Walking through the 9/11 memorial, I find myself thinking about what I imagine most of the people here are thinking; recalling what I was doing that morning of September 11, 2001. I was in a training class in Reston, Virginia doing my best to stay awake during one of my many computer courses for work. Our instructor was interrupted during our first session and rushed back into the room to announce that a plane had struck the World Trade Center and anyone that needed to leave would be able to reschedule the course without any penalties. Immediately my cellphone began to ring and I recognized the CallerID as my friend and fellow volunteer EMT/Firefighter. I made my way out of the classroom as I answered her call. “NOVA Task Force has been activated. I need to know if you are available,” she said very quickly and directly. I could sense the stress and urgency in her voice and quickly gathered only the necessary information to allow her phone chain to continue through the other NOVA Task Force volunteers on her list.
I have been an EMT/Firefighter for Loudoun County since 1996 right after my divorce. I was referred to Sterling Volunteer Rescue Squad as the best station in Loudoun County to become an EMT and actually get to do something other than stand around the station listening to other stations get call after call. After months of training, practicals and tests I was working under the tutelage of a senior EMT until I was “released” to operate on my own. I quickly found the work tough, stressful but rewarding and began working toward my Firefighter I level certification. I overcame many of my fears with the added motivation of not letting my fellow Rescue/Fire partners down. I knew that if I was expecting one of my partners to take care of me when I needed it that I must be prepared and willing to do the same for them. So I pushed myself, I learned my boundaries and with encouragement from my peers and friends, I continued to train and learn not only to keep my certifications up but to increase the likelihood of someday making this my career.
But, as time went on and friends came and went in the volunteer system, I began to look closely at my choices both in life and in work. Helping people was definitely something I wanted to do but I realized that it might not be through EMS any longer so I pursued my Computer Science degree and slowly parted ways with Sterling Rescue. Although I have not been active with the EMS systems for many years, I still see myself as part of a family of Fire, Rescue and Police members and frequently use “we” and “us” when referring to them rather than “them” and “they.” Once you’ve placed your hands on the same patient trying to get their heart to start beating again or carried the body of a young child to the arms of you partner, there is an unspoken bond that will always be there.
Many people do not understand how we can do the work we do. I sometimes wonder how I did it too but mainly because at some level, I don’t understand the big deal. Don’t get me wrong, though. I get it. It should be hard to see someone die; to watch the last breath leave their body and to take quick action. A Firefighter, an EMT or even a Police Officer all need to find a balance between compassion, action and subjectiveness. For some, this comes fairly easy; others it is a challenge. I believe this is where a clear division exists between these heroes and the rest of the population. So, it is this very separation of emotion that we find easy to make when it’s necessary to get through a stressful situation. I also believe that sometimes it’s hard to switch off and allow the emotion to come through and experience it when it’s appropriate and even safe.
The emergency field is not a planned field. Accidents, illness and even death happen without approval or permission. So even when we appear to be casual, happy or relaxed and even believe that we are, our insides are always on the edge and waiting for the next situation where we have to stuff emotion into our back pocket and do our jobs. So after 12-48 hours of that constant “on the ready” energy, it is not easy to switch off simply because your shift is over.
So even after years of being away from the field, I find myself walking through this memorial ground a little numb to this now sacred ground of my fellow partners that I will never meet. I, like many others, am caught in this sad and emotionally confusing state of remembrance as well as a thankfulness and guilt.
As I continue to walk around the South pond, the cascading waters slowly and dramatically fall underneath the black marble borders where so many names of those that died that day are etched. For a moment, I’m consumed by sadness and my eyes well with mournful tears but I swallow and walk away. I look to the sky and imagine the towers still rising up from the ground and then close my eyes to bow my head for a moment to gain my composure and my eyes slowly rest on the only pear tree in the grove of trees. There is the Survivor Tree.
I wonder if this tree is also feeling the guilt that some people felt and may still may be feeling because they survived.
This pear tree was originally planted in 1970 in the World Trade Center Plaza, was rescued from the rubble of the plaza after 9/11 and then survived a tropical storm that uprooted it in 2010. It is now 30 feet tall and continues to grow through the support and care of many people that believed it was important.
So while we mourn those we lost and take our time to heal, I hope that we can also remember those that survived and give them the support and care they so need and deserve.