Reborn America

In September 2006, Michele Little (not pictured), Christina Kminek (L) and Donna Marsh O'Connor (R) - three relatives of 9/11 victims - held a press conference to demand further investigation into the September 11 attacks. (Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Donna Marsh O'Connor
Wednesday 12 November 2008

This is a memoir of sorts, the kind that many of us in America are telling days after the election of Barack Obama, who is soon, we all hope soon enough, to be the 44th president of the United States of America. We're not used to this of late, this being the emergence of our stories, our narratives, each one jubilant, provoked to the page and the air waves by our tears, for many of us our tears of joy and relief, tears of disbelief. We, many of us, have awakened from a nightmare. And that nightmare, for each of us, is different.

For me, the nightmare only partly ends. I've told this story many times before. On 9/11/2001, in many ways the counter narrative to 11/4/2008, I lost my daughter - my baby girl and my first child - along with the broken promise of a first grandchild as Vanessa ran from the falling towers of the World Trade Center. For many who have read my essays written in the years following the attacks, this is an old story. I've said many times in many different ways, that Vanessa was five minutes late to the rest of our lives: five minutes after the first plane hit Tower I, Vanessa was at her desk in Tower II telling a colleague in another office that those in Tower II were told they were safe, that they were advised to stay where they were. Shortly after that phone call, Vanessa made her way out. She was the fire marshal for her floor. Knowing her, I think she believed she would come home that night. No one in her firm, Regus Business International, survived the day. Not in the flesh. But I've seen her a few times since.

She comes to me in dreams. Always rushed. She needs to convince me, but she doesn't have much time. It's not a dream like others I've had after I've lost loved ones. In the dreams where Vanessa emerges, she has a motive for coming. She wants to make sure she gets it clear: I am here, she says. Touch my purse and see it. See me. I am not gone. Sometimes her hair is different. Sometimes I don't recognize her clothes. But as children ask the same questions of their parents over and over when they need reassurance that all will be okay, I am the same in all of the dreams. I am saying, "Promise me this is not a dream. Promise me I won't wake up into the nightmare. Promise me. For G-d's sake, tell me it's over."

And she always does. And always for a brief moment I think, then nothing in my life is wrong.

But, of course, there is always the waking. For seven years, it was the waking to her absence and to the layered loss of losing my child and my country.

Under the Bush administration, we lost access to our lofty dreams and goals. We lost many of our civil liberties. I lost completely the ability ever to trust in government, to trust in the way a child trusts - that all other things being equal, my safety as an individual matters to those at the highest echelons of our government. Instead I am left with questions. Where was any protection for Vanessa on that morning? Where was NORAD? How could more than one plane be missing from air traffic control for eighteen minutes - eighteen minutes with no attempt at interception? Why was there no attention given on the part of George W. Bush or Dick Cheney to clear and direct Presidential Daily Briefings that read, "Bin Ladin Determined to Attack." Why did my 14-year-old son act more presidential than George W. Bush on that horrid day? And why, why, why did George W. Bush for one single second, even if you believe in each and all of his motives and methods and explanations, why did he say there would be no investigation and then allow only the pretense of one - the pretense that was called into question by Kean and Hamilton, co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission?

I say this now, with all due respect to my fellow American citizens: We never had an investigation into the events surrounding that day. We, every one of us, deserved one.

Because we went to war for it and more people died.

Because we allowed our civil liberties to be taken from us.

How could I grieve my daughter's irreversible loss from this earth without trying to recoup what is left of my country? America. America. I can say its name over and over again and still never have it lose its meaning. Because the concept was locked in me from the time I was first aware. Even as a child, I would cry when I sang "God Bless America" or "My Country 'Tis of Thee" or any of the America songs. I didn't recite the Pledge of Allegiance - I embodied it.

It is an intriguing place, a geographic space embedded metaphorically with ideas that are breathy and heady and lofty, contradictory and troubled. For 20 years, every one of my classes in writing and rhetoric danced with the ideas and words of our common script. We talked about race and gender and ethnicity and no one got offended; no one was afraid to speak. We all loved our country, or at least appreciated the one truth about our collective lived lives - we could wrestle the concepts in talk. We could argue. We could share our stories. And we survived. The word patriotic was never invoked because that was confirmed by our very engagement with one another. And this, too, we lost.

It is so much easier to be a good person than it is to be a good people. In the private acts of our every day lives, we can enforce the laws of kindness, caring and compassion. We can espouse understanding and look into the eyes of others, knowing we can never fully understand. As individuals, we can make our contributions to a greater good, but we can only pray that at some point our individual actions are mirrored in the actions of enough of our fellow citizens to make a difference.

On Tuesday night we elected a decent man. That's all. Not a black man. Not a white man. A decent man.

I had almost given up hope that we would ever do this again in my lifetime. Because the horror of the last eight years has been so palpable that I tried not to hope too much. I tried to tell myself again that it is in the acts of my everyday life that I can effect change or ignore the larger script.

