Sunday, September 26, 2010

Remembering Our September 11th Luminary Memorial Lighting Ceremony

This afternoon I went over to my parents house to install a new printer for my mom. I had been meaning for several weeks to search for several boxes of mine that I had left behind when I moved out. I decided while I was waiting for the printer to initialize, when the LCD screen read it would be 12 minutes until the next step I decided now was as good of a time as any to search out my boxes. As I waited I opened the closet in what use to be my bed room to see if any of my stuff was still there. Most of it had long since been moved to the basement or shed. I was surprised to see in the top corner of my closet, next to a bunch of my Dad’s stuff an old box. I pulled it down off the shelf and began to search through it. There was a myriad of long lost treasures in the box. A photo box containing some photos and a bunch of my old postcards sent to me by family and friends. Several of my old diaries from my twenties. My coach's notebooks from when I coached cheerleading at GORC. At the very bottom of the box was a copy of the West County News dated November 1, 2001.

At first I wondered why I had kept the newspaper, the lead story was “Party finds cats and dogs getting along” Then I flipped the paper over, where it had been folded in half and recognized the bold story line that read, “Letters, Luminaries Show Patriotism.” The smaller section headline read, “GORC lights up field” Immediately my mind began to remember October 26, 2001. The day a group of coaches, cheerleaders and parents lit 1,000 luminaries on the GORC football field to remember the lives lost on September 11, 2001.

Every year in conjunction with the AAYCA County Cheerleading Championships each cheerleading organization is asked to raise money for a charity. We had debated for several weeks which charity the GORC cheerleaders should raise money for. After 9/11there was no doubt, no question we were going to raise money for the Pentagon Relief Fund. Normally the way we would raise money was to pass a can around at football games. I was insistent passing a can around was not going to be enough. We needed to raise more money and we needed to make a statement. Not quite understanding how much work was going to be needed I suggested we sell luminaries, light our football field up to remember those lost on September 11. Everyone was in agreement, we all went about making this the most successfull fundraiser ever.

Over the next several weeks the cheerleaders and coaches canvassed their neighborhoods, football games, schools any where they could selling luminaries. Our original goal was to sell 500 luminaries. The cheerleaders smashed that goal and sold 998. I remember the morning of the 26th the truck driver who was delivering the sand to the field, when he learned we had sold 998 luminaries, he asked if we had two more. When I told him yes the bags came in packages of 10. He said good and bought the last two. He smiled and said, “1,000 is a much better number than 998.”.

Putting together and setting out 1,000 luminaries is anything but fun. We started with four of us at 8:00 a.m. filling the bags with sand. By lunch time we were beginning to wonder if we were going to have enough time to fill every bag, place a candle in them and then place them all on the field by the time the ceremony was scheduled to begin 7:30 p.m. As the afternoon wore on, more adults showed up to help. By three p.m we were all exhausted. From all the shoveling, bending and carrying the luminaries, our backs felt like we were all in our sixties. Luckily the kids after school headed to the field to volunteer. It is amazing how much energy and how much faster bags get moved onto a field by 13 and 14 year olds than by thirty something year olds!! To them it was a contest, they had to beat the clock, make the deadline. Everything was going perfectly, we had placed the last luminary on the field just before six. Then a few minutes later the wind began to kick up, we began to worry, wind and fire are never a good combination.

Slowly the guests started to arrive at the field. The police from the western district, the volunteer fire fighters from Odenton, the chief from the Waugh Chapel firehouse. The kids were excited to see the marines bring a hummer to the field. The air force, army, navy, every branch of the military sent several representatives to the ceremony to honor those lost on September 11th. We watched in amazement as families from the neighborhood began walking over the hill to the field. We were worried no one would show, but that night the top of the field, and surrouding areas were filled with people. WMZQ made a compilation of mixes and patriotic songs for the DJ to play during the ceremony.

One of the clearest memories I have from that night… we began to light the candles in each luminary at 6:45 p.m. Each person was assigned a row to light. Unfortunately the wind began to kick up even more as we began walking down the rows. As each person progressed down their row lighting the candles, some of the candles behind them were being blown out by the wind. Kim Johnson kept pushing us on. Don't worry, don't look back keep lighting. I looked at my watch, it was 7:20 p.m.. We had ten minutes before the ceremony was to begin. As I looked out over the field I estimated over a quarter of the luminaries had been blown out. I remember feeling extremely distressed. I thought it would not be right, kind of sad, if all of the luminaries were not shining bright during the ceremony. I was looking at the field in despair when an army soldier in uniform took his lighter and begin to light one of the luminaries that had gone out in front of him. By his small gesture, lighting the luminary in front of him, it started a small wave, a chain reaction. Part of the crowd that had gathered around the top of the field waiting for the ceremony to begin, walked unto the field and began to light the candles that had blown out. I looked in amazement at probably forty to fifty people circling the field making sure every candle was burning bright. Some were using lighters, some matches. I laughed at the marines who picked up some broken branches. Broke off smaller pieces, lit the ends and used them to light the candles.

The Star Spangled Banner began to echo through out the night. The wind just as suddenly as it had started stopped. My eyes filled with tears as I looked out over the field and saw every luminary shining bright. I stood there with my hand over my heart, proud to be born in the greatest country on earth. As the minister said a prayer, I felt several of my cheerleaders put their arms around my waist and take my hands. I was so proud of my girls, they worked so hard. They understood how important this night was, how important it was to remember. As the 1st Sgt. was giving his speech, thanking everyone for their donations, asking them to please remember the families of those who died in their prayers one of my cheerleaders tapped me on the shoulder. At first I said shhh, but Danielle was always persistent. So I leaned over to hear what was so important. “Miss Denise don’t worry you taught me well. I promise I will never forget.” My other girls who overheard her comment chimed in “Me too” until I heard a small whispered echo from each one of my cheerleaders.

