UPDATE from Donna Marsh O’Connor/September 8, 2021
Seven Thousand and Nearly Three Hundred Days and Nights
For my family, it is always 9/11/2001. Each birth, each death in the family, each holiday or dinner time, or day-out-with-the-dogs holds the scent of that day. We lost so much. I know this as a look back over the pictures Vanessa left behind. That stunning baby into child into adolescent into glorious woman-soon-to-be-never-to-be mom. There are pictures missing. Of Vanessa’s baby who would be attending college now. Of Vanessa, who, in order to prepare for the birth of her child, wanted to document her own family. She had taken many of the pictures of her to work at the World Trace Center in order to upload them to a website she never made live.
On 9/11, each year the world remembers: over three thousand souls leaving their bodies, first at once, but then more and more of the first responders, of those who lived close to Ground Zero, they, too left earth. That day has a long half-life.
America seems to have left us, too. Not the geographic space, but our collective soul. We fight. Have no interest in understanding one another. Less interest in caring for one another. If I got my wish and Vanessa magically arrived home, I’m sure she wouldn’t recognize this place.
Grief stains your life once it enters. And that’s true for me and my family. We wouldn’t have it any other way. Because Vanessa mattered. Her life mattered. Her smile mattered. We still smell her sometimes–the aroma of her fruity shampoo fills the air at the oddest moments. We never know why. But when it does, it overpowers the acrid scent from lower Manhattan that still, twenty years on, clings. And each and every day, we wait for the scent of her. Every single second of every single day it is early morning on 9/11/2001. She is still here.
By Pamela Burke/May 17, 2011
Donna Marsh O’Connor wrote a column in The Huffington Post recently called Vanessa’s Hands following the killing of Osama bin Laden that was so reflective and moving we felt we had to find Donna and ask her about it. Her pregnant daughter, Vanessa Lang Langer, died on 9/11 at the World Trade Center’s Tower 2.
In a previous article in the Post she detailed how on 9/14/01 she traced Vanessa’s name in a car covered with white dust as she walked through the streets of the city to find the baby girl she bore 29 years before. It would be four years later that she had the courage to see Vanessa’s complete file at the Medical Examiner’s Office.
Donna has been an outspoken member and speaker for the September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows about what happened that fateful day and in the aftermath. She’s been teaching writing for over 27 years at Syracuse University.
In her poignant piece for the Post, she describes a ceramic angel dropping from a desk three days before the news spread around the world that bin Laden was dead:
“…it broke from its base, the wings went in two directions. Superstitious always, but more since 9/11, I joked that Vanessa had lost her wings. What was going on in heaven?”
And then she began to wonder at the meaning of this angel without wings. Why was she staring so intently, she asked. Was it a premonition of the events that would come to pass on May 1?
We asked Donna about this angel and what she makes of its significance in connection with bin Laden’s demise…
EYE: How did you happen to write Vanessa’s Hands?
DONNA: It literally happened with the angel breaking. Ever since 9/11 there were always inexplicable moments. So many metaphors land on you, and you wonder what the significance of them is. It was either a guardian angel or the hand of God or Vanessa.
The way it broke was odd. It broke off of the base leaving the back of this angel perfectly smooth. It looks like a young girl holding flowers and like it never had the wings. I made a joke saying Vanessa gave up her wings. Now what was she going to do?
I used to make the joke that people like bin Laden and others better pray that they go to hell. If they go the other way, they’re going to meet up with Vanessa and be in big trouble.
“The night unfolded for me like it did for everyone. I was overcome with emotion.”
EYE: What did you think the message was?
DONNA: I was asking what are you trying to tell me? I didn’t want to throw it out. And then that night unfolded for me like it did for everyone. I was overcome with emotion.
Maybe it was a premonition, and she or God was warning me that the end was coming for bin Laden. All the old conflicts are brought back everytime 9/11 comes up and continue to be brought back every anniversary. I notice it more than other people but it has its cycles.
EYE: Did you intend to go to the site when President Obama visited that first week in May?
DONNA: I had no intention to go there then. I had a long meeting that day and typically don’t go to Ground Zero. It’s been a long ten years. I can’t say I was happy that a human being was killed. In some sense it makes me profoundly sad that at the end of the day that was what we all wanted and that was what we all needed.
He had to be eliminated one way or another. Any mass murderer or serial killer has to be removed and stopped. I think that President Obama had a responsibility. I absolutely do not critique what we did. I think its naÃ¯ve that we could ever have brought him to trial.
I’m hoping that Obama chooses to move it to another stage by declaring an end to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“If only he had used it for good and not evil and compassion and kindness instead of killing.”
EYE: Are you happy about anything that’s transpired since his death?
DONNA: I can’t say happy. I think the aftermath of celebrations are important for us to pay attention to. If we’re not comfortable with them then we ought to stop creating bogeymen.
We can’t get upset with young people spilling out of Georgetown and other universities. They are in their 20’s and were kids when this happened. If you tell a child there’s a bogeyman and then he’s killed, they’re apt to be in the streets cheering.