But in the almost quiet cha-chinking of the electoral votes, one state after another, after another, adding to what surely signaled the end of the Bush years, American was reborn - not the country, the concept.

Only then did I think about the significance of this sacred night:

As long as we are alive on earth, we have the potential to be joyous.

It is far more satisfying to be joyous as a people than it is to be a happy person.

There are those in my country who have shared their narratives in my classrooms over the years who have lived a different nightmare than my own. If it is possible to fall in love with a person, it is possible too to fall in love with a people. This has happened to me. After years of showing the micro moments of racial texts and racism at seemingly their most innocuous (Oprah in her early days, with her large hair and smaller presence, as she asked America is it better to be a blonde?, or Phil Donohue and Al Sharpton as they wrestled the meaning of Tawana Brawley), I listened and watched as my African-American students explained their daily experiences. Despite their inability at these moments to opt out of the conversation, they participated actively, telling their stories to white students - some of who were anxious to learn, some of whom were not. To a person, there was a dignity I was blessed to witness, often a sense of humor that was the deepest example of what G-d plants in each of us to help us tolerate the intolerable, and almost to a person the most tactile and explicit language that made their experiences as close to literal as language allows. And so I watched as the significance, made visible in my own response, resonated across my country, as it showed itself on my television screen panning the country from sea to shining sea the faces of our new president, our new first lady, Mallia and Sasha, Joe Biden, Jill, mothers and brothers-in-law, all fresh in new relations of power, the text America will never speak spoken in the physical presence of the moment - we have an African-American president-elect.

And this too is true: As we walk through the following days of our collective American lives, our African-American compatriots cannot be certain that each white person is racist because as a people we made race less important. Racism is not gone, certainly, but it's smaller, diminished. And apathy, too, is weakened. Our young came out in droves to do what their elders failed to do in so many ways.

Four years ago I stopped teaching. It was too difficult for me, the nightmare so great, to go back into the classroom and teach writing, to allow students to say before I said, to allow stories and narratives to emerge naturally. I wrote instead, angry essays begging my fellow citizens to hear me, just a mommy, an American mother, asking for an investigation. I said over and over in so many ways - men cursed us on 9/11, not G-d, and we need to be sure who those men are and how they succeeded so powerfully to change everything in this country, for so many years. An investigation, particularly in light of what seemed like the absence of free and fair elections in our country, was, in my opinion, nothing short of an emergency.

And here we are. And here I am. Back to the classroom this semester because I missed my students. Stumbling a bit in the classroom because I've been gone so long and much has changed. No longer as confident at leading those deep conversations, but starting again in baby steps. Like my fellow Americans, still learning who we are.

It was Wednesday morning - November 5, 2008. Fully awake and one nightmare almost over, though, as my son Jackson told me the night before, most nightmares aren't literal. Work to be done, to be sure. I looked at the Syracuse University community from the top of the garage where I parked my car. For days after Tuesday, the weather in central New York was uncharacteristically warm. It felt good. I felt calm. I expected to see, as usual at this time on a Wednesday morning, students and faculty a swirl in their back-to-class mode. But there were very few people out. Campus felt deserted. Calm. One of my students came to see me before class and explained - until 3:30 AM students reveled in the news, they partied, they cheered. Wednesday was a day of quiet calm. The day, perhaps, when we realized what was really at stake, the bomb that didn't fall, the bus that didn't hit us. America lives.

I hear you, my progressive friends; ideology equals imperialism; three states voted to ban gay marriage; we still need an investigation into the events leading up to the events of 9/11; we're still in Iraq; I hear you. We still live in a country embracing corporate growth over social justice. Gitmo is still a fact. I hear you.

But I feel now America's calm. We need to rest. As we take comfort in the image of Barack Obama forming his presence as our leader behind a podium, offering, in complete sentences, the methods by which we go forward, or watching him enter a meeting, briefcase in hand, briefcase in hand, thank G-d. There is work to be done, but first there is rest.

I see George W. Bush, too, dancing on the White House lawn, pitiable in his singular diminishment. It's over. Cheney and Rove can't protect him. Obama needs only to appear to shrink Bush's image. What must that feel like? Where is my anger at him? My outrage? Gone. All that's left are tears. Even his dog betrays his petulance and tells me that that's all that was in him - to have done such damage to a nation and to a world. Laura Bush says about Barney, "That's the nature of Scotties." I hear so much more.

We will never again have the luxury of the illusion that we, each and every citizen, can count on freedom without work not weapons. We can't count on social justice emerging from our government without individual protection of our civil rights. There is no leader who should function as G-d, not Bush/Cheney and not Barack Obama. And if crimes are committed by the most powerful among us, it is up to the citizens to hold accountable those who perpetrated those crimes in order that they never happen again. No one ever should be above the law as long as the laws are just.

G-d did bless the United States of America before. As a people we just helped Him to do it again. From where I sit in my small piece of this country, the Red Sea just parted. What if it hadn't?


Donna Marsh O'Connor is the mother of Vanessa Lang Langer, WTC Tower II, 93rd floor.