When I reach back in memory to September 11, 2001, my attention first stops 2 days later on September 13, 2001. On that day, I buried my father, Harry Wise Brittingham, at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
It was an eerily peaceful, crisp day at Arlington. It was as if, to paraphrase poet Billy Collins, grief and loss and the need to remember were “hanging in the air and stitched into the cloth of the day” (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment/july-dec02/names_9-06.html). I try to remember what the day sounded like, but all I recall are the images: the ceremonial fold of a flag, the gun tribute, a rectangular urn the color of green jade, crisp white uniforms against a tepid blue sky, my mother’s mournful gaze. We gathered –family, friends, pastor, and servicemen and women – to honor my father, this man who served the United States for 21 years in the Navy, who fought in WWII and the Korean War, who worked hard as a maintenance worker so that I could have opportunities he could not as a man emerging from a Jim Crow South. He was, indeed, part of what Tom Brokaw calls “the greatest generation.”
But our grief was a natural one, painful, but still natural. My father passed away due to complications related to lung cancer. My father did not die in the World Trade Center attack, nor did he die in the plane crash in Pennsylvania, the images of which also are so vividly seared in my mind’s eye, our nation’s consciousness.
At the same time, though, in the midst of my family’s personal, more natural loss and grieving, we all carried with us, within us, the seemingly unbearable weight of national tragedy. We participated in this memorial service as United States airspace was closed above us, only an occasional military jet passing over. We held this ceremony not knowing what to make of all that occurred just a couple of days prior. We held this service as families waited for word of their loved ones, as they held on tightly to those who survived, or as they made their own plans for burial and remembrance.
There is the life that we live and the life that we nationally memorialize, and sometimes those lives merge. For so many people on September 11, 2001, the personal, private losses – of loved ones, jobs, plans, a sense of safety and certainty – intertwined with the public loss we felt as a country, as a world.
My father’s was the first interment service Arlington held in the days after 9/11. During that service, the pastor prayed, “Let us never forget this man for whom we gather today and all those lost two days ago. Let us pay tribute to them, to remember to live for them with honor and duty. Let us remember to serve in this difficult time.”
To serve by remembering, to honor by living.
Most days blend into other days – unless we make it a point to note them. But sometimes the threads of our lives become magnified. We become more aware of them as they twist and weave into the tapestry that we refer to as History – they are “stitched into the cloth of the day,” into the very fibers of our being. We remember that our lives are the stuff of history.
I received an email this morning from a friend who lives in New York City and worked near Ground Zero during the attacks. He and his wife were married one month later near where the twin towers once stood; at the reception, we could peer over the balcony and see into Ground Zero, workers diligently sifting through dirt and destruction. Today he wrote, “This is the first September 11th in 11 years when I’ve felt like I was just having an ordinary day and not just remembering what we went through that day.”
It is that space between “the ordinary” and “remembering” that we pause to occupy today. On this September 11th, Patriots Day, remembering is in the very fibers of the ordinary. We remember how far we’ve come to have the ordinary join this date again. And we bear witness largely by living intentional lives, created anew from the rubble.