This is what I post around Sept. 11 of every year. I am so sorry if you’ve read it before. A lot of things have changed in my life in 15 years. I went from being a newspaper reporter and city councilor to a newspaper editor to unemployed to a New York Times (and internationally) bestselling novelist. But how I feel about heroes will never change.
Ben died in 2016, after years and years of being a hero to the people of Shelter Island, New York, years and years of being a paramedic (one of the oldest in the country) and not only just saving people, but being the last one to comfort and touch the living.
The picture here is the one that ran with his obituary. I am not sure who took it and if you did and you want me to take it down, I will! Just let me know. It’s a great photo.
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It’s hard not to think about September 11 without thinking about loss.
That’s how it should be. But I do know that so many heroes that we never hear about worked hard on that day. It’s important to remember them too, because they are, I think, what it truly means to be an ideal American and an ideal person.
My uncle, Charlie, who lives in Maplewood, NJ was just across the shore when he saw the plane go into one of the tall towers in New York City. He was over 80 and a doctor. He was in World War II. He hates war.
He told me when he saw that plane full of people go into that tower full of people he said, “Jesus Christ… Jesus Christ…”
He mumbled it for a second, a prayer, a plea, a name, a hope. He said his heart sank right into the bottom of his feet as he stood there watching. He said like he felt like he stood there on the shore forever. He didn’t. He moved after a second. He went right over towards the towers, towards the death and the hurt and the terror and the screaming, and the whole time in his head he kept repeating those words, that name…. Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ.
He started to help people. He was over 80 breathing in all kinds of horrible things into lungs that were already tired and aged, but that didn’t stop him. He’d helped people all his life. He had served his country all his life. Nobody would have thought anything if he had turned around, walked away, got in his car and drove back to Maplewood.
But Charlie would have thought something though if he did that.
He could have never done that.
My former father-in-law, Ben, also over 80, is an EMT. He became one when he was 65. After years of being an executive, he wanted to feel like he did something good in his life, something helpful. He was part of the Red Cross disaster team. He went over to the site too, got grit out of people’s eyes, helped them breathe, helped them cope.
You ask him what it was like and he shakes his head slowly and says in his deep/hoarse voice, “God, that was an awful scene. Just an awful scene.”
Charlie and Ben weren’t firemen on duty or police officers like so many heroes that day were. They weren’t official first responders.
What I love about them is that they made the choice. They chose to go. They chose to help and they didn’t give a poop about how old they were, about how many people they’d already helped. They didn’t care about the ache in their bones or the fact that both their hearts were starting to fail. They cared about something else. They cared about people. So they went.
They will always be my heroes. They are just two of many, many stories that happened on that day and on other days. People can do awful things. We can hurt our loves, bomb each other, scream words of hate, glorify ignorance with bats and cars, ignore a smile of a cashier, be too busy to pay attention to a child.
But we can do beautiful things, too. We can love, and heal; we can put others first, rush to a scene of mayhem, put ourselves in peril on the off chance that we might be able to save a life, get grit out of an eye, give comfort, give a hug. And that… that is what makes people worth it. That is what makes people magic. That is what makes people heroes over and over again.
So, I will remember Ben and Charlie and so many others today. I won’t ignore the hate and pain and sorrow that happens on Sept. 11 or on any day of war or violence, but I choose to remember the good, too. I choose to remember the heroes.