When I think about 9/11, I remember the fliers. Thousands of fliers fluttering in the ash-coated breeze during the long nights and days and weeks after the dust had settled but the devastation was still settling in.
In those first days of shock we were not ready to accept all that we'd lost; instead we searched in vain for what we might find. We made "Missing" signs, with pictures and phone numbers and heart-wrenching descriptions of the last outfits so many ever wore. Tacked up everywhere -- hopeful, depressing, haunting.
Those fliers probably come to mind because I still feel guilty for having the thoughts I did every time a broadcaster would pan to a wall covered with them, or hand over the mic to a loved one holding up a crumpled sign, desperately searching for her brother, or mother, or friend.
"You're not going to find her," I'd think. "She's gone. They're all gone." And then to make up for my cynicism and doubt, I'd say a little prayer.
"Please let this woman find her lost loved one, God. Please comfort those who are grieving, and those who will be grieving soon. Amen."
It seemed like an empty prayer, but I whispered it many times.
In the ensuing years I've mostly avoided commentary about 9/11, as I didn't want to relive the fear, the death, the pain so many felt acutely then and still do today. The footage that shows the second plane smashing into the second tower is cartoonish, surreal. The images of people jumping remains haunting 14 years later; who needs to see that again.
What I haven't been able to avoid are the emails and blog posts and questions from parents and parenting websites, all asking the same questions: "How will you tell your children about 9/11?" "What will you tell them about that day?"
It's an issue I never really pondered until recently, as my sons, who are six and eight, are getting big enough to question what they see and to really wonder about the world around them. If they happen to catch any footage of those Twin Towers billowing with smoke, they'll definitely ask me about it.
Luckily, they haven't seen it. But I know they will.
For many people, 9/11 drained the color from the world, leaving only black and white. Entire countries, ethnicities and religions were lumped into a category -- good or evil. I know there is evil in the world, and I suspect my boys do too. But they will never see that day in black and white. They will never see only "They did this to us." When we talk about 9/11 in our house, we will focus on how that day was also filled with love.
There was loss, yes, grief and horror, but everywhere you looked there was love.
Love prevailed inside the airplane that crashed near Shanksville, PA. Deep, abiding love for country beamed through every American flag, sign, pin, t-shirt and banner that showed up overnight and remained displayed for months. Love drove every rescue worker who risked it all for a skyscraper full of strangers. Love urged us by the hundreds to line up across the country to donate our own blood, just in case. Love was delivered by the truckload with rescue workers, welders, doctors and parishioners who gathered supplies and headed to Ground Zero from states near and far. Love broke in the voice of every quivering broadcaster who could barely hold it together during a news update.
Love was scribbled hastily on every one of those fliers.
One day my boys will watch what happened on 9/11 and their mouths will hang open in disbelief, as ours did in real time. But when they turn to ask me about it, I will focus on the love. I will tell them about the bravery and courage and patriotism, about how my heart was broken that night when I went to bed, but how it was also incredibly full. I had never felt closer to my fellow Americans, and to mankind in general. The entire world paused on 9/11, turned toward us, wept with us, prayed for us, loved us.
It was, despite its raw horror, an amazing day.
So I will tell them about the fliers, and how they represented hope, the enduring hope that hundreds, then dozens, then perhaps even just one person, please God even one, would be found alive.
Hope. Courage. Honor. Faith. Patriotism. Love. These are the things I will tell my kids about 9/11. We will always remember, and still mourn for what we lost. But I think it's just as important -- no, even more important -- to remember and celebrate what we did not lose, what we found in abundance, in reserves we didn't even know we had.
Hate may tear down, but love will always build back up.