September 11, 10 Years Later: Why Stories Still Matter

new york firefighter post 9-11We tell stories to process a devastating event. So we can feel what people inside the event must have felt. To hold tight to a little piece of what makes us connected as humans.

We tell stories so we never forget.

 Sometimes we tell stories in what feels like a vacuum. With a blog, we don’t always know who is reading our posts. Who we will connect with.

Until it happens. The daughter of the fallen firefighter I profiled in last year’s 9/11 post finds the story on my blog and takes the time to leave a comment:

 Hi,
I am Amy, the girl in which you are referring to in the article. I stumbled upon this by happenstance. I’m not sure what it was that made you choose me to connect with Bella. I am honored that you have exemplified such interest in my father and his dedication. I’m glad to see the level of respect in which my father has earned among those all over the world. He was the greatest man I’ve ever met. There was an empty seat at my graduation, but he was there next to me. Thank you those for reading, and thank you for writing.

Now, this year, when the mayor of NYC decides to exclude the first responders from this year’s ceremony at Ground Zero, well, the stories become even more powerful.

Here is my story of Amy, her father and a girl named Bella.

It’s my way of saying, we still remember.

If you read Amy and Bella’s story  last year, I ask you to pass it on to someone else, in the memory of every first responder who gave so much that day.

In that way, you are helping to keep the story alive.

Amy and Bella: Oceans Apart, But Connected by September 11

Amy lives in Oceanside, New York. Bella, just outside Seattle. Washington.

3,000 miles and two oceans apart.

Amy doesn’t know that her father became Bella’s hero for a brief, shining time.

What Amy lost on September 11

Amy Gardner is a high school senior today. So is Bella.

They were both just 9 when two bombs disguised as planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers. Amy’s dad Thomas was a firefighter with FDNY, Engine Company 59.

He was one of the ones who ran up the stairs when everyone else was running in the opposite direction.

He never came back down.

Sometimes we idealize our heroes, make them perfect and shiny and good. And when we do that, they become more of an icon and less of a living, breathing human with hopes, loves and fears like the rest of us.

Amy’s dad liked to take the family canoeing and hiking. He loved animals and volunteered for a wildlife rescue organization.

He was full of contradictions.

He was studying to be a science teacher, but he also performed comedy on a Long Island radio station and had sold some jokes to Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller. He played hockey on a local team. And he gave time to the Bronx Zoo, walking excited kids through the exhibits.

Amy’s dad was doing what he loved the day he died: helping others.

Where does Bella fit in?

Amy lost a father on September 11 and Bella gained a hero.

Bella (not her real name) was the little girl I was mentoring when the 9/11 tragedy unfolded.

Looking at the story through the lens of this particular year has helped me see how these girls are connected. Because this is the year both Amy and Bella will graduate from high school. And both have lost fathers—Amy through 9/11 and Bella through divorce.

Here is Bella’s story, 9 years after the day that changed forever how we see our world.

Because we must never forget.

A September 11 story

It was the day after the day.

September 12, 2001 was a Wednesday. I know because Wednesday was my mentoring day.

I swung into the parking lot of the elementary school on a hill, not far from Seattle.

My friend was a smart, but troubled girl. I’ll call her Bella. She was in the gifted class.

Bella loved to read. I brought her my old comics, like Little Lulu. She read them out loud and laughed hysterically at the strong, spunky Lulu. We made bracelets out of plastic jewelry pieces and waved our hands at each other to see who could make the loudest clicking sound.

We played board games. Once she tried to teach me chess but she gave up. I could never figure out what move to make and she got tired of waiting. Sometimes Bella would shuffle into the library, sit down and frown, arms crossed, swinging her legs. On those days she didn’t want to talk to anyone, even me.

On this particular Wednesday, Bella was quiet. She sat down, took out the set of blocks and started building, her tongue sticking out in concentration.

“What are you making?” I said.

“Towers,” she said, keeping her eyes on the blocks.

My heart did a flip.

She continued adding blocks until she had two blue buildings, side by side. She gently pulled out blocks on each side, about three-quarters from the top of each tower, so there were perfect, square-shaped holes on all sides.

Then she did an astounding thing. She lifted a black crayon, holding it with thumb and forefinger. She made the crayon climb, then slowly push through the empty space, from one side of the tower right through to the other side. It landed on the library table.

