On 9/11, I lost one of my closest friends in the world, Andrew Golkin. Every year since that tragedy, I've both memorialized and remembered him by writing an annual letter to him on the anniversary of his passing.
This year, I've debated whether to honor his memory in a more private manner. I'm not exactly sure why but I suspect it has to do with how the role of blogging and social media has changed over the years. When I first started this blog back in 2004 (!), I was always a little uneasy as to what extent I was willing to share my personal feelings online. The internet's ability to allow us to bare ourselves to so many people was somewhat uncharted territory.
Ever since the advent of MySpace, it was always clear that, to a certain extent (whether consciously or not,) the persona that we project online was merely how we chose to present and share ourselves to the world.
Lately, the trajectory of social media has taken on a form of navel gazing that greatly disturbs me. Whether it's the plethora of people posting countless selfies on Instagram or the deluge of extravagant vacation photos shared on Facebook, we seem to have gone from using social media primarily to connect and build communities, to using it as a means of building some sort of personal brand.
I could go on about this for days but there are others more intelligent who have written about the societal ramifications of all this on our culture. My point here is simply that, this year, I've really gone back and forth about whether I would write anything here today.
That being said, there are a few things that I want to share on this tragic anniversary.
As I get older and make new friends or acquaintances, it's hard to contextualize to them how 9/11 impacted my life. Inordinately, when the subject of 9/11 comes up, someone will say how their uncle was supposed to be at work that day but couldn't make it due to a fortuitous dental appointment. Another will talk about how he was visiting Manhattan for work and was stuck in the city for weeks because he couldn't get a flight out. Or someone will mention how their mom's best friend's niece lost their life on 9/11. Everyone seems to have a 9/11 story.
When this happens, I turn grimly silent until the conversation switches to another subject. Other times, I'll excuse myself and go to the bathroom to choke back the tears.
Because how do you explain to a stranger the horror of losing one of your best friends? Of driving day and night to hospitals all over the city, hoping that you'll miraculously find him? Of crying incessantly every night with your closest friends because the longer you went without finding him, the greater you knew his chances of surviving were disappearing by the second? Of being thrown into such an overwhelming state of sadness that you didn't know whether you'd ever come out the other side?
Ever since the 9/11 Memorial was built, I'd purposely avoided being anywhere near it. One of my (and Andy's) best friends told me about having a business meeting in Freedom Tower. As she turned a corner in one of the atriums, she suddenly found herself standing over the Memorial with a clear bird's eye view. She immediately froze and broke down in tears. The shock of looking into the cavernous area where a close friend had literally lost his life was too much to bear.
This past Spring, I found myself walking downtown near the Memorial. I calmly took a deep breath and decided to go over and find Andy's name etched in the marble bordering the reflective pool. When I finally found it, I wasn't struck so much by sadness as I was of surprising calm. Over the past few years, so many people (both friends and strangers) had sent me photos of Andy's carved name, knowing that I couldn't bring myself to visit the Memorial in person. But being there and seeing his name for myself was strangely cathartic. I sat by Andy's name for over an hour just remembering all the great times that we had shared together over the years. By the time I rose to leave, I was simultaneously filled with melancholy and joy.
As I looked up, I saw the Memorial inscription etched and surrounded by tile that marks the facade of the Memorial. It's a quote from Virgil's "Aenid."
I've written before about how, several years ago, I was watching Mandy Patinkin being interviewed by Charlie Rose and was moved by hearing how every single morning, he wakes up and meditates by reciting the names of all the people whom he loved and whom are no longer alive. He got the idea from an old Oscar Hammerstein quote: "As long as there is one person on earth who remembers you, it isn't over."
It saddens me that I no longer think of Andy every single day. There was a time when several times a day, something I'd see or hear would remind me of him. As time goes on, I often struggle to remember not only everything about Andy but also all the memories that we shared together.
As Haruki Murakami once said, “No matter how much suffering you went through, you never want to let go of those memories."
I may not have all those memories but there are certain things I'll never forget. Because Andy was a truly special guy. He had a smile that could light up the room. His passion and enthusiasm for life were unbridled. You couldn't be in a bad mood when he was around. And if you were, he'd make it his personal mission to cheer you up. He was one of those truly special friends that if you're lucky enough to have in life, you never took it for granted.
Every year on 9/11, I connect with all of Andy's friends and relatives. We mourn his loss and raise a glass in his memory. But, at the same time, I also always think about the fact that over 3,000 people lost their lives on that day. Spouses lost their soul mates. Children lost their parents. Mothers lost their sons and daughters. Andy's story is just one of many tragedies. I'll never forget that. Ever.
And as much as I'll always grieve over the tragedy of 9/11, I'll also never forget how, in the immediate aftermath, it unified us as a country and reminded us of what we stood for as a people. There was such an overwhelming sense of love and compassion that demonstrated our inheritable charitable instincts and reminded us of who we really are as a nation. Especially in NYC. In a city of 8 million people, the phrase "the kindness of strangers", for the first time in my life, took on a truly greater meaning.
As Senator John Kerry once said, "Remember the hours after September 11th when we came together as one to answer the attack against our homeland. We drew strength when our firefighters ran upstairs and risked their lives so that others might live; when rescuers rushed into smoke and fire at the Pentagon; when the men and women of Flight 93 sacrificed themselves to save our nation’s Capitol; when flags were hanging from front porches all across America, and strangers became friends. It was the worst day we have ever seen, but it brought out the best in all of us."
In many ways, our country today seems more divided than ever.
Regardless of one's partisan politics, I'm starting to think that maybe we now need to take the anniversary of 9/11 to remember all the things that unite us as a great nation. Let's remember how we came together to help our fellow citizens---regardless of race, ethnicity, creed or sexual orientation. Let's remember that there's far more that unites us than divides us. Let's remember that, together, we can accomplish far more as a nation united than a nation divided.
It was in that very spirt, in Andy's memory, we started a scholarship fund to help those less fortunate overcome any obstacles in life and strive to achieve greater things in life. Andy was a true champion of the underdog and incapable of passing by someone in trouble, friend or stranger, without reaching out to help. Over the years, I'm proud to say that we've helped dozens and dozens of kids from disadvantaged households realize their goals of going to college. One day, I'll publish a compendium of all the lives that Andy's passing has affected. It's more moving than you could possibly imagine.
Our Andrew Golkin scholars are reflective of the fact that great things can arise from great tragedies. So today, on the 16th anniversary of Andy's passing, if you're here and reading this post, I ask that you help us keep Andy's memory alive by helping us help those around us.
I miss and love you, Andy. And I always will. Now, forever, and always. I promise.
All the best,
Your friend Pierre