(photo: NYC OEM)
I recently saw the 9/11 inspired Broadway musical “Come From Away.” The show pays tribute to the 9,000 residents of Gander, Newfoundland – a group of ordinary people thrown into an extraordinary situation. Faced with thousands of stranded airline passengers, the people of Gander opened their homes and their hearts to strangers from all walks of life and all religions.
The show was a welcome reminder of the spirit shown by New Yorkers in the days and weeks following 9/11. It brought back memories of New Yorkers lining the streets to cheer on first responders and doing whatever they could to help one another during a surreal moment in our city’s history – a moment when our massive city felt a little more like small town Gander.
As the show brought 9/11 memories vividly back to life, I couldn’t help but note the reaction – or lack of reaction – of many around me. I assume that many in the audience were visiting New York from some faraway place, or perhaps were too young then to now remember that horrific day. While I tried to share in the joy of the musical and the positive story it told, I was struck at the lack of emotion many showed upon being reminded of the horrors of 9/11.
The next morning, I was taking my kids, 5 and 8, out for the day and reflected on the upcoming 9/11 anniversary. I’ve always told them how ground zero is a place that is very special to me but have only shared some of what really happened that day, and little of my personal story.
When my wife asked my son about 9/11, he shared what he knew, but when she pressed for more information, he simply said, “I don’t remember.”
At that moment, I was shaken. I could only wonder if I had failed as a parent. I wondered if I had failed as a New Yorker. And I wondered if I had failed those that made the ultimate sacrifice that day.
My wife insists that our kids are too young to know the details of what really happened, and perhaps she is right. Why ruin the innocence and joy of childhood with the reality of the evil that surrounds us?
But, I couldn’t help but wonder. Should I have told them about the horror that we all experienced that day? Should I have told them how the world changed? Should I have told them my story and how 9/11 forever changed me?
How else could they learn the importance of remembering the lost. How else could they know to respect the police, the firefighters, and the EMS workers that keep us all safe.
How would they know that sometimes they should run towards danger to help others? And if not that, how else would they know that sometimes all you can do is try to help in whatever way you can – kind of like the people of Gander and all those New Yorkers who lined the streets to cheer on our first responders.
After 9/11, I used to wear a shirt with the logo “Gone, but not forgotten.” I remember every time I would put the shirt on, I would think: how could anyone ever forget.
But when I watched the reactions during “Come From Away,” I started to seriously question whether many had already forgotten - or worse yet, never known.
But it wasn’t until my son uttered those three words, “I don’t remember,” that I fully realized the meaning of “Gone, but not forgotten.”
Remembering 9/11 won’t just happen on its own. We all have a responsibility to share our stories and to teach those around us what happened when terrorists turned airplanes into weapons.
And as I thought about how we could better remember 9/11, I realized that’s exactly what the writers of “Come From Away” had done. They had told the story of 9/11 and in doing so, had helped to preserve our history. They made sure that we remembered those we lost and they helped honor those that did whatever they could to help.
“Come From Away” was also a good reminder that people from nearby as well as those far away suffered during 9/11. It was a reminder that many, many people have their own stories about 9/11. And it was a reminder that we must always tell the fully story of 9/11 – offering different perspectives, sharing the good, and, of course, sharing the bad.
Telling the story of 9/11 forces us to acknowledge the unthinkable things done to innocent people. But it gives us the opportunity to honor the heroes that raced into danger to save innocent lives – many becoming victims themselves. And yes, it allows us to share the stories of how we came together as New Yorkers and how we came together in Gander – wherever your Gander may be.
“Come From Away” helped me realize that there are many ways to tell a story. And with that, perhaps there are many ways to teach our children – to teach my children.
The irony of passing judgment on the “Come From Away” audience is not lost on me – I was quick to judge, but realize that just because the audience enjoyed the show, doesn’t mean they didn’t appreciate the significance of the story.
As a parent, I want to shield my children from life’s unpleasant realities, but I also want to make sure that their values are driven by our history...by my history.
I still don’t know how or when I’ll share the full details of 9/11 with my kids. My wife is probably right (she usually is) when she says they are too young to learn it all.
But while they may not be old enough to learn about terrorism, they are certainly old enough to learn what “Come From Away” reminded me – how love can, and did, conquer evil – in Gander and in New York City.
I’m going to start by teaching them that lesson.
Larry Knafo served in the FDNY, was a founding member of the NYC Office of Emergency Management (OEM) and served as the First Deputy Commissioner at the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications. After 9/11 he led development of the City’s Family Assistance Center, drove technology recovery efforts, and aided in the development of the City’s Emergency Operations Center.