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FIRST-PERSON: Realizations of a son on 9/11

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–From historically rich Copley Park in the center of Boston, my 19-year-old son John used his cell phone to touch base with me about his first official week as a civic volunteer in the New England state. Almost giddy with excitement, he spoke of the part he was playing in helping to prepare for an event memorializing America’s struggle for hope after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks last year.

What he didn’t tell me in words was that the memory of this day’s service, probably more than any he has performed, will stay with him forever. I’m not sure he would have understood. I could only wish him well, assure him of my prayers and caution him to get enough sleep, knowing the emotional weight he would carry.

It didn’t take long for the teary phone call the next day. At 9:50 a.m., only a few hours into the daylong 9/11 remembrance, my cell phone went off.

“Mom, how can I be the one who has to be supportive when I feel so bad?” he asked. I anticipated this reaction. How I longed to reach out and hug his neck. Instead, I listened while he worked through those first few frightening moments of overwhelming grief. Choking back tears myself, I assured him that his sensitivity and his concern were a plus and he could get through the day, and be stronger for it. He could be comforted while offering comfort — if he focused on the peace and calm God offers.

Watching television later in the day, I was again reminded of the particular impact of this day and the ways it has changed lives. Fighting back tears, America’s First Lady Laura Bush, on “Larry King Live,” told him volunteerism in the United States appeared to have increased in the days since 9/11. I know this to be true. I am convinced the reason my son felt so strongly about participating in the AmeriCorps CityYear program was, in large part, due to a fresh awareness of patriotism and of stewardship for the blessings God has bestowed on our country and on him.

Mrs. Bush said people are looking for purpose in their lives and a way to express that purpose. John is in good company in Boston. Ironically, it is the land of his Irish-American forefathers, veterans of wars who fought for America’s freedom, keepers of peace we sometimes take for granted. Men of purpose.

In consoling a son as perhaps only a mother can, I encouraged John to express his feelings about Sept. 11, 2002 — the anniversary of a day marking a change in the heart of America. His letter says it all:

Dear Mom,

Pulling a fresh CityYear T-shirt over my head, I realized that 5:45 a.m. was way too early to be starting my day. I reflected back to the previous night and how much work was done to get ready for today, 9/11 … [Putting] up two-by-fours and stringing airline cable along Copley Square in Boston had kept us busy into the late hours of the night. It was all in preparation for the events taking place today.

I left my fifth floor apartment and headed to the train station wondering how I would feel today — a day when so many thoughts crammed my mind. In addition to this being the anniversary of the awful terrorist attacks on our county, for me it is also the start of a very intense year of community service … . I had not yet had a chance to fully gather my thoughts as I ran to catch up with my roommates.

Walking around the square handing out ribbons for people to write on and tie to the cable, I realized I often suppress my feelings in order to avoid dealing with them. But on this day it felt right to reflect on my thoughts and try to clear some of them.

Later, sitting in front of a fountain, I stared at 8-foot-high letters spelling out Salaam — the Arabic word for peace. Peace was a main focus of this commemoration, featuring the three words Peace, Shalom and Salaam.

Contemplating the concept of peace, I tried to think of the relevance the word held for me. How did peace fit in with the insecurities of being over 1,000 miles away from home and totally on my own for the first time in my life?

Then I tried to think outside my immediate circumstances and focus more on the meaning of peace — and the importance we place on the concept. We would all like peace in our country, in our workplace and in our world. But what about the peace we need in our lives? In our hearts? The peace in knowing that no problem is ever too big for God to handle, and that he will never give us more in our load than we can bear.

I thought about all the people gathered in the square. They were all there for different reasons, but all needing the unity that has become a part of our society since last year. We all look for solace in each other, but I know our only solace is in God.

Our society has gotten so far off the path, but maybe we are finally starting to come back to realize our purpose in life. As I reflected on these things, I realized that I really had no control over any of them. The most I could do was to give them all to God. So like Isaiah the prophet who prayed to God, “Here am I, send me,” I asked God to take my concerns, thoughts and questions and restore the peace that we all need in our lives.

Love, John Joseph Hannigan III
Joni B. Hannigan is the managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness.

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  • Joni B. Hannigan