Nine years and one day ago, I woke up in the hotel in which Mohammed Atta would spend the next night before waking up and flying a plane into the World Trade Center.
I had just finished a bike ride from Montreal to Portland, Maine, to raise money for research into an AIDS vaccine that had not just renewed my faith in humanity, but raised it to a level higher than it had been at for a long time. Thousands of people set aside a week of their life to come together for the ride, having already spent months training and raising funds–all to help others.
The mood at the end of the ride was euphoric. We had all completed what seemed prior to that week an impossible feat to raise money for what was–and still is–and impossible feat. And we had done it together–cheering for each other, setting up each other’s tents, encouraging each other through tough times and loaning each other shoulders to cry on when needed.
Along the way we were cheered by every community we rode through, and sometimes by folks standing in groups of two or three out by their houses. In one memorable case, an entire schoolhouse turned out, which was about 30 kids of all ages from grades K-6. Their school was in the middle of farm country, surrounded by fields, so they were the only people we saw for miles along the road, and there they stood, all day long, cheering each rider, waving their signs for hours.
I stopped to chat to them and was greeted like a hero. A sweaty, tired, sore-assed hero to me, but they didn’t care about that.
And when we finished, I was greeted by (my then fiancee) Mama and her mom, who treated us to a delicious dinner and wonderful night in Portland. The next morning, as Mohammed Atta was picking up a co-conspirator and driving toward Portland, Mama and I got into our car with a fellow rider from DC. We drove all day to get back to DC, going by New York City at night, during a thunderstorm. Our car didn’t have taillights, so my memories of the drive back are vivid, since I was gripped, especially through that storm.
I will never forget saying, “If it weren’t for this storm, we could see New York across the river over there.” I think my next sentence was something about the twin towers, but that memory isn’t as clear, and I won’t claim it because the events of the next day may well have placed it in my head.
After dropping off our passenger, Mama and I got back to our tiny basement apartment late at night. It might have even been past midnight, but we knew we could sleep through the next day to recover, after which I would return to my job on the back side of Capitol Hill and Mama would start her new job at HUD headquarters.
And sleep we did, having driven for over 12 hours after riding over 500 miles in under a week. However, our morning slumber was repeatedly interrupted by messages from Mom on our answering machine, and one from my sister. I couldn’t quite hear what they were saying since the answering machine was in the living room, but I could hear references to New York and the World Trade Center.
I kept thinking, you know we live in DC, why are you calling about New York? After the third call from Mom, I got up and started listening to the messages. I didn’t get through half of the first one before I was turning on the TV and picking up the phone to try calling Mom–but of course all the lines were tied up by then. And by then both towers had already fallen.
Yes, we slept through the whole thing.
And in the instant we saw those towers fall, all the faith in humanity and hope for the future that had built up inside me with each dollar donated, each pedal stroke, and each cheer from the roadside, disappeared.
What followed here in the DC area–the anthrax and sniper attacks–didn’t help restore it any sooner. However, both 3B and Jewel have helped restore it. Watching them become themselves, I realize every day that we all start with such great potential for love, kindness, laughter and compassion that there’s no reason to despair, only to work harder to uncover that potential in each of us.
I’m working to make cancer history. Will you help me?