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Jewish World Review Jan. 30, 2003 / 27 Shevat 5763

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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Indelible ache of Sept. 11

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | DURHAM, N.C. One recent afternoon when my sister arrived home from her book club meeting (in 30 years, she says, they've read three books), we were all waiting.

For Barbara's 60th birthday, her husband, Jim, threw a surprise party. It worked, too. She was simply shocked. Each face in the crowd in her house gave her a start, including mine, my wife's and that of another sister who lives near Chicago.

My brother-in-law read messages from people who couldn't be there. One was from their daughter in Atlanta, down with a stomach ailment. Another from a daughter near Boston, who just couldn't get away. And one from their daughter-in-law, also near Boston. She and her two boys couldn't make the trip but wished Barb a wonderful party.

There was no need among party-goers to wonder where that young woman's husband -- Barb and Jim's son -- was. He died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and would never again be present at another family birthday party.

All over the country, families are marking birthdays and baptisms, retirements and bar-mitzvahs, anniversaries and graduations, marriages and funerals -- all with someone important missing because of terrorism and its aftermath. And not only in this country but in places around the world, too. In Afghanistan and the Middle East, in Bali and the Philippines families have been shattered by terrorism's unrequited rage and the military response to it.

It's easy to imagine that almost a year and a half after Sept. 11, life has returned pretty much to normal for families who lost someone to this scourge. But it just isn't so. And will never be.

In some ways the ache is deeper, more profound, more indelible, even eternal.

My sister's party took place the day after her actual birthday. The night of Barb's birthday, my California sister, who couldn't get to the party, told me she had talked with Barb, who was feeling blue about not having a party. But mostly she was sobbing about missing her son, Karleton. I was instructed to do all I could to cheer Barb, to bolster her spirits.

The losses to terrorism cause people to cry almost without warning. Several times over the weekend of my sister's party, my eyes reddened, filled and spilled hot tears because of the anguish over losing Karleton. And I wasn't alone.

One night we got into a long discussion -- not just about how each of us dealt with Sept. 11 at the time but also about the Bush administration's war on terrorism and its plans to attack Iraq if needed. My brother-in-law feels the loss of his son deep in the marrow of his bones, but he isn't especially happy with President Bush.

There's not enough space here to offer a full and fair account of Jim's thinking, but he believes war inevitably will result in more families who will lose sons and daughters, husbands and wives, and he wants no one in the world to experience the pain he and my sister have felt.

Jim and I don't agree on all things political or military, but I suspect we are very much like Sept. 11 families around the country in that we want an end to the losses of other families' Karletons.

My sister spent her career as a nurse but is an amateur photographer. The walls of her house are filled with family photographs. There's Karleton as a baby, a toddler, an active little boy, a gangly teen-ager, a handsome college student, a groom, a young father.

There is nothing maudlin about this, nothing unbalanced. Rather, these photos testify to Karleton's existence. They insist that he lived and lived well and that no one who knew him will ever forget him.

This is what Sept. 11 families do. They celebrate birthdays but do not forget. They gather for new occasions but insist on remembering how terrorism wounded them.

When Karleton's birthday comes in a couple of weeks (he would have been 33), we will acknowledge it again, just as other Sept. 11 families commemorate important dates attached to their own lost ones.

And we will pray that our leaders have the wisdom to know how to stop terrorism's madness for good.

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JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' latest book is "A Gift of Meaning." To order it, please click on title. To comment on his column, please click here.


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