born on the 11th of september

Part of a series in tribute to the 10th anniversary of 9/11

I’m not superstitious. At least not anymore than the normal person. But human beings have always attached some sort of significance to births that happen on particular days… He is a Christmas baby… Born on the 4th of July… She was born on her mother’s birthday… as if the coincidence says something prophetic about the child’s life to come. And sometimes, it actually does.

As a writer, I am guilty of noticing metaphors, which is just an extension of the same thing, only with more thought attached. I’m not claiming that all of those thoughts are intelligent, but they are certainly more intense. I find that sometimes, symbolism is just too coincidental to ignore. I think about patterns and the odds of things happening. I marvel at how obvious it can sometimes be, and I wonder what it all means.

I was born on the 11th day of September in 1953.

On that same day in history in —

    1297 – William Wallace defeated the British in the Battle of Stirling Bridge
    1609 – Henry Hudson discovers Manhattan
    1792 – The Hope Diamond is stolen
    1943 – The liquidation of the Jews began in Minsk & Lida by the Nazis
    1944 – The first Allied troops of the U.S. Army cross the western border of Germany.
    1985 – Pete Rose breaks Ty Cobb’s record for most career hits with his 4,192nd hit

See a pattern? Me neither. What about people born on the same day?

    1885 – D. H. Lawrence, English novelist
    1913 – Bear Bryant
    1935 – Arvo Pärt
    1940 – Brian De Palma
    1977 – Ludacris

Nope. Nada. I bear little or no resemblance to anyone on that list.

Until September 11th, 2001 when my entire country was collectively thrown into the agate-tumbler of grief at the death toll of 2,977 people, exceeding even Pearl Harbor.

That day began a transformation of our culture in much the same way that my husband’s death set off the most profound transformation of my life in 1988.

I never envisioned writing a book about grief. Like most people, I avoided the subject at all costs and steered clear of anyone on such a ‘downer.’

As a child, I was seriously happy-go-lucky. My mother’s nickname for me was Sunshine. To anyone who knew me then, I was destined for a life of puppy-dog tails and cotton candy. Whodathunk that my life’s calling would be to work with people in grief?

But that’s what happened.

James Hillman, in his book The Soul’s Code, In Search of Character and Calling re-visions the way that we think of our tragedies–that they are not tragedies at all, but simply the on-the-job training for what we were born to do. He changed my entire view of my life when he tells a story of how people described a man by saying: The man married his mother… Hillman reconfigures the logic… but what if he chose his mother to prepare him to be married to that woman?

Elsewhere in the book, he describes a therapist whose particular genius is helping people through the darkness in their lives. Her on-the-job training was being forced, as a small child, to stay in a closet for days as punishment. In our traditional Freudian paradigm, we would consider her as deeply damaged from such an experience. We’d shake our heads and say “Such a shame…” We’d think of her as deeply wounded—(read defective, inadequate, blemished…)

And that would be right if you do not figure in the phoenix-factor. But the damage is not who she is. It does not define her in her totality. Human beings are far more than the mere sum of our experiences—particularly our injuries. Furthermore, it isn’t so easy as the stereotype that she made lemonade our of the lemons of her childhood abuse. She forged something bigger than herself out of it that could be given to others. Something that transformed the lives of others. Something that will last far beyond her own lifetime. I’d say that was a calling, wouldn’t you?

September 11th opened up our nation to the deluge of feelings that grief is all about—those things I speak about in Companion Through the Darkness

“Grief is a tidal wave that overtakes you, smashes down upon you with unimaginable force, sweeps you up into its darkness, where you tumble and crash against unidentifiable surfaces, only to be thrown out on an unknown beach, bruised, reshaped. Grief will make a new person out of you if it doesn’t kill you in the making.”

Until that day, grief was something in our culture that you quietly hid from others. Grief made you a pariah among our American culture obsessed with all things beautiful and fun. After all, it could be contagious. The grieving were reduced to stories told in bars as ways to pass the time.

After 9/11, people wept openly. They reached out and hugged each other. They told their stories and those who listened did not feel so alone anymore. They volunteered and donated. Some even quit their jobs and reinvented themselves.

These were only some of the ways that my own life was transformed by grief. Over the years, I have companioned many people through their grief, and those numbers continue to grow. Loss is something that will happen to all of us, eventually, so my work is never done. To anyone who hasn’t walked this road, it would be easy to imagine that I’ve grown more serious, even morose. But those who know me know that isn’t true. I’m back to that natural state of joy I had as a child. I’m not afraid of pain anymore. It doesn’t define me. But it has certainly given me an appreciation of life that I never would have had without it.

I believe that collectively, as a nation, we could say the same of September 11th, 2001. It gave us our hearts back.

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

© Stephanie Ericsson 2011