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Flanked by row upon row of flagpoles set five feet apart, if we stretch out our arms, we can touch two lives at a time, lest we forget what happened on September 11, 2001. The 9.11 memorial in Tempe, Arizona, is heartbreakingly beautiful, each one of its 2,996 flags signifying a life taken on that horrific autumn morning. 

As my daughter walks away from me, a somber and solitary figure cutting a path deep into a Healing Field of red, white, and blue, I am undone by the sheer enormity of the memorial and her diminished stature among those flags. For a minute, I look away to remember how we were that September morning when I dropped her off at pre-school. In that blink of an eye, she has vanished into the Field. Instinctively, I know she is not lost, but I am reminded that the very thought of losing her is still what scares me most.

September 11th fell on a Tuesday in 2001. That morning, a little girl only a few months older than mine, boarded United Airlines Flight 175. Four years old, Juliana Valentine McCourt, and her mother, an Irish immigrant, were on their way to Disneyland, the “happiest place on earth.”

Juliana and her mom were best friends, close as sisters. They were traveling together to California.

Close, like my daughter and me on our trips from Phoenix to Newark, Newark to Belfast, and back again. Close. Even when we are rendered illogical and unreasonable, she by raging adolescent hormones, me by the effects of Tamoxifen, we are as two peas in a pod. We have the same hands. We love dark chocolate-covered almonds, ice-cream, the smell of books, and The Daily Show. We know we fill the heart of a husband and father. We know anything can happen, but sometimes we forget.

Juliana died that morning, when her plane plunged through the South Tower of the World Trade Center, with horrifying velocity. In Washington, D.C., Dana and Zoe Falkenberg died too. Just 3 and 8, they had boarded American Airlines Flight 77 with their parents, beginning a dream trip to Australia. And then they were gone, when terrorists hijacked their plane and crashed it into the Pentagon. So many dead, so many names:

So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart

The colorful tulle butterflies attached to the flagpoles and the stuffed bears on the grass prove again that terrorism is a horrible equalizer. Children, parents, grandparents, and those without names or families or homes or good health – in a terrorist attack, they are all legitimate targets.

In the Field, there are shows of patriotism and silent prayers for the dead; a mournful “Taps” pierces the air and then Amazing Grace. Yellow ribbons wrapped around and around those flagpoles encircling the field, they represent the valor of those “first responders,” whose duty is to protect and serve those within.  Ribbons as blue as that September morning sky wound around flagpoles in heart of the Field, for the flight crew members who perished. On the grass, for veterans lost that day, pair after pair of combat boots.

In cities here and across the globe, wreaths are laid, bells ring out, and names are rubbed in pencil on cherished scraps of paper. We say their names. 

Juliana Valentine McCourt. She would be in high school now, Disneyland days with her mom perhaps less appealing than thoughts of a driver’s permit or a summer job or college. Such a trajectory is only in my imagination. For Juliana, there was no Disneyland, no first day of school, no soft place to fall.

September 11, 2012 has come and gone. The memorial services are over for another year. Our flags have been hoisted to full-staff once more, and footage of the World Trade Center’s final moments have been filed away for television retrospectives that will air this time next year. Our politicians, having paid their respects, are back on a campaign trail that is not always respectful. 9.11 is history. My daughter tells me none of her teachers remembered it out loud last Tuesday. Ostensibly, it was no different than the day before, probably no different than September 10, 2001, when Ruth McCourt was packing for a trip to Disneyland with her daughter, Juliana.

“The Names” is in dedication to all the victims of September 11 and their survivors. Poet Laureate of the United States, Billy Collins, is one of those brilliant poets who uses words and rhythms to cut through with clarity and compassion to the heart of a matter, right when we need it most:

The Names – Billy Collins

Yesterday, I lay awake in the palm of the night.

A soft rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze,
And when I saw the silver glaze on the windows,
I started with A, with Ackerman, as it happened,

Then Baxter and Calabro,
Davis and Eberling, names falling into place
As droplets fell through the dark.
Names printed on the ceiling of the night.
Names slipping around a watery bend.
Twenty-six willows on the banks of a stream.
In the morning, I walked out barefoot
Among thousands of flowers
Heavy with dew like the eyes of tears,
And each had a name —
Fiori inscribed on a yellow petal
Then Gonzalez and Han, Ishikawa and Jenkins.
Names written in the air
And stitched into the cloth of the day.
A name under a photograph taped to a mailbox.
Monogram on a torn shirt,
I see you spelled out on storefront windows
And on the bright unfurled awnings of this city.
I say the syllables as I turn a corner —
Kelly and Lee,
Medina, Nardella, and O’Connor.
When I peer into the woods,
I see a thick tangle where letters are hidden
As in a puzzle concocted for children.
Parker and Quigley in the twigs of an ash,
Rizzo, Schubert, Torres, and Upton,
Secrets in the boughs of an ancient maple.
Names written in the pale sky.
Names rising in the updraft amid buildings.
Names silent in stone
Or cried out behind a door.
Names blown over the earth and out to sea.
In the evening — weakening light, the last swallows.
A boy on a lake lifts his oars.
A woman by a window puts a match to a candle,
And the names are outlined on the rose clouds —
Vanacore and Wallace,
(let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound)
Then Young and Ziminsky, the final jolt of Z.
Names etched on the head of a pin.
One name spanning a bridge, another undergoing a tunnel.
A blue name needled into the skin.
Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers,
The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son.
Alphabet of names in a green field.
Names in the small tracks of birds.
Names lifted from a hat
Or balanced on the tip of the tongue.
Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.
So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart. 

June 24, 2005