We want them to say look at the cost of human life, look at the mind of this guy. If only he had used it for good and not evil and compassion and kindness instead of killing.
EYE: You have been incredibly vocal. Have the events of 9/11 eaten you up over the years?
DONNA: I put it to bed and say enough, let someone else take the ball today. For months I haven’t been writing. I’ve been laying low and teaching my classes at Syracuse University. I haven’t been investing in it because it’s exhausting. I speak out when it seems essential. You can change the discourse, or you can let it go.
And then it just seems like the time to speak out again. When they wanted to build a cultural center a few blocks from Ground Zero, suddenly the world broke out in this Islamaphobic nightmare. Someone’s got to speak up; the 9/11 families should not be invoked as a monolith.
We all have very different opinions. It was really important to me to have a stake in that argument. I speak out when it seems essential.
“You come here to escape religious persecution not to experience it.”
EYE: Are you changing the discourse?
DONNA: I think when there was this group of 9/11 members who said we don’t want certain people tried in New York City and we don’t want a mosque near Ground Zero and other issues, we did change the discourse. We said we’re 9/11 families also, and we absolutely support a cultural center and if it were a mosque, we would support that too.
It is part and parcel of being an American. You come here to escape religious persecution not to experience it.
EYE: Do you feel the 9/11 families are a united group?
DONNA: There are different positions. We try to contest ideas without hurting other family members. Sometimes they get mad at us, but I don’t get mad at people. I think that we all are feeling we lost our family members and have lost civility in our nation.
EYE: Will you go to Ground Zero in September for the Tenth Anniversary?
DONNA: I have never gone. I think it’s way over-exploited by politicians. But if something is pressing and we would have the power to change discourse, I might reconsider.
The anniversary is important to other people. For those of us who lost close family members, it’s with us every day and every holiday when there’s an empty chair. Now all my friends are having grandchildren, and there’s a vacancy that is never going to go away.
It’s like a rubber band around you. It tightens. You never know when. It’s ouch time for awhile, and then you live with it never knowing when it’s going to tighten again. It’s pressing right now when everyone is talking about it again. My daughter is there in a different way.
EYE: Does it help to talk about it?
DONNA: No, having discussions about these disasters is horrible. What helps is when I can have hope that in some way she is circling in prayer or in some other way. Writing is important to me.
I was focusing on a different kind of writing and then that Sunday night happened, and those essays like the one on Vanessa’s Hands just started pouring out. There is so much to say.
I always thought when I was a kid that writing would save my life. It has or it’s hurting more. If I would just wallow and accept some of 9/11, it might be easier.
EYE: When I saw the bin Laden footage, I thought how difficult it must be for families to be viewing it again. How can people help?
DONNA: We get great support from friends. People do invite us to speak and get the word out . I am going to write a book that’s a memoir and about our culture, taking stock of where we are and where we need to be going.
“We would start by saying we really care about each other.”
EYE: Do you reach out to other family members?
DONNA: We have 250 family members, and we do reach out to others. When we were all over New York talking about the mosque, there were some people in agreement and some not. One in disagreement was this captain in the New York City Fire Department. His son, also a captain, was killed.
In speaking with him from talk show to talk show when the cameras were rolling, we were on different sides of the fence. But it was so comforting to know this man; he is a wonderful guy. We would start by saying we really care about each other.
“We’ve become so divided. This is really important to stop.”
I care deeply about a man who lost his son in a pile and spent more than three months digging every inch of Ground Zero up until he found him. He took his son out himself. Then he spent time in the hospital for respiratory problems. On so many issues we can come together; on some, we just don’t agree.
For the most part, 9/11 families are in this together. We lost our kids, our cousins, fathers, grandmothers, and we lost the best part of our nation. One of the best pieces was the ability to talk civilly to each other. We’ve become so divided. This is really important to stop.
EYE: I have heard many varying comments about the meaning of these recent events in Pakistan with bin Laden’s death. What is your perspective?
DONNA: I don’t know when Osama first decided he would kill to get his agenda across. At the time he did, he made a lot of sadness on the planet. I can’t say any part of this is anything but horrendous.
There is no solace. This was a function of law enforcement at the international level. He had to be apprehended and had to be stopped, and he was. I can still feel what an awful waste of humanity for everybody he has taken by his own hands or through his own will including his own life. What an incredible waste.
EYE: Thanks, Donna, for sharing your thoughts and for writing your heartfelt column. We hope to talk to more families of 9/11.
UPDATE 9/11/16: Remembering Donna and her family on the 15th Anniversary
UPDATE 9/11/15: Remembering Donna and her family today
UPDATE 9/10/14: Thinking of Donna and her family on this 9/11/14
UPDATE 9/10/13: Thinking of Donna and her family on this day…Donna’s article, “A Dozen Years” in The Huffington Post today
UPDATE 9/10/12: Thinking of Donna and her family on this 9/11/12