Last month we experienced a historic occasion. Pope Francis, the Bishop of Rome, made his first visit to the United States. He visited Washington, DC, New York City, and Philadelphia. All of his stops were significant, but I was particularly touched by his visit to bear witness at the 9/11 Memorial in lower Manhattan. Less than a week before, my husband and I were visiting New York and also made an intentional pilgrimage to Ground Zero. It was a powerful experience.
We stood at the edge of one of the memorial reflecting pools and lightly traced our fingers across an engraved name, outlining each letter. Each of the nearly 3,000 victims from 1993 and 2001 was remembered by an inscription. One of my tracings was of a woman and her unborn child. Others were fathers, mothers, spouses, sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, neighbors, friends and colleagues.
Each name meant something to someone and everything to others. And all of them mean something to every American. We feel their loss in our hearts, minds, and fingertips. “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”
This summer, on a road trip across the US, we visited many fun and indulgent places. In the midst of our easy-going rambles, we deliberately included a visit to the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to remember those victims and their families. “It was a day like any other”—until suddenly and violently, it wasn’t. The main impact of the blast hit the onsite day care center filled with children. Innocents.
At the museum next to the memorial, we heard the start of a recorded meeting, business as usual. Then: the roar of the blast, followed by the screams. It was visceral. It made me angry. It made me cry. But mostly, it made me want to touch each one of the “chairs” on the memorial grounds and say: “You mattered. You will not be forgotten.”
And just as we remember those who were lost, it is imperative to recognize the challenges of those who survived—not only those who were in the buildings that day, but all the family and friends of those who went to work one morning and never returned, all the parents who would never again hug and kiss their little toddlers. The pain—on all counts—has made an imprint on our collective psyche. “We Come Here to Remember.”
Later this year we will travel to Hawaii.* We will lounge on Waikiki Beach, snorkel, drink pastel concoctions adorned with pineapple chunks and umbrellas, and marvel at fantastic coastlines and waterfalls. But first—first, we will visit Pearl Harbor. To bear witness. To pay our respects. To honor all those whose lives were lost on that fateful day. We will learn about the USS Arizona and the USS Missouri—evocative remnants of “the day that will live in infamy.”
All these memorials are dignified testimonies to our resilience as individuals and as a nation. They offer comfort, strength and hope, even as they underscore the impact, waste, and ripple effect of violence. And so we make these trips and stand watch—at least for a time—over those who were in our collective lives, to demonstrate that they remain in our collective hearts. These pilgrimages are humbling journeys and weighty endeavors. Even so, one can’t help but wish for a time with no new witness to bear.
*We did travel to Oahu in November 2015. We wanted to see Pearl Harbor and the Arizona Memorial, which requires a short ride across the harbor on a small ferry. Our tour left at 10:30 a.m. on November 12. The prior day was totally booked as it was Veterans Day. Due to weather conditions and rough seas, we were the last tour of the day. We were leaving Oahu the next morning and were, therefore, especially grateful to have had the experience of this visit.
Our group heard a brief presentation, saw the wall of names, and like so many before us felt the emotional impact of our visit. Anyone who served on the Arizona may be buried at sea with their shipmates. A navy diver carries the urn of ashes as high as possible out of the water. When the ship is reached, they pause so that family and friends may pay their final respects. Then with a flip, the diver goes under and the urn is sucked through a portal into the ship’s hull, to remain for eternity, mingling those ashes with the remains of their shipmates. As of November 2015, there were seven remaining veterans who may choose the USS Arizona as their final resting place.