We come to take certain things for granted.
Is there a clock ticking in your house? You had to stop and think about it, didn’t you? You didn’t hear the sound until I asked you about it. It is, after all, such a little thing, and there are matters of so much greater importance that we also take for granted. Like the sound of our heartbeat, the blood rushing through our veins. It means that we are still alive, and even given that significance, we have to close our eyes and focus on it, maybe even hold our breath to hear it. We take it for granted because it’s always there. Or at least, it is until suddenly it isn’t. And in that unanchored moment that follows between how things always have been and leads into how things henceforth will be, what could be more infinitely valuable than that we had an instant ago taken utterly for granted?
Because it is always there, like the smile in a dear friend’s face when she sees you suddenly, unexpectedly. Like the laughter in your daughter’s eyes, the shared memory of happy times growing up together, as parents and children do, sharing in it, their fates and fortunes inextricably bound together. Like the flickered glance of warm affection between a man and his fiancée, the proud hope of even better things to come in the future, the things that they will share together, the life that they will build, the lives that will come of their love – unique windows on the universe that they will create through their joyful affections, and a comfort in their eventual, inevitable infirmity.
These sounds, memories and potentialities have no weight, you cannot touch them: They are ephemeral, insubstantial.
But they are nevertheless real. For all that we cannot sense them in the customary way, we know them, and we are grateful for them, even when we so rarely stop to think about them. Life, in all its infinitely variable preciousness, is so very busy, and there will always be tomorrow.
Except of course, when that day finally comes that there is not, when all of our shared tomorrows are taken away from us.
Five years have passed since that beautiful morning, that horrible day. Five years have passed since we all stopped and stared uncomprehendingly. Five years have passed since we realized with a shock that we were vulnerable in a way we’d never been before – we had believed ourselves still safe behind our moats, still protected in our island fastness.
Five years have passed since we realized that we had, in our genius and industry, created wonderful tools that someone else could seize from us to fashion into horrible weapons to use against us. Five years have passed since we ceased for a moment from our customary squabbling, and joined our hands together, and bowed our heads in suffering and grief, and promised that we would not ever forget what had been done to us, and those we had lost.
Five years have passed since we raised our heads again from the middle watches of our grief and with blood in our eyes swore that we would extract a reckoning for each of those two thousand, nine hundred and ninety-six lights that had suddenly and senselessly been extinguished, since we became aware of the outwardly expanding circles of pain that radiated from each and every dark hole in the fabric of human existence they represented, and all of this on a bright September morn, the eleventh day of that month in the common era year of two thousand and one.
Much has happened since that fateful day. We had a conversation severally between ourselves, made plans, buckled on our armor, drew our swords and went to war, freeing 50 million minds along the way. Great victories were quickly won, and costly errors were subsequently made. Inevitably, the sin of human weakness was repeatedly revealed to go hand in hand with incredible feats of humanity, courage and endurance. Our momentary unity of purpose crested, broke and ebbed into the commonplace, as once again a disputatious nation squabbles with itself. History will record all of these things in dispassionate detail some time in the distant future, when all the heat of the moment can be dissected in cool contemplation.
But that is not why I have written this post. I do not want to talk today about all the things that have happened since 9/11. I do not want to talk about powerful speeches, and great forces in motion, nor the clash of arms, nor even yet the clash of ideas.
No. Not today.
Today I want to talk about one ordinary person. An “everyman,” that represents all of us, individually. That represents you and me in all our nearly infinite complexity of environment and experience. Or in this case, an “everywoman,” as it turns out. Her name was Heather Lee Smith, and I want us to remember her.
Heather Lee Smith.
See the words standing there all alone, isolated, defenseless. Look at them.
I want you to do something else for me: Breathe life into those sounds, say them out loud. Feel the aspirate lead the way, the vowels follow and the softly poetic fricatives tickling at either end. Feel the sounds roll off your tongue. Hear them echo in your ears.
These were her sounds, her very own. They belonged to her, like yours belongs to you. They were a part of her identity, a part of who she was. Had you said them aloud in her presence at Boston Logan Airport five years ago today, she would have had to turn and look, to see who you were; to see who it was that had invoked the ancient magic of naming and calling. That power is now faded, anachronistic. Or at least, she is now immune to it.
Heather Lee Smith was real, like you are real. She was taken from those who loved her, snatched away from all her future possibilities. It wasn’t personal – she’d done nothing for which her life should be forfeited. An extraordinary woman, she was not chosen to die because of her humanity, her intelligence, or beauty or the quality of those who loved her. Cruel and heartless hands spun the wheel of fate, and the needle came to rest on her name, along with that of 2,995 others. In a way, she died for you and me. She was personally free from guilt, but for those who had only hate in their hearts, she would do.
