I remember exactly where I was when a plane crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. It was a profoundly sad day. It changed lives and an entire nation. I will never forget the unthinkable, unimaginable horror as I huddled around the television watching the ash of innocence unite a country in anguished grief. As the morning went on, the plane crashes went from one to four, each one an almost unrecoverable blow of terror, multiplying devastation into exponential heartache.
A new commitment to patriotism rose like a phoenix out of ashes on that pivotal day. We were less naïve and more united. A surge of civilians stepped out of their air-conditioned offices and into the desert heat to join our military. They traded the comforts of civilian life for the trials of war to ensure freedom.
I don’t doubt the urgency of the call to serve that those newly converted soldiers felt. I was almost eight months pregnant with my first child on 9/11. Things that mattered to me before that day—the décor of the nursery, the name I would choose, decisions about going to work afterward, and finding a pediatrician—were suddenly inconsequential. Somehow, life as we knew it was in jeopardy. My body was full of the promise of life, and the sky was falling.
Almost 12 years have passed since that day. It’s sad to think of the service members who have died while my little baby celebrated birthdays, played in countless baseball games, and brought our family an immeasurable amount of joy. Therefore, it seemed fitting to give back to our armed forces by volunteering in Operation USO Care Package, putting together small comforts to send overseas to those serving.
We wrote notes to include in the packages. It’s hard to know what to say beyond thank you. Thinking of the uncomfortable conditions they endure, the families they leave behind, and the fellow soldiers they watched die, thank you seems feeble. But it’s a start. My sons included words such as brave, kind, and helpful on their notes, and, like mine, each one began with thank you.
We stuffed bags with military precision. In formation, one beside the other, we filled care packages with razors, toilet paper, a toiletry kit, a small bag of peanuts, beef jerky, coffee, a bandana, keychain, and a Reader’s Digest magazine. We were outside in the middle of the day in the middle of the summer, and sweat ran down my oldest son’s face, his hair matted under his ball cap. I thought about how much hotter it must be in the desert. My children were starting to look faded, so we broke for lunch.
On the way to the restaurant, I asked if they could surmise what military life is like overseas, by the contents of the packages we put together. My youngest son piped up with “hairy,” referring to the need for a razor. My older son and I talked about what a treat the peanuts were and how they didn’t have access to books and magazines the way we do. In the middle of the conversation, he interrupted and asked, “Are you going to cry?” I laughed. First, as much as we had sweated in the summer heat, I don’t think I could have mustered a single tear. Second, I didn’t feel sad. I felt grateful to those who served to protect our freedoms. Seeing my son begin to know me, not just as his mother, but as an individual (yes, perhaps a quirky, emotional one) made me feel even more gratitude.
Rejuvenated and rehydrated from lunch, we returned to the cadence of stuffing care packages. I don’t know why my children didn’t complain, or ask how much longer, or act like the silly boys they so often are, but we continued to work in silence. Maybe it was in reverence to the soldiers who would be at the receiving end of our deed, as we have enjoyed the receiving end of their service for years. When I think of the comfort those small items will bring and the words of encouragement, gratitude, and praise that will be opened with them, I am even more humbled.
My son turns 12 years old this Thanksgiving, and I still recall the urgency I felt to bring him into a world that suddenly seemed fragile. I remember how he asked me if I was about to cry and the laughter his question evoked. There has been so much laughter since his birth. No, I am not about to cry. Instead, I look skyward and remember the ash that fell that day and the country that rose from it, spreading its wings to fly high once again. No tears, just gratitude.
This is a repost from 2012 – the year I spent doing works of mercy. In the years since, my baby has traded his baseball cap for the rank of Eagle Scout and his brother isn’t far behind. None of the liberties and achievements they have accomplished would be possible without the freedom our armed forces ensure. God bless them and their families for the sacrifices they make and God bless America.