This week, I had the privilege of sitting down with three remarkable young women who all had parents who died in the north tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
And here is what I learned: America, you need to listen to your daughters.
They're tough. Anne Earthman was 11 when her mother died on the 34th floor, 12 when they found her body almost a year later. And that was the day she decided she needed to do something to protect her family and her country. Now she's 21 and majoring in criminal justice at college; she hopes to someday work at the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
They're smart. Alexandra Wald, now 23, could have turned away from any mention of the fundamentalist branch of the religion so many blamed for the death of her father. Instead, she studied Arabic and the Islamic faith so she could better understand the broader world and her place in it. She has been an intern at the Department of Homeland Security and she wants to join the intelligence community, so that we never have another 9/11 again.
They're caring. Susan Esposito Lombardo overcame her grief and anger to start the only bereavement center for kids in Manhattan. After the loss of her beloved father, she wants to insure that no child is left alone and unheard after the death of a parent. A Caring Hand, the center she founded, isn't just for 9/11 sons and daughters, it's for children who have lost parents to cancer, car accidents, murder and, yes, terrorism.
None of these women wants to be known as a daughter of 9/11 nor do they want their parents to be known as the victims of 9/11.
"This is not my father's whole life,'' Susan told me.
"I don't want my father to be remembered as the heavy-set man who couldn't make it down the stairs and gave up,'' Alexandra said in our conversation about news reports of her father's death. "He was the rock of our family.''
I knew that talking to these women would be moving. But what struck me was the depth of their hope and resilience in the face of such terrible agony. They found that in channeling their pain into efforts to help others, they were also doing something for themselves and for the memory of their parents.
That's why we should listen to them. What they've learned is something that we can all learn, both as individuals and as a country. I think of them as beacons, showing us a way to a future beyond 9/11, where we think beyond ourselves as a way to heal ourselves.
These women are flesh and blood, just like you and me. Susan jokes that she started a foundation so that she would stop fantasizing about running over someone with her car out of rage (maybe you have to have gone through a death to understand that feeling ). And Anne gives you the sweetest smile when she says that she can't wait to lock up the bad guys. She knows her mother would say that she raised a "tough little cookie.''
If you've lost someone you've loved deeply then you know what these daughters know: Love endures. And the best way to honor it and keep it alive is to do something loving -- whether it's protecting your country or a child, looking for justice, or seeking a better understanding of someone different than you.
Yes, these daughters are beacons and they made me think of my favorite beacon, the Statue of Liberty, boldly standing watch over New York Harbor. After 9/11, I was worried about her. How safe was she? What if they attacked her? My grandparents, both my Lebanese and my Italian ones, came to this country through Ellis Island. The Lady of the Harbor was the first sign they had arrived in the land of the free. They cried when they saw her. I cried when they told me about it.
Talking to Anne, Alexandra and Susan reminded me that the real beacons in our lives are always there: our neighbors, our friends, our citizens and our daughters -- the tough ones, the smart ones, the compassionate ones. They have fought the anger and ideas of vengeance, choked back their tears and ten years later they are lighting the way to finding a peaceful and productive future. All we have to do is listen.
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