She died when American Airlines Flight 11, departing out of Boston, en route to Los Angeles, smashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center at 08:46:40 AM, Eastern Standard Time. The plane crashed with 91 other people aboard, and that was how she died, randomly, senselessly, almost anonymously, trapped with all the others in that plane, and in that building, in a destiny not of their own choosing.
But that was not how she lived.
Here’s the profile published on her in the New York Times – it’s little enough to go on, such an abbreviated way to capture a real person’s actual life. But there was only so much space, and there nearly three thousand others to memorialize as well. Those were such cramped and crowded hours.
Heather was born on June 12th, 1970 in Long Beach, CA to a family of world travelers:
By the time she was 7, Heather Smith had learned more about Islamic culture than many people learn in a lifetime. Her family moved to Tehran, Iran, where her father, George Smith, helped to set up purchasing departments at Iranian companies. “Culturally, Heather was always very mindful of her manners,” said her mother, Judy Smith, 53. “She said, `At least we’re not the ugly Americans.’ “
That last bit needs expanding – her mother’s larger point, emended by the Times for brevity’s sake, was that Heather had seen so much of the world growing up that she was by nature very respectful of cultural differences – she was not the stereotypical “ugly American” that some foreigners enjoy conjuring, the kinds of people others love to hate, because their existence satisfies the hater’s prejudices. To the extent that such stereotypes have any contextual meaning at all, Heather Lee Smith would not have been a contributor to them.
After three years in Tehran, the family moved to Laguna Niguel, Calif., where Ms. Smith lived until she went away to college. But her love of foreign culture never ended. Her final year in college, Ms. Smith took a two-week trip to South Korea, Thailand, Japan and China.
“She absolutely loved to travel,” her mother said. “She never had a problem putting the backpack on and climbing on the plane.”
Judy Smith recalled that her daughter had to work extra hard in school after the family returned from Iran. Her parents said that her sense of purpose continued as she graduated from the California State University at Fullerton and began working in Boston as a real estate investment analyst, first for Koll Bren Schreiber Realty Advisers and then for Beacon Capital Partners, which sent Ms. Smith, 30, on a trip to its Los Angeles office on United Airlines Flight 11.
Ms. Smith was working at Koll when she met Mike Jammen, a Boston real estate consultant who would later propose marriage during a Nantucket getaway. “I met her when she was 26 but she just carried herself as someone much more mature,” said Mr. Jammen, 36. “She would strike you as someone who knew where she was going and what she wanted to do.”
She was just 30 years old when all the promises in life were suddenly obliterated, just in the prime of her life, with so much before her – just starting a new career, just getting settled in, working on setting a wedding date. These are the sorts of things that you and I have done, or things that we hope one day to do. The things we hope to see our children do. The things we take for granted.
Do you hear the clock ticking now? The sound went away for a while, didn’t it? You stopped paying attention. There it is again.
Her friends say that she expressed herself beautifully, that her career was important, but that family came first, that she was a wonderful human being.
She loved sunflowers – and can you not see it? A beautiful young baby is born on a summer’s day in 1970, and one day as a child she finds a flower, it will become her flower, and her child-like delight at the finding is reflected in her dancing eyes, which in turn illuminate her face more than the soft glow of the flower itself. That child becomes a young woman with a career, and a romance and a family and friends and a future and yet she never quite got over her love of sunflowers. This is such a simple, everyday thing. And yet it is so real.
She wore hats. Classic lines but always with a bit of personal flair – a scarf, or a silk flower or something to express her own individuality, her unique existence. Not as part of a number, not as part of a date, but as a real person, with hopes and dreams and what would end up being tragically unvisited potential.
There was a three-fold crime on that beautiful September morning, a three-fold injustice executed 2,996 times – the first against the people whose lives were stolen from them, whose futures were stolen from them, who were brutally and randomly murdered – real people, innocent people. People like you and me.
The second crime was the howling void left in the lives of those that loved these people, those who are left behind to try and make some sense of a senseless act of violence, of senseless loss: Mothers, fathers, friends and a fiancé.
The third crime was the diminution of our collective river of human consciousness, as nearly all at once, but one by one, 2,996 contributing streams of experience, wisdom, and insight were abruptly stopped forever.
We are still embarked at bringing to justice the authors of that terrible first crime. For the second, Heather’s friends and family are attempting as best they can to fill the hollow space she used to occupy with memorials suitable to her life, in honor of her memory: A foundation has been established in her name, handing out two scholarships every year to women who pursue degrees in Heather’s field at MIT. Through the generosity of those who knew her and loved her best, the foundation will be self-sustaining for years to come.
And as to the third injustice? For that there is no recompense, no remedy.
Listen carefully: The clock has stopped. We are diminished.
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every
man is a piece of the continent, a part of the
main. If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory
were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or
of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes
me, because I am involved in mankind, and
therefore never send to know for whom the bells
tolls; it tolls for thee.”
John Donne –Meditations, 1624
That’s one name, her name: Heather Lee Smith – here are all the others.