I Lost My Daughter On 9/11. Am I Losing My Country, Too?

Photo: Courtesy of Donna Marsh.
Vanessa Lang Langer during her last trip home in May 2001.
Editor's note: It has been 15 years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people. Refinery29 has chosen to share the voices of women who survived as well as those who lost loved ones so that we may never forget. This story contains details that some readers may find disturbing.
It happens every year at this time — we remember the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001. I never need reminders. On that day, I lost the eldest of my three children, my daughter Vanessa. She went to work. She did not come home. I haven’t seen her in 15 years. And so, as a way of coping, I write. I try to bring her home, if only on the page. I tried, over the course of those years, to advocate for peace in her name. This is my home, America. The United States of America. I have loved this nation as much as any citizen. I am a mom who lost her daughter. If I don’t fear Muslims, why should you? If I am ready to move beyond hate and rage, why shouldn’t you be? This is what I've said. This is what I have written.

But this year is different for me. This year I don’t want to write, because to write is to dig deeply into truths yet unsaid, to unearth meanings buried beneath layers, and to share what I find with an audience who will be moved. All I wanted was for my work to inspire people to be more compassionate with one another, to see the world from another’s point of view. And now, in this incendiary climate, I find that I have very little to say that anyone will hear. No one has listened, it seems, and I’ve been writing this for 15 years. All nations, all places on earth, have inherent dangers. We should not waste our joy nor forget our benevolence as we coddle our fears.

America is a geographic space. America, too, is an idea. It is freedom. Liberty. Brotherhood. We have always espoused this. Perhaps, though, these are only words, cloaked in the shroud of red, white, and blue. What else explains the current presidential election and the way a call to wall off our southern border has resonance with so many? We have already built rhetorical walls.
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He was, at that moment, not just one of us kids; he was, from that moment on an object of suspicion — the boy who would not pledge.

Colin Kaepernick is the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who, in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, refuses to stand for the national anthem. He is protesting what has now become so commonplace that it isn’t even news for one whole day — another person of color gunned down on our streets, the American system of jurisprudence in place only for some. Kaepernick’s behavior is disrespectful, we say. It’s wrong. He should move elsewhere, we say. We say. And what of a movement that asks that we #SayTheirNames? I have said their names. The list of names, like those read on the morning of Sept. 11 every anniversary for 14 years, is too long to just “say.”

Haven’t we always said that dissent and peaceful protest is valued here? What is America without that? After all we have been through in the past 15 years, our biggest concern is that a quarterback takes a knee during the national anthem? There is no such caveat in our common values. Democracy is, however, based on our willingness to use our voices and our bodies to effect change.

One day when I was in second grade, a fellow student, a boy named Jack, refused to stand for the recital of the pledge of allegiance. I don’t remember the moment we were asked to stand, or his denial. But I do remember that he was called out by the teacher. As each of us in class watched with horror, a sobbing Jack stood in the hallway, surrounded by teachers, who gathered as word spread. He was, at that moment, not just one of us kids; he was, from that moment on, an object of suspicion — the boy who would not pledge. He stood in the corridor in his white shirt and black tie, dressed for assembly, choking out an explanation: “My parents won’t let me.” I remember that not one teacher tried to comfort him.
Photo: Courtesy of Donna Marsh.
Vanessa Lang Langer reaches for her younger brother, Jackson, as her middle brother, James, looks on, in Niagara Falls, circa 1993.
I remember, too, that I wanted to reach out and touch his sleeve. I wanted to tell him it was okay, that he was still Jack. But mostly, I thought he needed to be held or touched. In the end, doing something like that seemed more important than telling him anything. But I didn't do either. Like everyone else, I just watched.
We cannot just watch anymore.

I miss my daughter every day. The way we struggled together to push the other to be a better person. Much like our country, we were imperfect.

On this day, this day that marks 15 years since our lives were forever changed, I will be watching my daughter’s favorite sport, football. I will be rooting for her Giants and my Saints. I won’t be writing.

And also, I’ll be in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, hoping that one day we will all do a better job of upholding America's values.

And that we’ll stand, not blindly for a pledge, but beside each other as we reclaim our democracy. Together. And there will be no walls.

Donna L. Marsh teaches at Syracuse University. The views expressed here are her own.
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