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9/11: Loss of Friendship, Gaining Empathy

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A version of the following was originally posted on May 5, 2011, on kerganedwards-stout.com:

Bin Laden Lately?

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was at a charming bed-and-breakfast in Vermont, learning how to be an innkeeper. Odd, I know, as that particular occupation had never been part of some long-held vision for myself but was a more recent detour. My then-partner and I had what I'd thought was the ideal relationship and had recently adopted a newborn infant son just the year before. And while we'd always talked of the possibility of moving to New England, suddenly, with reasons of which I was not yet aware, it became a priority to him, and owning an inn didn't seem like such a bad way to do it.

But as I sat shock-still in front of the TV with my fellow classmates, watching in horror as the second plane hit, I had no idea that the towers were not the only structures in my world that were crumbling.

I tried repeatedly to get in touch with my partner and our son on the West Coast, but I got no answer.

How is it possible, I wondered, that they are not home so early in the morning? Where could he possibly have taken Mason?

All I knew during those first few frightful hours is that I wanted to be -- had to be -- home with my family. That was all that mattered. Family came first.

Gratefully, the innkeeping class was brought to an abrupt close, and I found myself on the several-hour drive to Burlington, hoping against hope for a flight out. Listening to the studied calm of NPR, I was grateful for their measured approach and allowed myself to focus only on the factual. "As awful as this tragedy is," I thought, irrationally, "at least I don't know anyone involved."

2013-09-10-brandhorst.david_.0.jpgAfter checking in to a nondescript Motel 6 and getting situated, I found my way online and finally saw the email. Our friends Ron Gamboa, Dan Brandhorst, and their young son David had been returning home, having just vacationed on the Cape, and had been on United Airlines Flight 175, the second plane to hit the World Trade Center.

There are times, even now, that I question whether I have the right to call these three my "friends." Sure, we'd socialized together, they had been to our house, and we were all members of the same gay dad's group. Still, did I know them? Was I privy to intimate details of their lives? Did we have a "connection"? How well must you know someone before you can lay claim to friendship?

That we adults were all gay dads gave us a common purpose, as it was rather pioneering at the time. And I enjoyed Ron's sassy sense of humor; Dan was definitely the "straight arrow" of the two. When they were alive, I saw them sporadically, but now, in death, they are never very far from my thoughts. And in many ways I find myself feeling even more connected to them as the years pass.

2013-09-10-RonDavid.jpgAs I write this I'm sitting in a hotel room in Boston, a few days after the killing of Osama bin Laden. As I flew into Logan Airport this afternoon, I was fully aware that Dan, David, and Ron had themselves departed from the same airport on their final flight. And it was from Logan that I too had flown home, just a few days after their deaths, back to my then-family. At times it feels as if we are destined to keep crossing paths.

Watching the crowds in front of the White House chanting, "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" at the news of bin Laden's killing earlier this week, I found myself wondering if his death is what Ron and Dan would have wanted. Of course, it is impossible to know, but I can't quite see them applauding as if this were a spectator sport.

That bin Laden committed evil acts is indisputable. But we Americans have been taught to view him purely as the villain. He is hardly the first to have killed in the name of their God.

We have long wanted retribution; I get that. But what is our role in all of this? What of those in the pulpits every Sunday who cloak their bile in the mantle of Christ? Or those who stoke division on TV purely for ratings and with no regard for real-world consequences? Or those politicians who can say the worst things as long as they're wearing their American flag pins? Or our go-it-alone foreign policy, which, for many years, put us at odds with much of the world?

Surely, bin Laden's death resonates with many, on multiple levels. Maybe, to some degree, we all desire vengeance, and in movies it's fun to see the bad guys get blown to smithereens. But this isn't a movie, and his death doesn't make me feel safer; if anything, I feel much less so. And as happy as I would be to say that his killing gives me some feeling of closure around the death of my friends -- and they were in fact my friends -- it really doesn't.

2013-09-10-DanialDavid.jpgSo was justice served? Have we just brought an end to the story, or merely an end to the first chapter?

As I'm about to bring this post to a close, I am struck by another thought, on that troubles me: Just as much as Russ and I love our sons, and just as much as David was loved by Dan and Ron, somewhere out there is Hamida al-Attas, Osama bin Laden's mother, who still lives and likely grieves the loss of her son.

Family comes first.

And the hardest thing for me, when my family has been threatened or harmed, is to have a generous heart. But I'm trying.

For a great tribute to David and his family, please read "In Honor of David Reed Gamboa-Brandhorst."

Songs for the New Depression, the debut novel by Kergan Edwards-Stout, won the Next Generation Indie Book Award and was included in several "Best Books of the Year" lists. His new collection, Gifts Not Yet Given, will be released in October.