“See?” she said. “If they just would have made the towers this way, the plane could have gone right through. And no one would have been hurt. Why didn’t they make them that way?”

I swallowed. I didn’t have any words.

Bella punched the buildings with her fist. The blocks fell across the table and crashed onto the floor.

As the weeks went by, in my Wednesdays with Bella, we talked more about the terrorist attacks. She asked why the firefighters had to go into those burning buildings. She wanted to know if any kids died.

I told her the truth. I felt like she needed to know.

One day she said she never wanted to go on an airplane again. And she walked out of the library, down the hall to her classroom.

*****************************************************************************************************

One Wednesday four and a half months later, Bella and I sat in the library.

“I’m going to New York City for a writer’s conference tomorrow,” I said. “What would you like me to bring you back?”

I waited expecting to hear, I don’t know what: a t-shirt, maybe.

“I want a picture of a firefighter,” she said. She stared at me with huge brown eyes.

“And what I really want is an autograph,” she said. She studied my face.

“I’ll do my best,” I said. “Hey! How about if I bring a picture of you and maybe a short letter, and see if I can find a firefighter to give them to?”

I had no idea if I could do this.

Bella’s eyes lit up. She grabbed my pen and wrote:

Jan. 29, 2002

Dear Firefighter,

Thank you for working hard to clear the ground at ground zero. I think it’s very brave that you are doing what you are doing. Thank you.

Your friend,

Bella

****************************************************************************************************

I stood in the fierce Manhattan sun, in a line that wound down four blocks and around another two. Just as I got to the fence with its mementos and massive butcher paper wall, with thousands of messages of hope and sorrow scrawled every which way, I saw him.

He wore brown overalls, a blue shirt with an embossed fire department insignia and a navy blue baseball cap with red letters: FDNY.

His name was JJ, from Engine 299, Queens. His eyes widened as I told him about Bella. I handed Bella’s letter and photo to him.

“Wow,” he said. Tell her these are going up at the station.” He waved the letter and photo.

“She wants your autograph,” I said.

“Are you kidding?”

No, I said, it was the only thing she wanted me to bring back from New York.

I handed him a piece of paper and he wrote:

Dear Bella,

Thank you for being so kind and thoughtful.

Your Friend,

J.J. Kerns

Then he reached behind the fence and pulled out an FDNY hat.

“Give this to Bella,” he said. “Tell her it’s from me.”

He held up Bella’s letter and I snapped a picture of him.

 

*****************************************************************************************************

The next Wednesday, Bella was already sitting on a chair in the library, waiting for me.

“I brought you something from my trip,” I said.

I handed her J.J.’s photo and signed note, which I had framed. Her eyes got big.

“Cool!” she said, jumping out of her seat as if I had just brought her the biggest, softest teddy bear from FAO Schwartz.

I reached into my bag and pulled out the FDNY cap. Her face sagged. She grabbed the cap and put it on. It made her look goofy, the way it covered her ears and most of her eyes. I helped her adjust the tab in the back.

Bella stood up. “I want to go back to my class now,” she said.

She pushed the bill of the cap down and peered out at me.

I smiled. “Sure.”

I watched her skip down the hall, pumping her arm in the air.

One horrific day. And four and a half months and 3,000 miles later, a genuine, heartfelt connection between a nine-year-old girl and her hero.

It’s the one good memory I have of September 11.

 

****************************************************************************************************

We have had 9 September 11’s since that gut-wrenching day.

Bella is now a high school senior. She doesn’t need a mentor anymore. She’s bright, achieving, just starting to think about the rest of her life.

Amy graduates this year, too. But one chair will be empty in the stands.

Still, I wonder if she knows the impact her dad had on Bella.

One thing I know.

She will never forget.

This post was originally published on the Cat’s Eye Writer blog September 11, 2010.

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2 Comments

  1. israel.kendall September 12, 2011 at 10:12 pm #

    Touching story, long post but well worth the read.

    Reply

  2. JudyDunn September 13, 2011 at 7:36 am #

    @israel.kendall Yeah, I knew it was long. But I needed the words to tell the story. I’m working on a book right now, so I may be in the “long mode.” : )

    Thanks so much for reading and glad it you took something away from it.

    Reply

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