Sharing a birthday with national tragedy

jmustian@ledger-enquirer.comSeptember 11, 2011 

Before the twin towers fell, Sept. 11 bore a simpler significance for Brooke Houston Carney.

The Phenix City woman shares the birthday with her older sister, but for the past 10 years, her date of birth has served as a frequent reminder of national tragedy. Now, when the calendar shows 9/11, she’s left with sorrow that overshadows the festive mood that accompanies her passing of age.

“Every time I go in a store to get cigarettes and I tell somebody my birthday, I remember that,” she said. “It’s awful to think about because none of those people woke up that morning expecting to die that day.”

As the nation pauses today to reflect on the indelible events that changed the country 10 years ago, many are wrestling with a thorny question: How appropriate is it to celebrate a birthday or mark an anniversary at a time of solemn remembrance, with flags flying half-staff?

Interviews last week revealed divergent attitudes here in the Chattahoochee Valley.

For Carney, Sept. 11, 2001, marked her 18th birthday, the first one in years she planned to spend in Atlanta with her sister, who is 13 years older. But after the attacks, the two vowed never again to spend the day together, viewing the tragedy now as a foreboding omen.

“Neither one of us really celebrate on that day anymore -- it’s usually the weekend before or the weekend after,” she said. “I feel bad celebrating something knowing that so many families are grieving that day.”

Ashley Reynolds, a nursing student at Columbus State University, said she still plans to celebrate her 19th birthday today with family and friends.

“It’s really sad, but I try to remember that it’s my day, too,” Reynolds said. “It’s hard to think that so many people lost their lives on that day.”

Reynolds’ aunt, Marti Reynolds-Marano, said it would be a shame not to celebrate a birthday on 9/11. “I’m not going to let what the terrorists did to us stop our happiness as well,” she said.

Looking back, Reynolds says she was too young on 9/11 to fully appreciate its magnitude. “I just remember having a sad day that day,” she said, recalling first seeing the carnage on a television in her school’s library.

But she has since gained a keener appreciation of that fateful day. This spring, she took a trip with friends to ground zero.

“I’ve always wanted to go there just because that day is really meaningful to me,” she said. “It was a lot to take in.”

For Peggy Evans, the terrorist attacks have cast an immovable pall on a day that might ordinarily call for flowers and fine dining: her wedding anniversary.

“It’s kind of a bittersweet thing for us,” the Phenix City woman said. “To me, it’s not that it’s not important to celebrate our anniversary, but it’s kind of an insignificant thing now compared to the tragedy and so many people losing so much that day.”

Evans said she and her husband were unsure how to spend their 18th anniversary this year. But Evans, who described herself as very patriotic, said she likely will watch media coverage of the day and reflect on America’s loss.

Ten years ago, she found the events so jarring that she nearly forgot about her own stake in the day.

“It wasn’t until about 3:30 that afternoon when I got flowers from my husband that I even realized it was our anniversary,” she said. “You worried what was going to happen. Was Fort Benning going to be under attack?

“It’s like nothing existed.”

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