15: Taking Back Our Story

15: Taking Back Our Story

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Taking Back Our Story

The robbed that smiles, steals something from the thief.

~William Shakespeare, Othello

On the morning of 9/11, I woke up extremely happy because for weeks I had been planning a surprise for my husband Joe, whose birthday is September 11th. I kissed him and our sixteen-year-old daughter goodbye that morning, not knowing that within two hours our world would change. I was caught in an evacuation in midtown Manhattan when I heard from Joe, who was with the NYPD. He told me we were under attack, that he’d brought home our daughter and that I should get home before the city shut down. He made me promise not to respond even though I was also a first responder.

We heard from my husband again at around five that day. Something was so different about him. He explained the darkness, he talked about where he was headed and his voice cracked as he said, “Baby, this is bad. It’s really bad.” He told me he loved us and that he would take his next break at ten as he was heading towards World Trade Center Tower 7. It wasn’t long after that my daughter and I watched television in horror as Tower 7 collapsed. By two in the morning, having heard nothing, I started talking about his funeral.

My husband finally walked in around five that morning but he was not the man I had kissed the day before. He was injured and had refused treatment because he was afraid they would not let him go back in to look for survivors. We were relieved he was alive, but the sadness would continue. We had lost friends, and attending funerals was a regular part of our lives in the weeks following.

My husband didn’t speak about that day, formerly a day for celebrating his birthday, for years. I knew we needed to do something, so seven years ago, when my volunteering days at my daughter’s school were over, I decided to volunteer at the World Trade Center site with the 9/11 Tribute Center. Finding this organization was a godsend to me.

I was accepted into their volunteer program and began working alongside other 9/11 families, survivors, residents and first responders. The experience at first was very emotional, but at the end of each visit I would feel that I had accomplished something.

I began doing walking tours of the World Trade Center with other docents. We welcomed visitors. We’d share our personal stories about that day, and the visitors would end our tours with hugs and warm thoughts.

After being with the organization for three years, I convinced my husband to become a volunteer docent, too. He resisted at first, thinking it would be too emotional for him, but eventually he tried it and was astonished when, after he led his first tour, one visitor — a tall, husky man — came up to him and hugged him. I watched as my husband hugged the man back. This is not the kind of thing my husband does. Yet there I was watching a transformation begin. A year later, my husband would toss into the garbage the story he wrote and read from during tours — because he couldn’t look people in the eye as he told it. He was finally ready to look at the visitors while he spoke to them.

A group of docents invited me to lunch one day. We had time between tours and thought it would be fun to get away from the sadness for a little while. The group was made up of women who were brought together by a tragedy, who had lost a husband, a son, a daughter. Some had been displaced because they lived near the site. Some were first responders and recovery workers. Lunch became a standing date. We were all there week after week telling our stories to the world. Then we’d meet up to continue the healing process via food, dessert and great conversation.

We don’t see each other every day, but when we do come together it is always to talk about the good things in our lives. We have not let 9/11 define us. We define 9/11. I have felt so fulfilled doing these walking tours, speaking to school groups and talking individually to visitors about that day. But most importantly by honoring and remembering those who were taken from us.

We now give tours on the Memorial Plaza, and I end each and every one holding up a picture of New York’s new skyline. I share with all of the visitors that fourteen years ago, those that committed this horrific crime did not think we would be standing on a memorial, a labor of love, talking to each other about hope rising from the ashes. The visitors nod their heads in agreement as they wipe their tears away. I remind them that they knew this was not a tourist attraction, that they came to honor and remember. What they don’t know is that in coming they have helped those of us who volunteer get closer to healing from the horrors of that day.

I was told during one of my very first tours that my story would change at some point and I never quite understood what that meant — not until a day two years ago when we got the news that my husband was one of many 9/11 first responders who developed lung cancer and other respiratory diseases from time working at the site.

I thought for sure my husband would not continue to volunteer, but he did. At one point he did not want to because he felt people would feel sorry for him. But we decided we would tell “our” story together on the tours as we honor all those that are sick or have died.

It has become our mission to share not only our story, but to tell all those that come to the memorial to live good lives, to be kind to each other, to honor and remember, and to understand that in spite of a day that began with hate and destruction the world stood tall and strong.

~Sonia M. Agron

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