5 Things I Learned From My 9/11 Birthday


You know your birth date has achieved notoriety when it loses its neutral number/month format and gets a name of some sort: D Day. Christmas. 9/11.

I tromped off to college just weeks before my birthday, a mid-September day that dawned hot and humid in central Texas. A friend and I wore party hats at our 8 a.m. class on the 11th until the professor arrived, late and fuming. Something bad had happened.

And the news would only get worse as the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers unfolded. Birthday lunch plans with friends were canceled. No one could eat, let alone celebrate. The campus was hushed.

Birthdays are big in my family. And now it seemed I'd be chained forever to this awful day. It's been well over a decade now, and so much has changed (I'm well past the age of celebrating birthdays, for one thing...wait, are we ever really too old for that?).

Here's what I learned from my 9/11 Birthday:

1. It's OK -- even good -- to personalize 9/11. Separation is OK, too. I was not injured or killed on 9/11, so for years I felt guilt over my feelings of loss about my birth date. Shouldn't I feel noble, national outrage and grief? It seemed supremely selfish to think about myself at a time like this; 9/11 isn't something that happened to me, it happened to the people in the Twin Towers, people in New York, family members. Nothing about it happened to me.

But it did, because I am an American, and it was an act against Americans. I was in a vulnerable place that semester -- off to college, a personal loss, an awful car accident, 9/11. Terrorism was one more proof that everything I thought I knew was upside down. Huge life transitions shouldn't be minimized just because other people have it worse. Transitions and grief are always hard. It's different for everyone. That doesn't make it invalid.

Years later, the first time I felt excited about my upcoming birthday, I felt immediately guilty. That's silly. I can toast my own milestones completely separately from remembering and grieving for what happened that day.

2. Remembering is essential. "Name and date of birth?" We spouses get asked all the time. When I say mine, there used to be an awkward pause. "Whoa, that sucks," people would comment. "That's so awful."

No one comments anymore. At first it was a relief not to hear everyone's reactions, opinions and recollections of 9/11 all the time. Now I think about what the silence means.

Honestly, the Berlin Wall coming down doesn't mean very much to me because I was a little kid, and its coming down was the first I'd ever heard of the wall. So I get it when I read reports of kids in school not really understanding what 9/11 is all about. How would they? Each generation has their own defining tragedies.

But remembering 9/11 is so important, not least of all because 9/11 was a big catalyst in many of our current or future lives as military spouses and the decade and a half of war that our spouses fought, are fighting, will fight. My future husband sat in class on 9/11 and felt more strongly than ever that the military was the only path for him.

Even as it recedes further and further into the past, 9/11 set our country, and my future life as a military spouse, onto a different course.

3. Terrorism steals something from all of us. Loved ones. Lives. Normalcy. A sense of safety and security. A birthday. The acts of terror committed on 9/11 took so many things from so many people that a birthday seems trivial in comparison. But birth dates are arguably a defining part of who we are, and mine was one of the things that fell victim to terrorists that day.

4. Mourning together AND celebrating together makes us strong. That first evening in 2001, my family drove in town for a somber dinner. Together. We -- as family, as friends, as military spouses, as a nation -- face tragedy together. We give each other strength.

In April of 2002, my friend Ginger presented me with a handmade necklace.

"What's this?!" I asked.

"You said you'd never celebrate your birthday on 9/11 ever again. So I'm celebrating your birthday today."

Finding ways to celebrate shows hope shining through tragedy.

5. We can get through anything. When I look at politics right now or catch up on shootings in the news it can feel like our country is spiraling out of control. But I feel a lot of hope when I think about what our country has survived. As a nation, we united after 9/11, and I know we can do it again.

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