Lights illuminate the 184 stone benches outside the Pentagon in Arlington, Va. Each bench bears the name of a person who died on Sept. 11, 2001, in the terrorist attack on the Pentagon.
Author's Note: I originally wrote this on the one-year anniversary of the tragedy of September 11, 2001, and it stills rings true for me today as it did back when I wrote it. This true story -- told to me by Haley and her family when I had the pleasure of meeting them at the memorial service -- is forever dedicated to Haley (who would now be 19), her family, and all of the victims and their families who were affected that day. Always remember them in your hearts.
Today was a day for an entire nation to remember and reflect on the tragic events that happened one year ago today -- the day that thousands of people lost their lives. But for ten-year-old Haley -- whose real first name is Alexandra but insisted people call her by her middle name -- it was just another in the long line of days without her mother, a communications representative inside the Pentagon at the time of the plane crash.
The fateful morning of September 11 found Haley's mother dropping her off at school, where little Haley had recently started third grade. As she had always done, her mother leaned over, gave her daughter a kiss and told her she'd be there to pick her up after school. Haley hopped out of the car and closed the car door. She heard her mother call out her name and Haley turned around. Mother looked over daughter -- her pride and joy. Haley stood there, staring at her mother, waiting for what she had to say. Her mother, looking as if she had so much to say, simply spoke the words, "I love you."
Haley's pink dress -- the special one her parents had bought her as a back-to-school present -- swayed in the wind as her thin, little lips curled to a smile, her hazel eyes sparkling. "I love you too, mom."
Her mother beamed a warm smile as the girl turned around, now only looking like a black backpack with short arms, legs and blond pigtails, and walked into school.
A little more than two hours later, Haley and her family's lives would be forever altered. Haley's mother wouldn't be picking her up after school that day.
Shortly after two planes shot into the World Trade Center, political commentator and Flight 77 passenger Barbara Olson called her husband Ted on her cellular phone. She told him that five men had hijacked her plane. They both continued to reassure each other that everything was going to turn out OK.
Out of the blue, Barbara hearteningly said, "I love you, Ted."
Her husband told her he loved her too. The couple began to exchange information and how to find a way to keep in contact. Abruptly, the phone went dead.
Thousands of people arrived to work at the Pentagon that morning just as they did every five mornings in a work week. Men, women, young, old -- working and living. Some glared at their computer screens; some walking the hallways to a meeting or office; some on the phone to colleagues or loved ones. It's most likely that Haley's mother was thinking of her husband and three children.
A passenger jet, American Airlines Flight 77, roared overhead unusually low to the ground, causing a slight shudder of the glass in nearby buildings. Like a guided missile, Flight 77 -- with 64 people onboard, including Olson and a group of children on an educational field trip -- slammed into the north side of the Pentagon. One hundred eight-four lives were extinguished.
Schools were let out early that day and Haley waited for her mother or father to pick her up. But neither one of them came. A relative picked her up and watched after her and her two siblings until their father came home early the next morning.
Because the children were not allowed to watch any of the television coverage of the crashes, their father had to tell them what had happened. His eyes glazed with tears, their father tried to explain how "some very bad men took control of some planes and forced them to crash into some big buildings."
The children asked their father why the bad men had done such a thing. Why did they crash that plane into mommy's building? The man tried his best to collect himself and explain why it had all happened. He tried to tell them that the "bad men's" beliefs had made them think they were doing the right thing. Nevertheless, the children never understood. The way they were raised, they could never understand about terrorism or hate or killing in the name of religion.
Their father also proceeded to tell them that their mother wouldn't be coming home because she was "hurt very badly" in one of the buildings. Haley, being the oldest, asked in her soft, tiny voice, "Is she dead?"
The man solemnly nodded his head. Through her tears, Haley knew that although she was sad that her mother was dead, she was still comforted in the fact that she had her father and brother and sister and the rest of her family.
