After looking for about ten minutes, Laura whispers my name.
“Bert, over here.”
She is standing next to a bronze parapet that surrounds one of the 9/11 Memorial pools. Her fingers are tracing the inscription of his name: Paul W. Ambrose
We hadn’t known him personally, but Paul was a hometown kid, and in Huntington, WV, our social ties are rather enmeshed. We’re all linked by only one or two degrees of separation, and we celebrate people like Paul (there aren’t many like him) because they make us proud. From Marshall University to Dartmouth to Harvard, Paul had pole vaulted over the hillbilly stereotype. Engaging, intelligent, and relentless, Paul planted himself among elite company as a congressional advisor, a champion for public health, and senior advisor to the U.S. Surgeon General. Many expected him to become the nation’s youngest surgeon general.
American Airlines Flight 77 changed that. In a cruel twist of irony, Paul’s D.C. to Los Angeles flight altered course over his hometown of Huntington, WV, before crashing into the Pentagon.
Unable to speak, my fingers join Laura’s and, together, we touch the name carved into the cold, lifeless bronze plate. A part of me feels guilty. I shouldn’t be so affected by the death of a stranger. What emotional right do I have?
Because he was one of our own.
I scan the thousands of names.
They all were.
Beyond the square ramparts (the footprints of the twin towers), water flows over the edges into a shallow pool before disappearing through a center shaft. A river of endless sorrow bleeds into the unquenchable earth. The morning sun rises in a light blue sky that feels gray in this place. It is cool and quiet. In a city of millions, this place is insulated from life’s busyness. “Never forget” has become cliché, but in this ghastly, beautiful place, it’s true. Here, we walk delicately, afraid that even a heavy footfall might wake the monsters below. Again. These grounds are sacred—I feel it with every breath—and I blink away tears as I step away from Paul’s name.
Bitter vines twist their way up from my gut, choking me as I consider the thousands of characters who have been edited out by inhumanity.
I watch an elderly woman as she caresses the memorial bronze. Her long, delicate fingers confirm that, yes, this is real. This actually happened in the land of the free and the home of the brave. In her other hand she holds a solitary rose. After a few minutes, she twists the stem into one of the carved letters and the red rose stands in defiance against death’s inscriptions. She doesn’t shed a tear, but around her eyes and down her cheeks I see valleys cut by rivers that now run underground, into depths I can’t imagine. Or don’t want to.
Who did she lose? Her daughter? Husband?
I feel my heart reaching out for this shattered soul when I hear the scream, loud and shrill like twisted steel cutting into stone.
I turn to find a little girl of about four-years-old racing toward me. Her mop of hair bounces around her ruddy face like an alien creature chewing on her skull. She squeals, her arms pumping as she darts through the crowd. I then realize she is being chased by what must be her older brother. He attempts to tag her—swipes and misses—as she darts away at the last possible second. Brother makes a leaping grab and catches hold of her. The two begin laughing, but then mop-top squirts away from her brother and the chase is on again.
It’s like someone turned circus animals loose at a funeral and I am incensed by the lack of reverence. If I could find their parents, I’d—
The children run past the woman with the rose and I hold my breath.
Freaking little brats! Have some respect!
I’m not prepared for what comes next.
The woman with the rose observes the children scurrying past her. I wait for the scowl and the snide comment, but neither comes. Instead, I see a grin—slight but unmistakable—crawl up her face and snuggle into her cheeks.
I feel sick, disgusted by something I can’t name.
Later, it comes to me, and I realize that playful children aren’t the culprits. I’m sickened by my own bitter response to it.
Our emotional responses toward others always reveal more about us than them. With every negative reaction I have toward someone else, I’m learning to pause and prayerfully ask, “What’s really going on with me here?” What I find most often are damaged places in my own soul that have gone off track and are crying out for healing.
I wasn’t ticked off because children were laughing and playing at the 9/11 Memorial. I was angry because I’d adopted our unspoken ethos of bitterness. I just didn’t realize it at the time. I’d become infected by an illness that is eating away at us, a walking-dead mentality that causes us to lash out and attack any sign of life. It’s become our national policy to be angry about something—anything!—and find someone to blame for it. We’ve become petty, morose people, and even when there’s not much to be angry about, we go looking for it.
Spend twenty minutes on social media. We’re a bunch of snarky, malcontent jerks aching for a fight. Consider the state of politics. We’ll rail against things that are actually good for us if it’s proposed by someone we’ve been media-driven into hating. The culture of callousness has polluted our souls so deeply that we’re not satisfied until we’ve poisoned others with our bile.
The sounds of children playing interrupted my bitter moment at the 9/11 memorial.
My God! Could there be a more beautiful memorial to the lives lost than the laughter of children? A more fitting tribute to the world we want to build? A greater battle cry than the echoes of children at play?
Paul Ambrose’s mother, Sharon, described her son as “a very happy child, always smiling with those blue eyes” (Huntington Quarterly).
Friends, joy was assaulted on 9/11, and in so many ways we continue the attacks on a daily basis, on the hunt for something to be ticked off about. We’ve all become terrorists of the heart, and I’m tired of it.
But what if…
What if our only national policy became the laughter of children? All children!
If that could be the litmus test for every decision and action, it might alter our flight path—as individuals and citizens of the world.
It might take us a bit closer to home … to our own humanity.
I pray we never forget what that is.
Bert’s new book from Simon & Schuster
“A valuable, devoutly Christian, and empathy-based concept of parenting in the digital era.”