Jen wakes up every morning around 4am, and although it’s early, she doesn’t mind, at least she lives at the beach. She gets ready for her day, just like every other day, but then she remembers that today is different.
There’s a sadness that will always encompass September 11th for the countless Americans who remember the tragedy of the terrorist attacks of 2001. That is especially the case for Jen.
The years have flown by, yet she’s still reminded of the horrendous reality she was forced into as a member of the New York Police Department on that fateful September morning. It’s a reality we all faced, a common bond among American’s from every walk of life.
On Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, she was patrolling the Brooklyn bridge with the usual suspects of broken-down cars, fender benders, and screaming New Yorkers. She could handle that. She wasn’t prepared for what would soon transpire.
No one was.
How could you possibly fathom the horror of plane-wielding terrorists smashing into the World Trade Center, killing the hopes and dreams of more than three thousand lives?
When the second plane collided into the South Tower, Jen was dispatched to the Manhattan bridge as thousands of people fled lower Manhattan. At that moment, they all knew that this was no accident, it was a deliberate attack on our country. The look in their eyes was an odd mix of terror and confusion as they wiped dust and debris from their faces. It was as if they had been plucked from their lives and dropped into a movie—a movie they didn’t audition for—a movie no one would want to watch.
Jen tried to contain her emotions as she served her fellow citizens, but she was terrified.
Those images are still burned into her mind.
Jen Still Serves
Jen no longer patrols the streets of New York, she serves coffee at Starbucks in Wilmington, North Carolina. And this particular September 11th, I had the pleasure of being served by her. She didn’t tell me the details of the events above, but I saw them in her eyes after a co-worker’s praised her for her service.
She shied away from the attention, but she didn’t hide from it. It was curious to me that there wasn’t a hint of bitterness or anger in her tone. She loved what she was doing and carried a cheerful smile into her job despite her past. As I thanked her and walked out, I couldn’t help but think about her—about her story.
I sat down and began to write these words.
A few days later, I returned to Starbucks and told Jen that I had written about her story. Her eyes filled with tears of appreciation and gratitude. Over the coming months, I would get to know her and we talked often. She told me about her four kids and how she had relocated her family from New York to North Carolina to slow down the pace of life. I shared my thankfulness for her service, both as a member of the NYPD and as a barista.
In the coming months, Jen and I shared a unique friendship. We talked about our families and I always looked forward to having her serve me coffee. Then, Jen got a call from the NYPD and they were asking her to consider returning to service in a prestigious role, supporting the Chief of Police.
She took it.
And I’m not surprised, Jen was born to serve.
Stories to Help us Rise Above
September 11th forever changed the innocence of our time—it was the harshest reality that we never imagined, forever cemented in our past. Now, only the stories remain. Stories of hope despite tragedy. Stories of rebuilding despite devastation. Stories of victory amidst defeat.
I’m reminded of powerful words from President Abraham Lincoln:
“I am not concerned that you have fallen, I am concerned that you arise.”
Like so many others Jen has risen, and that’s what I loved about her story. She didn’t let her circumstances cloud in around her, she chose to rise above them. More importantly, she continued to serve.
We all have that same choice. We can remain defeated by our circumstances or we can rise above them. And if history teaches us anything, it teaches us that rising above our circumstances is at the core of the American spirit. The events surrounding September 11, 2001 remind us of the resiliency of America to unite in spite of our circumstances—to come together regardless of our differences.
Today, we’re fifteen years removed from the events on 09/11 and it seems as if America has again become divided—broken by opinions and prejudices that wedge a spirit of anger and hate between us. Today, we have a choice: we can choose to stand on the sidelines blaming political parties or activist groups, or we can unite and rise above it.
And that is why we cannot forget the power of stories. Stories are a window into our past and give us perspective as we move into our future. They help us grow and heal, in turn, helping others grow and heal. Like Jen, we must become better stewards of our stories. She could have chosen to be bitter, but she isn’t. She has used her experiences and her story in subtle ways to bring hope and encouragement to others.
We must do the same.
Matt Ham is a Christian author and speaker. His first book, Redefine Rich, is full of stories that help reshape the way we view wealth, focusing on a more dynamic perspective. Matt and his wife, Liz, live in Wilmington, North Carolina with their four children.