For their father, it was the toughest thing he'd probably ever have to say to his children. The man uncontrollably wept as his three children looked to him for answers and comfort that he probably would never be able to fully give.
Then, little Haley was the one who unexpectedly gave comfort to all of them.
With a small smile on her face and her small, cute voice, she said, "Mommy's our angel now."
Their father wept more as he nodded his head in agreement. He looked to Haley once again to find her forcing a smile through her tears.
"She said we'd be OK if we have an angel," she continued. "I can feel her with us."
The man looked closer at his daughter and came to realize that she truly was her mother's daughter. And when he looked deeply into her eyes, he could undoubtedly tell that she sincerely meant every word. Those few statements his daughter had made put a smile on his face. He knew that if his daughter could keep faith and hope, then he could too.
A year later, Haley had grown a few inches; her blonde hair had gotten longer; she moved up a grade in school. However, two things still remained. She still missed her mother and she still kept her faith.
I met little Haley for the first time at the Pentagon tribute where she told me her story. She was holding a photo of her mother as other hundreds of people surrounding me were with their friends and family pictures. Someone in the crowd began to say that ever since the attacks, this country has "with a slow resilience returned to everyday normalcy."
I couldn't have disagreed more. Since the attacks, people have been much more supportive. However, they have also been in much more fear; fear of this happening to us again; fear of anyone who remotely fits the stereotypical "look" of a terrorist. Yes, this country has learned to love more. But it's also learned to fear and hate more.
It is fear and suspicion that the terrorists wanted to poison this country with. Fear and mistrust are this country's greatest blights. Most people have given the terrorists what they were hoping to instill: anger and hate and fear. It is the only way they can drag us down to their level. I myself am somewhat fueled by a desire to have this country drop bombs in their backyards. After all, they would at least have fair warning. Where was our warning?
I sat at the ceremony, mostly thinking these types of thoughts. At the end of the program, I met a few of the victims' families and I met Haley. I expected a sad, withdrawn little girl -- like most of the adults had appeared. To my surprise, Haley acted the complete opposite.
What first appeared to be childhood naivete was, in actuality, a human's courage and hope. When I met her, she was a slightly happy, energetic little girl. I asked her where she was from and why she was there. To my surprise, she gave me a fully-detailed story about her mother and what had happened. The entire time she spoke I was expecting her to break into tears, but she never did.
I asked her how she was feeling now to which she answered, "I'm good, sir. But I miss my mom."
"Are you sad?"
"A little. But I know she's always watching me. She's always with me," then she pointed to her heart, "right here. Besides, I've still got my dad and my brother and my sister and friends."
I could tell just by looking at this little girl's expression that she meant every word she said and that she believed that everything in her life was going to be mostly fine. There was a mixed bittersweet emotion melted in with her optimism; a bittersweet feeling that although she carried on with her good life, there were still unsure apprehensions in her eyes. How would she feel when her mother wasn't there for her high school prom? Or graduation? Or wedding?
Around her neck hangs a small heart locket with a photo of Haley's mother in her teens. In her mother's early years I could see where Haley got her looks from; her smile already resembling her mother's.
Haley gave me a peculiar look and asked, "Did someone you loved die here?"
I nearly choked at her seemingly innocent question. "Not here. A long time ago."
"Was it one of your parents?"
"No. She was a girl my age that I loved very much."
"Did you kiss?" Her face blushed as she cracked a smile and her father tried to hush her. "Was she your girlfriend?"
The sudden transition from serious to the absurdity of this little girl wanting to know about my love life made me chuckle a bit. "Yes, we did, and yes, she was my girlfriend."
I slightly hung my head and nodded.
"You loved each other?" she asked with more inquiry.
I looked back to Haley's face and said, "Very much."
Haley turned on a little smile as if she were urging me to cheer up. "Don't worry. My mom will take care of her. They'll be OK."
