SEVENTEEN YEARS AGO

Seventeen years ago, on September 11th, my mother and I stood at my father’s bedside to tell him what had happened to his beloved country. He was almost completely bedridden by then and had retreated into the mysterious silence that claims those with Alzheimer’s as the disease enters its final stages.

“Something terrible happened this morning,” I said softly. “We were attacked. The World Trade Centers have fallen – planes flew into them. The Pentagon too. America misses you right now.”

“You’d know what to say to us,” my mother added.

My father blinked his eyes at us, leaving us to wonder, as we often did, whether he understood any of what we had said. His soul heard us, I assured my mother. His soul understands.

I had moved back to California a few years earlier after living in New York for four years. That morning I had tried in vain to reach friends but the calls wouldn’t go through. When I gave up trying and drove to my parents’ house, I saw a disheveled, possibly homeless, man by the side of the road waving a tattered American flag. Later that day, the radio station I had on in my car played Whitney Houston’s version of America the Beautiful. I had to pull over because I couldn’t see through my tears.

I thought a lot in the days after about loving America – about how many of us, myself included, took this country for granted, how we didn’t slow down in our lives enough to really consider what loving your country means. There is something reverential about it. It’s a feeling that is, by definition, infused with forgiveness and understanding, because America’s history has some dark chapters and some shameful periods. But with each dark chapter there have been people who refused to give up on the dream of America, who reached for the light, who said we are better than this. Who said this darkness, this shame, this prejudice, this cruelty will not define us.

It wasn’t until 9/11 that I understood my father’s deep love for America. Before that, as a kid, I was embarrassed when he teared up at a song like America the Beautiful; when I got older and felt that America had stolen my father from me I was angry at her, angry at him, not at all willing to think in terms of reverence. But then we were wounded in a way that’s still hard to fathom, and everywhere I looked I saw what was great and heroic about this country.

It strikes me that now, in 2018, loving America as passionately as we did seventeen years ago might be the thing that saves us from those who are steering us down a darker path. When Nazi sympathizers feel emboldened to pour into our streets, when white citizens call the police on black teenagers who are selling water or mowing lawns, when the man in the Oval Office goes on the road to stir up hatred, we have traveled far down a very dark path.

There is the America we risk turning into, and the America that can shine like a beacon in the world. Which we will be is up for grabs right now.

It was my father who first told me about the Indian tale of two wolves. A Cherokee grandfather tells his grandson about the terrible fight going on inside everyone, between two wolves. One is evil, full of greed, hatred, arrogance, superiority, ego. The other  is good, full of compassion, love, humility, truth. Which one will win? The child asks. The one you feed, his grandfather tells him.

7 Responses to SEVENTEEN YEARS AGO

  1. Beth Feldman says:

    Our family revered your father. He was wonderful to listen to & a comfort to our country as a principled leader of freedom & democracy!

  2. Victoria Brandon says:

    Beautiful, beautiful piece, as always. Thank you.

  3. Melanie Howard says:

    Wonderful remembrance and vital message about where we are heading today.

  4. Jody says:

    We need this right now. The current state of our nation engulfs us in darkness as we tumble out of the joy that was once America. I adored your dad. He elevated the spirit. Lately, I realize I have taken the gift of America, for granted. God bless you, Patti. You are truly a gift.

  5. Michael Baron says:

    Brilliantly written and incredibly inspiring post!!

  6. Pamela Cameron says:

    When I sang for your father so long ago, and he took my hand afterwards, I could see the love and wisdom in his sparkling eyes. I never voted for him, and I disagreed with him on many political things… but, in his heart of hearts I believe he was a good man. A beautiful story and memory, Patti.

  7. Robin Spangenberg says:

    Thank you for your words. I’m honestly not very patriotic as the grey area between Patriotism and nationalism quickly fades when the powerful use it as a tool from the bully pulpit. However, in these dark times, Americans need more voices like yours that transcend political parties and touch the souls and remind us what that we all have more in common than we think. We can be or brothers keepers, and be the shining City on the hill. Please keep writing, I’ll keep listening. Robin

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