Where were you on 11 September 2001 ?

Thoughts and reflections 20 years later:

I was in Cambodia, in the final months of my career with WHO, serving as the WHO Representative. My wife, Leslie was in Australia, completing a unit in the geriatric nursing course she was following, about to travel to the USA with one of our sons, who was to be best man at the wedding of the son of good friends from our time living in Switzerland. Our eldest son, who at the time was on a course in remote Northern Ontario as an Outward Bound Canada Instructor, planned to join them at the wedding. Our youngest was travelling in India on his way to a new job in Cambodia.

I do not remember much of what engaged me during the day on that Tuesday, September 11, in Phnom Penh, but I do recall leaving the office quite late, and dropping in to one of the riverfront tourist hotels where I had a membership for their pool, to swim, as I did most evenings, generally up to 1 km, on my way home. I arrived at the house at about 8:45 pm Phnom Penh time. For some reason that evening I chose to put my supper on a tray and sat down in front of the TV to watch the 9 pm BBC news.

And there it was, the spectacle of the two skyscrapers burning, with replays of the two aircraft crashing into the two towers. I continued to watch as the scene switched between New York and Washington. My immediate thought was that I was watching some simulation or a horrible horror movie. I watched the first tower implode, live at around 9 pm and the North Tower collapse about half an hour later.

I could hardly believe my eyes. I was mesmerised. I watched until about midnight, switching from CNN to BBC and back. I watched with dismay, horror and disbelief.  Extraordinary scenes. Unbelievable. Horrifying. Deeply disturbing. I felt glued to the television and had to drag myself away to bed at around midnight, realising I had a busy schedule the following day. I did sleep, but when I awoke, I needed to turn on the television, in order to confirm that I had not imagined the previous evenings scenario. The subsequent days are a bit of a blur as I try to recall them 20 years later. I would have continued my busy work schedule, which did include a field trip a day or so later to a distance part of Cambodia.

I recall a flood of reactions, responses and emotions and I can see these emerging in three e-mails sent out over the next few days, one to American Friends and colleagues the following day, one to a wider group on the 15th September and another to each of our three sons. As I re-read them 20 years later, I see some indication of the depth of my feelings and the profound nature of my response to these world-shattering happenings.

1: E-mail to American friends and colleagues on the day after – 12 September

What an extraordinary series of events. I feel our world has changed. Yours certainly has. I imagine that every American is personally connected in some way to one or other of the enormous numbers of people who were killed or injured.  Have courage. Let our response be one that transforms us. Our thoughts are with you now, and will be in the days ahead,

2: Sunday 15 September

Yesterday evening I returned to Phnom Penh form Siem Reap, having had a long and excellent day in Anlong Ven on Friday and a lovely morning in Phnom Kuellin National Park to occupy the time until our flight back home. Anlong Ven is up near the Thai border on the road that goes out beyond Bantey Sre temple, through hills and forests, with wonderful bird life in the evening as we returned. There was a hoopoe by the side of the road and what looked like an Indian Roller darting from tree to tree. It was a long day. We left Siem Reap at 4:30 am and arrived at the first venue at around 9 am to attend the inauguration of a new Health Centre. And then to Anlong Ven itself for the inauguration of a second health centre. I had no real task, other than to write some wise words in the visitors books at both places. I got some nice photos. The people looked wonderful. We arrived back in Siem Reap at about 6.30 pm.

During the second ceremony, as I watched these wonderful people, seeing the appreciation on their faces for the efforts being made, I said to myself,  that had I been asked to say something, I would have turned to the people, sitting in front of the podium, with their kramas of every colour and wonderful hats, and said “This is your health centre. Look after it. Be involved.” I would have then looked at the group of health workers just next to the people of the village, in their white coats and caps, and would then have said to them; “These are your people. Look after them. Help them to achieve and maintain health and remember it is more than just treating diseases. It is also about working with them to prevent illness and promote Health. Then I would have turned to the Ministry of health people and the Governor and said. “These are your people. Together we serve them. We are here to support them as they work together for health.  For after all life is all about people and enabling people to make the most out of what they have, and working together to support each other.”  

I recognise that I was thinking about New York and the events of recent days.  I had a couple of hundred people in front of me on a bright and beautiful day in remote northwest Cambodia. I cannot conceive what it is to have 5,000 dead and a city messed up in the most monumental manner.

I feel immensely troubled by what has happened. However at the same time I am buoyed up by the stories and the behaviours of the people, who, in all but the fewest cases, are showing how being a person is what matters.