I understood that night listening to my cheerleaders promise to always remember September 11th, the future of that day, the future of our country was more in their hands than mine. At 13 and 14 they would carry the memory longer than anyone of us. Anyone younger would probably not clearly remember September 11th when they were older. People my age would pass on long before they did. So the history, the lessons learned were in their hands. They would carry on the memory the longest. We had to do our best as adults to keep reminding them, reinforcing how important it is to always remember, honor and hold dear those that lost their lives that day. And those who have sacrificed their lives since then. If we were lucky, if we were blessed, they would remember what we taught them.

As part of the ceremony the director of cheerleading, asked since I had come up with the idea to light up the football field, if I would make a speech. Any one who knows me, understands I do not give speeches, I do not like being recognized, especially publically. I do my best to avoid getting in front of any kind of video camera. There was no way I was making a speech. Every week leading up to the ceremony she would ask, “Denise will you please make a speech.” Every time my answer was the same, thank you but no thank you. Finally I came up with a happy compromise I told her I would write a speech, but I would not deliver it. I asked a good friend of mine Michelle Bogovich to give it. She agreed. Tonight as I was looking through my 2001 coach's notebook, I found placed in the inside pocket the speech I had written for that night. I know it is a few weeks after the anniversary of September 11th but I thought I would share my speech with everyone. Please understand, I will never be hired as a speech writer, it’s not the most eloquent speech but below are my thoughts, my feelings from the fall of 2001 a few short weeks after the attack on September 11th.

The speech from 26 October 2001
The other night as I was driving home I was wondering what I could possibly say tonight at this ceremony. It was a beautiful evening, the sky was clear, the air warm, the kids were out playing basketball, laughing enjoying the weather. People were out walking enjoying each other's company. American flags were flying from any and every surface that they could possibly be hung from. I marveled at how life goes on. I have always known it, but at that moment I realized I was truly blessed and lucky. My life goes on but for thousands, life stopped/paused on September 11. They are still waiting for their life to return to normal, to go on.

For the rest of my life, like you, I will always remember September 11, 2001. Where I was, what I was doing when I first heard of the terrorist attacks. The images of the planes hitting the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the crash in Western Pennsylvania will forever haunt me. It is a ghost I will never forget. The emotions I felt that day terror, fear, anger, frustration, loneliness and uncertainty, I shared with millions across this nation. That day has changed me, in ways I am sure I still have not yet fully acknowledged, realized. We have all changed. Our nation has changed.

These images may haunt me, but what I choose to remember, to remind myself of that day are the images of the people. The faces of the firemen, policemen, military personnel, every day citizens reaching out to help those in need. Those who did not think about their own welfare instead choose to risk their life for another. I choose to remember the images of the people lined up for blocks to donate blood. I choose not to remember the destruction of that day, but the good that grew from the root of the destruction (evil). I choose to remember the hope that arouse from the ashes on September 11, 2001.

When I close my eyes I can still see the faces of the missing. Families/loved ones holding their photos for the television cameras, asking if anyone had seen them. I see the woman sitting outside the pentagon, her silent vigil, waiting for her husband to come home. All of them wanting the same thing, a miracle, praying that their loved ones would some how survive, come home. Thousands did not come home September 11th. Many fathers and mothers will not see their children again, never have the joy of watching them grow up. Thousands of children will never again have a kiss goodnight from their mom or dad. Never have a hug of reassurance after they fall. Babies will be born never knowing the touch, the love of their fathers.

When I think of all the children whose lives are forever transformed by that day I cry. Children should never be touched by such tragedy but life sometimes is not always gentle. And yes there is evil in this world. Now is our time to do something about it. Now is our time to make a stand.

Now is the time to decide. We can choose to hide, run scared, close our hearts and do nothing, after all, our life goes on. Or like tonight we can choose to do something, make a difference. No matter how small the act, no matter how small the gift it can and will always make a difference. When you give of yourself the world changes. Those around you change.

We may not be able to change what happened September 11th but we can make a difference what happens after September 11th. We can as a community take responsibility, stand together, let our voices be heard and make that difference. We can thank God that we are here tonight to remember those who are not. We must teach our children that like this country, through out our lives we will get knocked down, people will try to hurt us but that doesn’t mean we have to stay down. What matters is how you get up. What you do after you get up. What matters now, is what we choose to do after September 11th.

These luminaries we light tonight are here to represent the lives that were lost on September 11th. Tragically, we would need five football fields to place a luminary for each life that was lost but for tonight we only have one.

When I was younger I was told that each person has an effect, no matter how small or large on someone else’s life. As I look out on this football field I wonder whose life will never be touched, will not be changed because of the lives that were lost on September 11th.

I am going to tell you what I believe the victims of the September 11th attack would be saying tonight if they were here.

To the adults present: call your brothers, sisters, your parents. Visit your relatives. Plan that long over due family reunion. Forgive what you thought was unforgiveable. Lend a hand to a stranger. Most importantly, hug your children, tell them you love them, you are proud of them. Never take the words I love you for granted. You may never get a second chance to say them.

To the children here: go home tonight, hug your mom and dad. Tell them you love them. Never give up, you can do anything you set your mind to. Write your dreams down on paper then do everything you can to attain your dreams. Never set your goals to low, always aim high. If you fail, try again. Nothing is impossible if you truly want it.

To everyone here: Take care of the families left behind, their future is in your hands. Please, take care of our country, it's future is in all of our hands.

Thank you and God Bless.

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