“Uncle Joe, that’s awesome!”
On the morning of September 12, 2001, having had a couple of hours sleep, I woke up and put my uniform on and went straight to a memorial service that then New York City Council Member Marty Golden and the community of Marine Park, Brooklyn, put together in the park, right at the flagpole. Like many people, the outside of my refrigerator has a number of photos of loved ones and moments of my life that are memorable. This photo of me in uniform saluting is certainly there as well, and always will be. It was taken during that service, about 24 hours after our nation was attacked and so many good people were taken from us, including my then 31 year old nephew/godson, Michael Roberts, FDNY.
When I look at the photo I am always moved seeing how I was in such deep pain. And while I knew I was experiencing great sadness and confusion, along with the rest of our country that morning, I don’t think I realized just how much pain I was in. I have come to learn in life that when we are going through our darkest times we are not fully aware of just how bad it is, and just how much we are struggling, but when we get through it and look back we realize just how bad it was. I think that is some type of protective self-care mechanism our brains are equipped with.
Today, 19 years later the pain of that day and the loss of my dear nephew remains, and will always be with me, like emotional scar tissue. However, somehow those difficult months, and years have helped me emerge as a stronger person, with a greater capacity to love and be loved, and better equipped as a human being to do what we were put here to do, to help others however I can.
I also believe we are all gifted with the incredible ability to access a perspective that helps us cope, even during an extreme hardship. For example, that first night when I got to the site I lost something that the rest of my family had – hope that Michael had survived. The destruction I saw was far too great. My first thought was, he loved me so much. But why? Why did he love me and admire me as much as he did? With this thought, I could hear his voice, saying something that he said so often to me, “Uncle Joe, that’s awesome!” So here is the next thought that came to me – I must live every moment of my life trying to be that man, the man that Michael admired so much. I decided to live the rest of my life for Michael, in honor of him, and I promised myself and him that I would always try to be the man he looked up to so much. My life has been filled with precious moments since that night, where as I am mindful of making an impact on someone, in their time of pain, usually in a funeral home, I can hear Michael saying to me, “Uncle Joe, that’s awesome!” And that is where my healing began.
I hope that this 19th anniversary helps our country, our humanity pause just for a day, just for this hallowed time, long enough to reset and to realize that we are not intended to live with all of this noise and discord and hatred and violence. I pray that we can pause long enough to see each other and to love the humanity in each other. Like September 11th did for us as a country, let us come through this pain as a more evolved nation and as a people who have a greater capacity to understand each other and love each other more than we ever have before.
I know this will happen. Why? Because I believe in our country. I believe in our humanity. I believe in our children, and the children who are yet to be born.