I watch the television coverage every year. And every time I cry.
Bells ring. Moments of silence are observed. And the names are read.
Name. After name. After name. Almost three thousand in all.
They ranged in age from two to 85. Some died quickly: Murdered with box cutters wielded by hijackers, incinerated as planes were used as piloted missiles or killed in a crash when they rushed the terrorists. Some were lost as they scrambled for safety. And some died as they ran headlong into the conflagration in order to save their fellow man.
It occurred to me this morning that the day will come when the names will not be read. When the footage of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center towers, the blazing gash in the Pentagon and the smoking debris in Pennsylvania will not be aired. It is likely that the time will come when the only recognition given to the events of September 11, 2001, will be a notation in a block on a calendar and a "This Day in History" item at the end of a newscast.
But even as I bemoaned the fact that we have a tendency to turn "Never Forget" into "Never Remember" I realized something else: The impact of those lost is not dependent on our collective memory.
Each person who died that day---and those who have died in the years since due to their service at Ground Zero and on the battlefield---left a legacy that will endure even if their names fade from history. A child, followed by a grandchild, then a great-grandchild, and on and on. Acts of valor which inspire acts of service, followed by even more acts of valor: A chain of selflessness. Even a gentle word shared at the perfect moment lingers in the soul, causing the recipient to pay that sweetness forward, magnifying the original kindness a hundred- or a thousand-fold.
On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln visited the site of the Battle of Gettysburg to dedicate part of the battlefield as a cemetery for those killed there. His words---now known as the Gettysburg Address---have thrummed in my mind today as we observe the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
"But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate---we cannot consecrate---we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work that they have thus far so nobly carried on."
"It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work..." What a weighty and stirring mission, as relevant today as it was almost 153 years ago. I think of the passengers of Flight 93 who denied the terrorists a fourth victory and of the military members who have made the ultimate sacrifice on the field of battle. We must be resolute in completing their unfinished work.
But I think we can also honor the unfinished work of those who died simply because they went to work or chose to travel. In the last 15 years I have seen both of our sons graduate from high school and college and get married. I have looked through a glass and seen my newborn granddaughter. Yes, I have grown older---the laugh lines are a bit more pronounced and I can no longer eat fast food with impunity---but what a small price to pay for the joy of the 5,479 days those lost on September 11 have missed.
None of the survivors who take part in the mournful roll call each year ever talk about the stuff their loved one left behind---not the new car or the nice house or the lovely jewelry. They do talk about how that person made them feel and the hole in their lives that will never close completely.
It is for us, the living, to honor the lost by being fully present with our friends and family. It is for us, the living, to weave a legacy of love that can stand the test of time. It is for us, the living, to light a candle in the darkness.
As Todd Beamer, a passenger on Flight 93, said to his fellow passengers: "Let's roll."