As a child, every year my grandfather would ask me, "What day was Pearl Harbor bombed?"
"December 7th, 1941, Grandpa."
Every year when I look into the night sky and see those two heavenly beams of light shining straight up to God in the first two weeks of September...I think of my Grandpa.
It wasn't until 2001 that I truly understood why he felt it was so important that I know what happened on that critical day in Pearl Harbor. It is a day that changed the world for a whole generation of Americans. You can be sure I will honor my Grandpa's memory by asking my children and grandchildren the same question he asked me. But then I will follow it with another question....
"Do you know what happened on September 11th, 2001?"
This time of year always slows me down to consider the ways we commemorate the lives of loved ones who have passed away. Every culture, family and religion has a tradition they follow to honor those who are no longer living with us. Roman Catholics have All Saints Day, Mexicans have El Dia de Los Muerta, and the Chinese have an annual day called Qingming, Ancestors Day or Tomb-Cleaning Day, when families go to the graves of their deceased family members and clean and care for them.
The Christian theologian, Henri Nouwen, has some beautiful thoughts on how we can remember the dead:
"As we grow older we have more and more people to remember, people who have died before us. It is very important to remember those who have loved us and those we have loved. Remembering them means letting their spirits inspire us in our daily lives. They can become part of our spiritual communities and gently help us as we make decisions on our journeys. Parents, spouses, children, and friends can become true spiritual companions after they have died. Sometimes they can become even more intimate to us after death than when they were with us in life. Remembering the dead is choosing their ongoing companionship."
My Grandpa died from emphysema on the one year anniversary of September 11th. I keep him with me by honoring the things he honored and keeping his questions close to my heart.
I didn't live in NYC on the day the towers fell. But I join in the sense of solemnity and reverence that overcomes our city on the morning of September 11th every year and I take my own time, in my own way, to silently lift up a prayer for the victims and families who were directly affected by that day.
The 9/11 Memorial site suggests we play an important role in memorializing those who were killed, honoring the sacrifices of the first responders, and remembering the spirit of unity that emerged in the aftermath of 9/11 by performing an act of service in our communities to commemorate the day. They even have a list of ways you can do this.
At the very least, you can simply take a moment today to pause and read a poem that was written by Billy Collins, American Poet Laureate, entitled "The Names" or listen to his reading of it here.