FPCON DELTA UPDATE: Sunday, September 19th – read this URGENT message that I am delivering from a higher power for I am truly nobody, I pray that I am wrong, I fear that I am right and if the worst comes to pass, that means this is the mother of H.O.O.A.H. One last thing, it’s time to let the devil dogs out. OORAH! May God bless these United States of America and may God bless all of humanity.
There are certain memories that can never be erased, pains etched into our minds that live long after the day of trauma has passed. Like demons that howl in the night, traumas that are ignored morph into flashbacks that get embedded into our minds that manifest themselves in other forms. All of us harbor agonizing remembrances—living life means earning wounds that turn into scars—yet 9/11 stands out for Americans because that was our collective baptismal by fire.
Exactly 20 years after that fateful day, I decided to write this article to confront memories of that year that I have stuffed deep into the recesses of my mind hoping to release emotions that continue to keep me up at night. I pray that others reading this article will likewise let go of the thoughts that insist on intruding and coaxing tears at the most unexpected times. I know for a fact that I am not in the minority when it comes to the wounds that come to life long after we bury them.
I have witnessed many painful things in my life from having to flee my birth land Ethiopia at the age of seven only to become the butt of jokes as a child in America, missing my grandmother Emaye because she decided to stay back while my family became refugees to watching someone I love dearly trying to commit suicide in front of me while I was a teenager. Yet 2001 became the crucible that tormented me for most of my adult life. That was the year that my father, my hero of all heroes, was stricken with lung cancer; the man I looked up to as superman met his kryptonite by way of tumors.
Though I’ve felt sadness and blues in my life, I’ve never experienced depression in my life until my father started to wither before my eyes. I could not bear watching him suffer as he went from working three to four jobs at a time to provide for his family to being bedridden and unable to take care of himself. As if watching my dad struggle to live was not enough, eight months after he was diagnosed with stage IV lung, the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were attacked.
I remember every facet of that day like it happened last week. I woke up on September 11th intent on going for a jog before heading out to a meeting with the Department of Housing and Urban Development that was scheduled at 10:30 AM. Right when I was about to go work out, the first plane hit the North Tower at 8:46 AM and I was instantly floored. I sat down and watched with disbelieving eyes the destruction that was taking place with my eyes glued to the TV. I remained planted on my couch only to see the South Tower get hit seventeen minutes later.
What I did next made no sense at the time but hindsight gave me the wisdom to know what I did was a perfectly normal response to trauma. I suddenly that I had a meeting with HUD at 10:30 AM so I wanted to get a truncated version of my workout before heading out to Washington DC. I ran for 15 minutes, took a shower then dashed to my car. Realizing that I was about to be late for my meeting, I frantically called my point of contact at HUD named Dawn to let her know that I would be a few minutes late.
After attempting 8 calls, Dawn finally picked up her phone on the 9th try. I told her that I was on my way and that I should get there by 10:40 by the latest. She said “are you fucking kidding, everyone is leaving DC, do not come here!” and hung up the phone. Shocked by her response, my trip to DC was cut short because the 14th Street bridge was closed off with a police officer preventing anyone from entering our nation’s capital. I pulled my car over on the shoulder and walked right up to the bridge and joined a gathering of people who were talking and trying to make sense of what was happening.
All of a sudden, the police officer’s radio came to life as an APB about a fourth plane was being broadcast. Upon hearing the information, the officer jumped into action and told everyone to evacuate. His panic induced panic in me! I ran to my car but not before I tried to relay the information that I had to others who were parked on 395 as I tried in vain to tell them to leave thinking that a plane was on its way to blow us all apart. Logic says that one plane will not kill people who are on the side of the road but fear betrays us all the time as risks that impact a minority of people morph into gigantic perils for everyone else.
After warning people to make a U-turn in order to avoid danger, I stopped playing hero and decided to save myself. I jumped into my car and started driving southbound on 395 North. I drove for about two miles before the hero complex compelled me to take the Columbia Pike exit in order to head over to the Pentagon. I wanted to help out in any way that I could except almost every road to the Pentagon was closed. Undeterred, I walked through private property, cemeteries and churches to make it to the gas station right across the street from the Pentagon.
When I entered the gas station, I ran into an MP with a machine gun who asked me what I was doing there. I told him that I wanted to help and he told me that they needed ice. I immediately followed his directive and walked to the back to get ice only to run into a second MP with a machine gun. This guy was in no mood to play around, he took one look at me and asked me what the hell I was doing there. I told him that I wanted to assist by getting ice to the crash site and he told me “get the fuck out of here” while gripping his gun tighter. My hero complex was overridden by survival extinct, I quickly left the gas station and witnessed the horrors of that day up close and personal.
Three months later, my dad’s health deteriorated to the point we all knew his time with us was coming to an end. Unable to cope with the thought of losing my father, I started partying every night as I drank copiously to chase away the pains. On Saturday, December 22nd, 2001, I went out to a club called Republic Garden and drank enough alcohol to intoxicate an elephant. By the grace of God, I made it home and promptly passed out. Around 5:00 AM, my phone started ringing continuously. I looked at the caller ID and it was my mom calling me over and over again.
Afraid to pick up the phone, I literally crawled under my bed to hide from the bad news that I knew was awaiting me on the other end of the call. Unable to turn my phone off or silence it, I listened to a symphony of rings for nearly an hour cowering under my mattress before I finally picked up. My mom, nearly beside herself and unable to fully articulate what was happening, told me that my dad’s health had taken a turn for the worse. Upon hearing this news, my fear dissipated and my hangover abated, I ran to my car to head over to Potomac Hospital.
