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Twenty years ago, September 11, 2001

I’d gone to bed the night before in a world where America was a superhero, a shield to the free world. The morning of September 11, 2001, I had just dropped my youngest daughter at school and was heading to my office when I heard the first reports on the radio. The announcer didn’t know what had happened exactly, but it seemed that a plane had crashed into one of New York’s iconic Twin Towers. We turned on all the televisions in the conference rooms and nobody even pretended to work as we watched first one and then the other tower collapse, followed by attacks on the Pentagon, and then the passenger-deflected fourth crash.

Later that day, I was on a previously scheduled business flight to the UK when the pilot came on the intercom and announced they would not be making return flights to Chicago and those of us with tickets would have to find another way to get home.

When we landed, I called home and told my children I loved them.

Our generation couldn’t make America safe, but by the time I finally went to bed, the rest of the world’s emotional support made us all Americans.

Twin Towers collapse.

But the world we woke to was a smaller, scarier place that taught us a new vocabulary. Waterboarding. Abu Ghraib. Afghanistan. Americans weren’t the heroes of our story.

I started telling my family I loved them. Lots.

A few years ago, a family emergency brought me to New York. I had to take my computer in for a repair, so I headed for the Apple store in the new mall at the World Trade Center, ground zero of the 9/11 attacks. The mall was architecturally stunning, but astonishingly empty of people. Instead the halls were patrolled by groups of soldiers wearing armor and carrying automatic weapons—normal, my daughter told me, when the terrorism alerts were at high levels.

Apple store at World Trade Center, NYC, January 2017

On the subway, our car was halted because of a fire on the line ahead. Doors opened, and most people got off after an announcement that all Brooklyn-bound trains were temporarily suspended. I had no idea how else to get back to Brooklyn, so I stayed on. The lady next to me got out a book, and the one across the aisle took out some knitting.

On New York subways, striking up a conversation is taboo. But sitting in the semi-dark, our small group began to talk. The knitter said this kind of thing seemed to be happening more often.

“America.” The reader shook her head. “Lots of things not working like should.” She said she and her husband ran a small shop selling souvenirs but sent their kids to college. “Good schools but they no get jobs. Selling in shop now, like parents. What happen if they no got the medical?”

The knitter nodded her sympathy. She had children and grandchildren, she said, and worried about what would happen to them.

Outside the car, we saw soldiers walking down the length of the platform. The knitter pointed to them and said, “They say it was fire on the track? Maybe yes. Maybe not so much.”

When I got back to Brooklyn, I told my daughters I loved them.

There are lots of lessons from the tragedies of September 11, 2001. The one I’ve tried to live for the past twenty years is to tell those I care about how much they mean to me. 

That lesson is love.