Exactly a month ago tomorrow, I celebrated my birthday in the Washington, D.C. metro area. It was a truly wonderful day that began shortly after midnight with shots prepared by my uncle (who gave me lots of advice on such activities! #ohdear). The day continued with front-row seats to a hilarious comedy at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, preceded by drinks and tapas at Oyamel in the Penn Quarter and followed by a fun dinner of half-smokes and cheese fries at Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street. For all intents and purposes, it was one of the best days I’ve been fortunate to experience. The entire week was a wonderful experience, and I hope to expand on my experiences in later posts.
In my experience, there is a defining moment in any trip worth any value. The evening after my birthday, my uncle, parents and I visited The National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, which is just across the river from Washington, D.C. It was my second visit to the memorial (having paid a brief visit back in 2009), but it was the first time – nearly twelve years after the fact – that I processed the events of 9/11.
The site is composed of benches above illuminated pools engraved with the victim’s name, arranged by year of birth, relative to the Age Wall surrounding two sides of the memorial. The name of the victim is etched into the bench, and the names of anyone related to that individual who were also killed are also noted.
I was sort of aimlessly looking around and taking pictures during the first few minutes we were there. My uncle began talking with an older couple and their son, and we visited and reflected with them for a few minutes. Afterwards, we went to a corner of the memorial and discussed the events of the day amongst ourselves.
After a little while, I decided to break from our group and look for my birth year, 1992. There, I found the only bench from that year – Zoe Falkenberg.
It hit me… This girl was in the same grade (3rd) I was when the plane she was a passenger on with her family was deliberately crashed into the Pentagon. I realized that Zoe (quite eerie, since my favorite little girl – my niece – shares this same name!) must have felt such fear and confusion in her last moments, and that she, unlike me, would never have the opportunity to celebrate her 21st birthday.
I broke down and couldn’t understand how horrible, truly horrible individuals could end the beautiful lives of such innocent people and take away the moments and milestones, heartbreaks and happinesses that they should have – in a perfect world – been able to experience. That morning, the home of the United States Department of Defense was the location of 184 unfortunate and untimely deaths. People from the age of 3 (Zoe’s little sister) to 71 (a navy vet who was also on-board) were robbed of birthdays, weddings, births, hopes, dreams and other experiences we so often take for granted.
Despite the horrible events that have taken place at some of these sites and the difficulty in comprehending the evil happenings that took place there, I find it’s always easy to see signs of growth, life and the moving on of both. In Dachau last summer, I saw a leaf sprout out between stones (http://www.flickr.com/photos/lukebunker/8256390604/in/set-72157630365624728), and at the Pentagon last month, I took a photo of a bloom from one of the many trees that has been planted at the memorial:
It’s moments like the above – connecting with someone who very easily could have been me on 9/11 – that solidify why I travel… It puts life and history into perspective and gives you empathy and understanding that you simply can’t comprehend or get by just being an outside observer. These places and events are both humbling and heartbreaking, and I believe it’s abundantly important to make an effort to visit and connect with them, all the while remembering those who were most deeply affected by these tragic events.
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This post is dedicated to Zoe Falkenberg, who although the world lost far too soon, has helped this particular traveler gain a deeper appreciation for life. I’ll be thinking of you on your 21st, Zoe!