These are indeed awful times, but how we respond is so much more important than how we remember the event itself. How we respond is infinitely more important that how we react. I hope we are able to respond in ways that ennoble us as human beings, and exemplify the compassion and the values on which our societies have based their development.  I believe that Joseph Campbell can probably help us deal with the situation, especially in his writing about “The Hero’s Adventure”. When interviewed by Bill Moyers in the PBS series Power of Myth , he said: “When the world around you is falling apart, stick to your trajectory, hold onto your values and cultivate kindred spirits.” or words to that effect. I had it on my bulletin board for years and it proved to be most helpful for people in crisis.

Our thoughts are with you at these times.  with love and best wishes,

3: To three sons, scattered as they were at the time,  in Canada, Australia and India: sent under the heading “Things that need to be said, following New York 9/11

Phnom Penh, 18 September :  I guess everyone has been quite rattled by last week’s events in New York. I certainly was and felt it deeply. I think it has changed the way I see people, and the way I see myself. 

As far as changing the way I see others, I realised this during a ceremony for the inauguration of a new health centre on Friday in Anlong Ven, which is way up near the Thai border beyond Siem Reap. I had no real task, other than to write some wise words in the visitors’ book, so while the speeches went on, I found myself thinking about New York and the events of recent days.

As I did so, I was looking out on a crowd of wonderful Cambodian people, survivors of the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge. I could see the appreciation on their faces for the efforts being made. I had a couple of hundred people in front of me on a bright and beautiful day in remote and rural northwest Cambodia. I cannot conceive what it is to be dealing with 5,000 dead and a city messed up in the most monumental manner.

I said to myself, that had I been asked to say something, I would have turned to the people, sitting in front of the podium, with their kramas of every colour and their wonderful hats, and said “This is your health centre. Look after it. Be involved.” I would have then looked at the group of health workers just next to those people, in their white coats and caps, and would then have said to them; “These are your people. Look after them. Help them to achieve and maintain health and remember it is more than just treating diseases. It is also about working with them to prevent illness and promote health.” Then I would have turned to the Ministry of health people and the Governor and said. “These are your people. Together we serve them. We are here to support them as they work together for health.  For after all, life is all about people and enabling people to make the most out of what they have, and working together to support each other.”     This would have been quite a different speech from the one’s I usually give.

As far as changing the way I see myself, this was hit home during a wonderful telephone call with Leslie last night. We talked about the phone calls and conversations she has had with each of you in the last week or so. We shared some tears. We shared our love for each other.  It made me realise how much such events as happened in New York a week ago challenge one’s values and one’s confidence, not just confidence in the world around you, but also one’s confidence in who you are, and whether or not the things you take for granted are any longer true. The bright light in the darkness came from some of the things that Leslie said about us and about you guys. I know them to be true, however the very real sense of good feeling that came when they were confirmed was amazing. So, I concluded that this must be part of that the deep, awful, sick feeling we have all experienced in the last week: not just the horror of what happened, not just the thoughts of other’s losses, nor the fear of what lies ahead, but the shaking of our own personal foundations. 

Recognising this makes it all the more wonderful to hear the way people used their mobile phones to ring parents, children, brothers, sisters, lovers, and partners to say ‘I love you’ as they saw an end in sight, and the way people helped each other. I know too how much that awareness will increase both my own vulnerability to loss and my sense of well-being, my joy and my gratitude for being alive, for loving and being loved.

I wanted to share this with you and make sure none of you take it for granted, nor have any doubt that I love each one of you as unique individuals. Unique individuals who, each in your own way, are making your way through life in ways which I respect and admire, and  that really pleases me. I admire the contribution you make to others’ lives, and the value you add to what it means to be alive.  I want you to know also that I realise and feel how much you love me. These things together are a source of energy for me, energy that enables me to add value to other’s lives. This has been so since the day each of you were born. You have enabled me to learn so much, grow so much, and be a such better person. I thank you each for that.

In no way am I saying this because I see an end in sight. No. I am saying this because the last few weeks have shown me that there are some things that we do not say, because we assume they are understood, but when said they restore confidence.  I have no idea what it all looks like from where you each are, in your early and mid-twenties. I imagine it is different than for one who is 60 this year. (Although I want you to know that I see another twenty years of full and active living and sharing ahead!) I suspect that some of it is the same, some is different. However, for all of us, I think it has made us reach out to each other and appreciate the connectedness.  Thanks for that too.

Enough.    I feel great today. Perhaps just jotting all this down in an e-mail helps one to be a bit more centred in this crazy spinning world, where we have the chance to experience human being in its fullness. Let us with gratitude and a sense of privilege, choose to live every day to its fullest. love to each of you. Love to all of you,  Bill

And now in 2021, 20 years later, I can see what a profound effect those events have had on me.

I appreciate the tone and contents of my messages reaching out to others, particularly the one to our three sons.

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