Just before Christmas, my friend Marie McDonald called from Florida. Marie and I became friends in Tucson, Ariz., where our boys, just two years apart in age, were neighborhood buddies.
Her son Greg was a spindly little character I really loved. With freckles, a strand of cornstalk hair, and arms the size of buggy whips, he was a pretty good ringer for "Our Gang"'s Alfalfa.
I loved Greg for a few reasons. For one thing, he happily performed in the dippy home videos I forced on the neighborhood -- remakes of "Frankenstein," "Pinocchio," "Night of the Living Dead" (mine was "Night of the Living Moms") and worse. For another, he was sweet to my daughter Hannah, five years his junior, who at 3 years of age had a terrible crush on him.
Marie and her husband, Steve, were awfully good sports as well. When our son Josh beaned Greg in the back of the head with a rock, sending him to the emergency room for stitches, the McDonalds refused to even consider telling us the cost. "That's what kids do," Marie said. "Don't worry about it."
So, when Marie called late in the evening last year, choking back tears, to tell me that Gregory had been killed in a car accident, I felt like the world was glass and cracking. A piece of retread caught in Greg's fianc & eacute;e's car wheel-well and the car flipped over the center median, killing Greg and injuring her.
I sat on the bed and muttered something and thought about my kids.
Greg's death at age 19 will not be commemorated this year, except by his family and friends. But I bring it to your attention as Sept. 11 nears because its lesson should be as vivid and forceful as the one the falling towers taught: You don't know what any day is going to bring.
You never know
Greg's legacy for me is two-fold. I certainly insist on seat belts and so do my children. But, more than this, I try to hug my loved ones goodbye every time they leave. If my two teenagers grimace and ask me why they have to wait for a hug and kiss, I refrain from saying, "because you never know," but that is what I think.
And you don't. You never know. The people that took the elevator to the top of the World Trade Center on a late summer morning last year didn't know it would be their last elevator trip, or that the goodbye kiss they stole from their spouses earlier would be the final time their lips touched.
The cell phones that day were busy from Flight 93, with voices expressing thoughts and emotions held long before the tragic hijacking. These were words that could not be left unspoken.
We have so much to learn from 9/11. Officials are examining homeland security. Engineers are investigating how to better build skyscrapers. Teams have been set to discover better escape plans for high-rises. Airline officials have devoted themselves to increasing security. Immigration officials have begun to revamp an outdated system.
And we've learned to revamp our behavior. Patriotism flourished immediately following the attacks and still is flourishing. Acts of charity abound. But we can bring it even closer to home.
For me, Greg's death and the deaths in New York City are intertwined. Both were shocking losses. Both taught a lesson that cannot be unlearned. Life is so fragile and those who have experienced its loss realize how important it is to value love.
Every day. Every time the door is about to close, and a kid with a dirty shirt and cleated sneakers is about to run down the street or hop in a car. Every time your husband goes off to work for an ordinary day. Every time your daughter puts on her platform shoes and heads off to a movie with a friend.
It's not a pessimistic thought. How could expressing love be? After all, it's not like that hug or kiss is wasted if you or your child or spouse sits down to dinner that night. On the contrary, it will pay even bigger dividends then.