Everyone above the age of 18 probably remembers exactly where they were 17 years ago on this day — September 11, 2001.
Human beings have this eternal time clock, a marker, that embeds vividly clear memories of both the happiest historic events we bear witness to ... as well as the most devastating.
My husband Geoff’s brother — whom all his family and friends called "Twig" — worked in the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
When the North Tower was hit first, Twig and his colleagues were told to stay put.
When the second airplane flew directly into the World Trade Center’s South Tower, Twig and his two colleagues began the descent to the ground from the 84th floor. The plane came in directly below them — between floors 78-82.
Twig turned to his two buddies and said, "I’ll meet you down there. Just want to make sure the rest of the team is out."
That was the last time the two friends saw Twig, as told to the family at the memorial service.
The next day, September 12, as Geoff’s son grabbed his backpack to leave the car, Geoff whispered to him, "You’ve seen the very worst of what mankind can do. Pay close attention from this point on, because you’ll see the very best of what mankind will do."
As he watched his son walk into school, Geoff peered up to the windshield to the sky and murmured, "Twig, this is not the way your life story is going to end."
For the past 17 years, Geoff has been on a mission to keep that promise to honor his brother’s legacy.
In the beginning, he did this through many radio and newspaper appearances, sailing magazines, and presentations at churches and schools.
His message was always the same: Seize the opportunities to get together, to share adventures. Plan those today and remove "someday" from your vocabulary. Triumph over tragedy.
Just a little more than one year prior, in the Spring of 2000, Twig had called his brother, Geoff, who lived 6 states away, to ask if he wanted to sail with him that coming summer in the North American Championships held in Greenwich, Connecticut.
"I didn’t even blink before I said, ‘Sure'," Geoff says. "Logistics, cost, time off of work paled in comparison to a sailing adventure with my brother."
Their father, who had made each of them the son of a son of a sailor, joined them.
That was the last time the trio competed together.
In 2003, three years after losing his brother in the 9/11 attacks and following six months of grueling work, Geoff finished repairing and rebuilding the family sailboat his brother had started.
And then, he and his father competed again in the North American Championships.
Tears in their eyes, they were out on the front leading one of the spinnaker legs in the last race. Geoff whispered to his father, "Twig is with us now, Dad."
The most emotional and compelling part of the story for us was the collective excitement that came from so many people who had supported the family, who had seen the boat in disarray, and now saw it as a shining star in the water.
Even the most competitive of sailors wanted Geoff and his father to win. It was a shared victory.
"I felt like a kid again," Geoff said. "That I had turned back the clock in time and all of the tragedy and darkness disappeared. A moment where I could whisper to myself: ‘We’re still living life. We’re not allowing sadness to win the day.’"
There are other things we do to honor Twig.
Prior to working at the World Trade Center, Twig had worked in the financial sector in London. On casual Fridays, the employees did not have to wear a heavily-starched white oxford shirt.
Twig broke from tradition and wore a pink shirt just to liven up the conservative British bankers.
We now wear pink shirts every Friday (sometimes three each in one day — workout, casual polo, and dress) to honor Twig’s tradition.
We've even adopted a hashtag to share on our social media — #psf.
As tradition and legacy go hand-in-hand, we also honor Twig each year on or around 9/11, by the annual Spencer Lecture that family and friends had created in 2002 at the brothers’ high school in Ohio. The annual Lecture features speakers from all over the world who speak to diversity, international relations, and cultural understanding.
The Lecture is a time for all to take pause, to look within, to reflect on opportunities for human connection, and to reconcile any differences.
In 2002, just before the first annual Lecture, Geoff’s mother commented that she wished something good could come from all of this.
While Geoff spoke to hundreds of people on the podium during that first Lecture in 2002, he responded to his mother’s words:
"Well, Mom. Something good has come from all of this. We have a Lecture series that encourages us to embrace a worldview. To consider others. To behold the very best of mankind."
Just a few days ago in Ohio, at the end of the presentation of the 2018 Lecture, a graduate of the high school and a Navy Seal — who certainly has seen the very worst of mankind during his time in the Middle East — asked the 500 young students in the auditorium to "be that man who goes back in to think of others. To makes sure his team is okay. To have that kind of character who goes back to check on the well being of others before considering himself.”
Every year on the anniversary 9/11, we choose to give our attention to the heroes — those behind the greatest boat rescue in world history, or the "plane people" of Gander, Newfoundland, who took stranded passengers into their homes to feed, bathe, and host strangers without the least bit of trepidation and even relegating their children to sleeping bags on the floor so strangers could have their children’s bedrooms.
Or Rick Rescorla, a retired military man who worked at Morgan Stanley and was responsible for safely getting out 2700 employees he had trained in practice drills, singing "America the Beautiful" over a bull horn as they made their way to the ground.
For many years in my Psychology of the Arts class, my undergraduate students drew powerful response images of Geoff’s 9/11 story, often gifting them to Geoff as their way to assuage any lingering grief.
These are the selfless stories of the very best of mankind that touch our hearts and remind us of a collective humanity where, yes, something good can come from this.
Triumph can override tragedy.
Which tradition, legacy, or ritual do you embrace to honor those who have gone before you and those who will come after?
What new, compassionate memory can you encode in your mind?
How would you like your life story to be told?
Poppy and Geoff Spencer, M.S., CPC, are certified counselors, nationally syndicated writers and relationship and parenting experts certified in Myers-Briggs personality typing who have appeared on NBC, ABC, CBS, YourTango, Bustle, and Popsugar. They are also “Millennial Translators,” national speakers, authors of a #1 Bestseller, One Billion Seconds: There’s Still time to Discover Love, and podcast hosts. As a husband and wife team, they have made it their life’s passion to help people immediately identify and address communication barriers.