It sounded adorable coming from her because she made it sound as if they were on this long trip together. I've had a lot of people try and comfort me on death and loss. Most of those people said things that were a lot more profound than Haley's statement. Still, there was something in the way she looked and how she said it all that brought this overwhelming comfort to my soul.
I'm not a religious man and I don't pretend to have any idea of what happens to us when we die, but I'd like to think that my friend and Haley's mother were somewhere, watching and talking and laughing.
"Will you be OK?" I asked her.
She bobbed her head up and down, her body wavering back and forth from the shake. "I'll miss her," Haley confessed. "But I always smile when I think of my mom. I don't cry so much anymore. She wouldn't want me to be sad. Would your girlfriend want you to be sad?"
This amazing little girl summed up what many twice her age had taken years to accept. "No," I answered.
"People who love us don't want us to be sad or hurt."
I couldn't believe I was hearing this out of the mouth of a ten-year-old. I had to continue the conversation because I wanted to know more on what this girl thought and how she felt. I asked, "But what if you hurt anyway?"
"My teacher says that everybody gets sad. But if someone gets sad all the time just by keeping someone in their heart then that person needs more time to let that person's spirit into their heart."
"Maybe people already think they are in their hearts."
Haley looked up to me, right into my eyes, and said, "If they were in their hearts, and they loved each other, then the people wouldn't be so sad all the time."
"I guess most people just miss the ones they love."
"My mom used to pick me up after school and, some days, just her and me would go get ice cream. That was one of my most favorite things I miss doing with her. But I'm glad we did it together."
I knew Haley was telling me something with her story. The message I got out of her short story was that she was happier and more thankful to have had these ice cream trips with her mother rather than be sad that she wouldn't have anymore of them. While that's not an easy concept to keep, it is a very honest, endearing quality to have.
I couldn't help but smile at the little girl and her face lit up with an even brighter smile. "It was very nice meeting you, Haley."
The girl stepped up to me and stretched her arms out. I knelt down and she moved closer to give me a hug. She wrapped her short arms around me and squeezed as tight as she probably could. While her movements appeared to be natural, my reaction was completely awkward. I looked at her in shock and awe as I hesitantly put my arms around her and gave her a gawky embrace.
"What do you do, Mr. Amerling?" she asked in a sad tone.
The question somewhat took me off-guard. I could've told her about my administrative job with the federal government; I could've told her that I used to work at a music store and amusement park; or I could've told her that I was merely some guy just trying to make his way in the world. So what did I tell her?
"I'm a writer."
Haley looked back at me with her teary, innocent green eyes and said with a hint of hope, "Then you won't forget this. You'll write about this?"
I solemnly nodded my head. A smile raced to her face. "I knew it. That's why you're here," she said. After hearing that, those two sentences became much more meaningful than how she had probably meant it. I knew then that a big purpose of my life was to make sure people remember. Make sure they remember important emotions, thoughts and experiences while we're in this life. "Keep writing stories," she said, her face shimmering with hope.
I slightly shuffled back and extended my open hand. Her smiling cherub face gazing at me, she placed her small hand into mine and curled her short, skinny fingers around my palm.
I've met famous actors, politicians and women I've been completely in love with; all of these meetings have been somewhat nerve-racking to me. Nevertheless, my palms spouted sweat non-stop when I shook little Haley's hand.
We gave each other a few shakes and she began to slowly move on with her family. As they walked away, before disappearing into the crowds, the little survivor half-turned to look at me and gave me a wave goodbye. "Don't forget me," she seemed to plead.
Within the thirty or so minutes that I spent talking to Haley, I was inspired to remember and write about our brief encounter: a moment when a small, young stranger rejuvenated -- and reminded me of -- the beauty of human spirit, courage, love and strength. To uphold these beliefs in all our days not only makes us more respectable and adept, it also makes us wiser and happier.
It is a much greater thing to smile once from a memory -- even if it's just once -- rather than have it sadden you all of your life. There will always be tragedy in life. The important thing is not simply how we choose to carry on; it's that we do carry on.