My friend’s daughter was born on September 11, 2001. As she grows, so does our distance from that day. But the memory of September 11 has not faded for me.
It didn’t take very long on that day for everyone to understand that America was under attack. What was not known was how broad the attacks would be, and how many targets there were. The tallest buildings in Toronto were evacuated as a precaution, and obviously work felt meaningless. People started wondering whether Toronto’s Jewish day schools might be targets too and some parents started to head to the schools to pick up their children.
Around lunchtime, my daughter Naomi, then 11, called to say that most of the kids had been picked up by their parents because there was a rumour that there was a bomb in the school. Rather than trying to convince her otherwise, I left the office and went to pick up Naomi and her two sisters, Orli, who was then 7 and Yael who was 5. It was a beautiful fall day, sunny and crisp, and, with all three kids now safely in the car, I made the executive decision to take them for an ice cream on Eglinton.
As we walked into Baskin Robbins, I turned to them with teeth gritted in anger and a waving finger and said “We are not going to let the terrorists change our lives. We are having ice cream.” I now go for an ice cream every September 11 to remember that horrible day. My kids do too.
September 11, 2001 and the weeks that followed were very hard for everyone. Life had changed, but by how much, nobody knew at the time. We were all sad. Even though we may not have personally known any of the victims, we all knew that each one could have been us. It was evident that life could change in a big way, or even be extinguished, in an instant. That was a frightening thought.
A few weeks after September 11, I saw an advertisement in the Ontario Reports, a weekly publication of court decisions. The ad simply said:
The quote is from John Donne, a 17th century poet and cleric, and speaks to the fact that we are all connected and intertwined, and that what impacts one person should impact all of us. The first words of this passage are well known. Those words are: “No man is an island.”
I have kept that ad on my desk at work ever since.
Although my office is full of binders and record books, and my desk is covered with paper, there is no other piece of paper that has been on my desk for 16 years. After all, I wouldn’t be much of a lawyer if I couldn’t finish a document in over a decade and a half.
Sometimes I ask myself why I kept that piece of paper so close to me all those years. It is now browning and getting crispy, but its meaning remains the same: We have choices. We can see something disturbing and conclude that, although it is interesting, it has nothing to do with me. Or we can see the same disturbing site and conclude I must do something about it.
Even in the 1600s, people knew that there should be no comfort in knowing that something bad was happening to someone else. Left unchecked, it would eventually happen to us too. History has taught this painful lesson many times.
Which takes me back to ice cream.
The passage of time has caused me to think about the ice cream I had on September 11, 2001, in a slightly different way.
I initially thought, and I said at the time, that it was an ice cream of defiance: we won’t change what we do because someone wants us to.
I now think it was an ice cream of reassurance, reflecting my hope that everything will be OK. By having an ice cream, I was telling my kids, and myself, that things will get back to normal. I wasn’t certain of that at the time, but going for an ice cream was the most normal thing I could think of to do.
I now understand that if we want something to get back to normal, or improve, or change, or go away, we have to act to make it so. We can’t just be passive viewers of the show we call the world. We can’t just eat the ice cream. We have to make it.
We are witnessing racism, prejudice and chaos in our country’s greatest friend. We wish that it would just get back to normal.
We see problems in our own country and communities, and other places on our shared planet. We know there are injustices and unfairness that could be addressed. If we want to, we can all find opportunities to fix the world, maybe not always in a big way, but many small acts added together make for something big. Each of us can make a difference. Each of us can help make things better.
Imagine how good that would feel.
Like an ice cream on September 11.