A Sister's Story

Dr. Andrew Nowalk uses the new portable cart for ChildrensNet as he makes his rounds at Childrens Hospital in Pittsburgh, Friday, Dec. 20, 2002.
AP Photo/John Heller
Dr. Mary O' Sullivan's brother, Joseph P. McDonald, worked as a broker for Cantor Fitzgerald and was killed in the attack on the World Trade Center. He was 43 years old, and the oldest of seven children. He leaves behind a wife and two young daughters. Dr. O'Sullivan is an adjunct professor of American History at Seton Hall University, and lives in New Jersey with her husband and four children.

Islamic terrorists murdered my brother, Joseph P. McDonald, age 43, on Sept. 11, 2001. One year later, it still seems almost unbelievable that this catastrophic world event has directly affected my family and me.

On Sept. 11, as I made my way into work listening to the terror unfold on the radio, my emotions ranged from sympathy for the poor pilot who must have somehow lost his way and hit the building, to a growing panic, the likes of which I had never before experienced. Then logic kicked in, and I tried to rationalize away the unthinkable -- of the thousands of people who worked in the World Trade Center, what were the odds that my brother would be among the dead? Selfish? Maybe, although I think more likely it might have been some kind of self-protective mechanism, otherwise known as denial. Clearly, I was listening to a horrific tragedy in the making, but like that earlier tragedy that occurred in Oklahoma City seven years earlier, I was sure my part in this one would be that of morbid observer. As it turned out, my part is grieving relative. And at times I still can't believe it.

As the morning turned into afternoon and then early evening, my mind alternated between denial and panic, sometimes punctuated with simple disbelief – this can't be happening to us. Things like this simply didn't happen to us. Throughout that day, I think many in my family clung to that thought, most of us making a heroic effort to maintain a positive outlook, if only for each others' benefit, as we waited for Joe to call and tell us he was OK.

Our family was scattered on the 11th, my sister and I at Joe's house with his wife, my parents at their home nearby with some of my other siblings, and we maintained telephone contact, taking care in our conversations to reassure each other. Sometime in the late afternoon, my sister and I decided it might be better if we were all together, and my sister, I think reluctantly, called my parents and asked them to join us, which they did, perhaps reluctantly.

For all of us, I think, their arrival at Joe's house signaled an unspoken, utter seriousness to the situation – that we needed to be together, to circle the wagons, because, in fact, things might not turn out OK. Still, at one point, my father remarked that he didn't want to be overly dramatic about the whole thing; all things being equal, there seemed to have been enough time for Joe to have walked down the stairs and to have escaped before the buildings collapsed.

Surely, had Joe been able to he would have done so, because my brother had a lot to live for. He was a husband, a father to two girls, a son, a brother, a friend. Hardworking and whip-smart, I suspect he was a lot like the people with whom he worked in the World Trade Center. Like them, he was just doing what he was supposed to be doing that Tuesday morning, arriving at work at the crack of dawn, providing for his family, thinking about what he needed to do after work. For Joe, that included coaching his daughter's soccer team, soccer pictures, a game next Saturday.

Joe wasn't perfect, but his love for and devotion to his family were exemplary. He was complex, someone whose character and individualism were continually evolving and expanding. He was that rare person who recognized and understood his defects of character and tried his best to remedy them. And that's a gift, to be that self-aware and to have the further ability to act on that awareness while still a young person, to make progress toward being a better person. He could be quiet, unassuming, self-effacing, and also generous, kind, funny, sometimes moody. The New York Times called him "brainy, brawny, and balanced." That captures it.

In the end, of course, there wasn't enough time, and Joe couldn't escape.

For me, that realization occurred around 2 a.m. the morning of Sept. 12 as I watched TV in Joe's house. I had purposefully kept myself away from the TV most of the previous day, but as I lay on the couch and watched footage of the buildings falling time after time, the certainty of his death came to me with a calmness, an acceptance, that surprised me. Maybe it was exhaustion, a result of the daylong battle in my head between denial and panic. Whatever it was, I simply could not deny the devastating reality of those images, and that morning I came to my own conclusions about what happened to Joe.

I wish I could say I continue to accept Joe's death at the hands of terrorists with that same calmness, but I don't.

For me, one of the most difficult aspects of his death is the incompleteness of it. I know he's gone, I know what happened to him, yet I don't. I am left with my imagination and to make up my own story of what happened. Sometimes it's worse than others, but it's always bad.

So the disbelief is still there, along with anger, complete sadness, and a sense that we've been cheated. The only thing I am certain of now is uncertainty, because the unthinkable happened.

This uncertainty is new to me. I think it's new for my generation, too, which is now defined by this horror. Things I used to take for granted are now, at the very least, open to question, which affects everything, from the way I teach history, to the way I teach my children about the world, to the way I think of myself.

I used to think I was a fairly open minded, tolerant, accepting person. But a day or two after the 11th, I was at a gas station with my husband and I gave a long, hard, suspicious look at the man pumping gas, who looked, as they say now, "Middle Eastern." He looked right back at me, too, and held my stare. But that unspoken exchange rattled me. I was taught to be respectful of all ethnicities and colors, and semester after semester, my students and I discussed the injustice and mistreatment that arises as a result of racial hatred and prejudice. But what if that man pumping gas was part of a terrorist cell operating here in the U.S., and readying itself for another attack? How could I be sure?

The day after terrorists killed my brother, a good friend called to see how I was doing and through her tears she said how unfair this all was, how the least we could all expect was to live out our lives. Sept. 11 has knocked us all down a few notches, I think, at least insofar as expectations and certainties are concerned. From our earliest Puritan beginnings, we have considered ourselves and our country to be chosen by God and protected by Him. We have a long history of a social vision determined by progress and divine providence, which we've come to expect. September 11 has forced us to reconsider such expectations, to wonder why we are allowed the luxury of such expectations, when the rest of the world would never indulge them.

Is this new vulnerability a "good" thing or a "bad" thing? Is it innocence lost or arrogance blown to bits? I'm not sure.

By Mary O'Sullivan