My sisters were on their way back from New York, my brother was there waiting for me and my mom was stricken with grief. I went to the ICU to visit him only to walk in and see a man I no longer recognized. He was intubated and had all kinds of wires attached to him; my mom was grieving in another room and my brother decided to go for a walk when I arrived. I pulled up a chair next to his bed and held his hand as I talked to him and thanked him for everything he did for me growing up.
All of a sudden, my father started to pull at the tube in his mouth and yanked it out while the alarms on the monitors started going off. He coughed up blood as doctors and nurses rushed in to save his life. I walked out dazed and confused as if I just witnessed a war scene. I strolled through the hospital like a zombie until I saw a TV in the breakroom where the football game between the Redskins and Bears was being broadcast. I sat down and started watching the game as if nothing happened. After being in a coma for 12 days, my father officially passed away on January 4th but for me, Fikremariam Million returned home on December 23rd four days before his 58th birthday.
For close to twenty years, I was wracked with guilt for my reaction to my dad’s death. I thought I was a coward for hiding under the bed and felt like I was heartless for watching TV instead of being by my dad’s room as doctors were reviving him. It was not until writing this article that I finally forgave myself for feeling like a coward while my mom was calling me and for feeling like I abandoned my family by partying like a rock star after my dad passed away. I took a break from writing this article to weep uncontrollably in my wife’s arm only for her to calm me down.
She told me that it was not my fault, that I did what I did to re-establish normal and that I most likely disassociated to preserve myself. This wisdom earned from my wife—if you knew our backstory you would believe as I do that God sent her to me to help me heal—I now pass along the same wisdom to my fellow Americans as well as my fellow Ethiopians and humanity writ large. I harken back to Aeschylus who once said:
“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
This is a wisdom that we must take away from the grief of 9/11 and all other agonizing moments throughout our lives. Pain that is not paid attention to is one that festers and is projected in other ways. If you want to know why division has multiplied and why hatred seems to abound, perhaps it’s because all of us are hurting inside; only by looking within can we find peace without.
This entire week has been heavy for me, it’s been one healing moment after another. It all started last Sunday when I decided to return to the same church I visited when I first became homeless. The minute I walk into Kidane Mehret Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Alexandria, Virginia, I saw one of my favorite Ethiopian singers by the name of Bezawork Asfaw. I wrote this entire article while listening to her song “Tizita” which means memories in Amharic. That is a song that is at once my reminder of Ethiopia and a remembrance of what I no longer have.
After talking to Bezawork for about an hour, she introduced me to the lady who literally fed me, what we Ethiopians call giving gursha, six years ago when I visited the church because I had no place else to go. As I was about to leave, I saw an elderly lady sitting by herself who reminded me of my grandmother who remained in Ethiopia and passed away four years before my dad followed her home. I walked over to her, hugged her, kissed her knees and asked her to forgive me. She didn’t speak English so she kept saying “tibarek”, which means God bless you.
I recount the story to pass on this knowledge I picked up after nearly 47 years walking this earth. Forgiveness truly is for ourselves, the angers that we store inside, the pains we refuse to relinquish and the memories we hold on to become prisons if we don’t let them go. It’s only because I am forgiving myself for all the things I did in the past as a means of coping that I have zero feelings of anxiety at this moment. Perhaps it is time to stop remembering 9/11 and instead heal from September 11th so we can honor the victims without harboring traumas in our hearts.
The vast majority of us care deeply about justice yet each year that passes, the further we get away from redemption and the more enveloped by division and separable grievances. I was talking to my friend Steve Poikonen and during the conversation I told him that today is a holiday in Ethiopia called Enkutatash where we celebrate the New Year and ask God to throw out tata (trouble) and bless us with enku (treasures). Steve shared with me that, depending on the Hebrew Calendar, September 11th is likewise a holiday called Rosh Hashanah where Jews ask for forgiveness.
That is when I had an aha moment, America was hit on a holiday in two biblical lands to turn turn our hearts away from forgiveness and instead redirect our energies towards wrath. We have not been the same as a country ever since the Twin Towers fell; instead of mending as a nation, we were misdirected by our leaders to seek revenge. Two decades of vindictiveness has turned the shining city on a hill that is America into a wasteland of antipathy, apathy and indifference.
Our politics is a reflection of who we have become as a people; the things we get outraged over are nothing more than a reflection of our energies.
Martin Luther King once said, “darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” The terrorists who attacked us on 9/11—and their enablers who will get their comeuppance even if they escape justice here on earth—did so because they wanted vengeance. We likewise attacked Afghanistan and Iraq because we wanted vengeance. Twenty years later, our world is no better than it was when we dropped the first bomb in Iraq. By emulating the malice of our attackers, we have become that which we hate.As #WeRemember911, let us remember to heal within as well. Only by mending within can we honor our loved ones and our fellow humans who passed away on 9/11 and are no longer with us. #Heal911 Click To Tweet
Fighting fire with fire, we are heading towards our collective final solution unless we realize that only love can overcome evil. We must learn at some point that fighting wars on behalf of peace is no different than eating fast food to lose weight, the unhealthy things we consume will only end up consuming us. I pray for our sake and for the sake of our children that we stop being wrathful and instead be empathetic because that is the only way to heal ourselves and mend our planet::
“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” ~ 1 Peter 4:8
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