaps surprisingly, this revelation did not deter me from eventually seeking a job in the airline industry. If anything, for me 9/11 fueled a deep desire to emulate the acts of bravery and displays of sacrifice that abounded that day. I was inspired by the countless number of heroes that put themselves in harm’s way to save lives including firefighters, police officers, emergency responders, courageous New York citizens on the scene, and the individuals on United Airlines Flight #93 that crashed in rural Pennsylvania.
My musings on these tremendous acts of heroism faltered as the subway train pulled to a jerky stop. I exited the car and shuffled up a stairwell with a swarm of bustling people. When the crowd dispersed, I was left alone at the intersection of Barkley and Church Street standing in the shadow of the recently completed One World Trade Center building. I craned my neck back and caught my breath as I gazed at the enormously tall fixture of glass and steel. I knew that a few blocks away I would find the 9/11 Memorial.
I had seen pictures online of the two square-shaped reflection pools that mark the former location of the Twin Towers. Water pours across the two empty holes which are paved in concrete brick. There is a bannister bordering the uppermost level that is lined with sleek, gray panels on which the names of the dead are inscribed. I squeezed my eyes shut and envisioned myself standing there in at the reflection pools and the moment I did, the tears came.
“I can’t. I can’t do it.”
The thought of defeat repeated over and over in my mind. I wanted to see the memorial. I wanted to pay tribute to those brave and heroic people, but that important visit did not happen. Instead, I turned and fled back into the subway to make the hour ride return to my place in Queens and to save the journey for another time.
Although my visit to the gravesite was unfulfilled, I am left with a small bit of hope that bravery is not instantaneous. Bravery, I hope, is a mindset, a trait, a determination that we must seek to find within ourselves and once found, something we can cultivate so that it can someday be used for the good.
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