The beauty of the Sept. 11 Memorial at Ground Zero is captivating. For those who have not seen it, the memorial is comprised of two zones, one for each of the buildings. Each of these areas, where the two towers fell, now houses a breathtaking waterfall and reflecting pool. I watched as the water fell, and fell and fell, never filling up the pool. A bottomless basin which would always remain empty, never to be filled. It was as if each drop of water in this one enormous pool was the tear of someone who was impacted by Sept. 11. The flow of tears never ended, just as the pain of Sept. 11 never ended, and never will end.
The material of the monument, marble I believe, is dark yet shimmering. On the exterior of each wall are names of the victims in the attacks. There are so many names. And each name has a story.
David W. Laychak. That was the name that stuck with me. The story that I am here to share with you.
Why David W. Laychak? He is not my relative, nor friend nor neighbor. He is 100 percent a stranger to me. I chose to share David’s story because his name is the one which first captured my attention at the monument. You see, there was a beautiful, fresh red rose placed in the dot behind his middle initial, W.
I gazed at the rose and wondered who placed it there. Was his family visiting today to remember him? Or perhaps a friend? How often do they come?
Who was David?
Perhaps he was a young man who worked in one of the offices of the skyscraper. A desk job, one with a cubicle. The kind of the job that is tolerable, but not ideal. Just one of the first steps of the career ladder which ambitious David hoped to climb. He was a young man, late twenties, with a serious girlfriend but also dreams of traveling the world. He loved his girlfriend, don’t get me wrong. They shared an apartment with their dog Nemo, as they are quite the fans of Jules Verne. It’s just that, right now, he wasn’t ready for marriage. He had already finished school, and he was worried that those years spent at the university were going to end up being the best ones of his life. He didn’t want that, for the thrilling climax of his life to be in the past. So he wasn’t going to propose yet and settle down. He was going to travel, maybe save up this year and surprise his younger brother, who was to graduate college soon, with a backpacking trip to Europe, just the two of them.
Maybe David wasn’t that person at all. Maybe he was 64, soon to retire from his job as a manager. He loved his career, but was ready to settle down to take care of his wife, recently diagnosed with breast cancer and spend more time with his five young grandchildren. They only lived a little while away in the Lower East Side. He was thankful to his three daughters for staying so close to home. They were helping with their mother very much as he waited for retirement. His life was full of so much love and many blessings. But David was not this person either…
I thought about my school, Lehigh University. There are twelve trees planted alongside the Alumni Memorial Building. Each of them has a plaque with a name dedicated to the eight Lehigh students and four parents of Lehigh Alumni who passed away on Sept. 11. I had walked by this monument twice a week for almost a year. Was David’s name there too?
I continued to wonder about David for a long time. Then, I thought about his loved ones. Who were his family, his friends? On Sept. 11, 2001, who felt his loss? His parents? Wife? Girlfriend? Best friend? Children? Sisters? Brothers? Co-workers? Fraternity brothers? Teammates? What about his dog — if he even had a dog— how long did his dog wait patiently by the door for the return of his best friend?
Then, the hardest part, I thought about his death.
The first plane struck the north tower at 8:45 a.m. Was David there? Did he die instantly? Did he realize at all, just seconds before, what was to come? Did he even have the time to watch his life flash before his eyes?
Maybe not, maybe he was in the first tower, but in a higher floor not demolished by the crash. He heard the plane strike the building. He dropped the papers he was carrying to his boss’s office as one of the secretaries screamed. “Was that a bomb?” he thought aloud. Panic spread quickly. He shouted for everyone to go down the stairs immediately. Was he aware of how bad the situation was? When they reached the destroyed staircase, what did he decide to do? Was he one of the dozens of people who jumped out of the window? If he did, what was he thinking? Did he pray?
Perhaps David was one of the rescue personnel, a 20-year veteran of the New York Police Department, going in and out and in and out, dragging people out of the dying tower. He gave his life while saving others and lost his own family in the process. What was running through his mind? What kept him going back in for more people, and more chances of death? Maybe, in fact, he wasn’t thinking of himself at all. Maybe, instead of asking, “What will happen to me if I go back inside?” he thought, “What will happen to all of those innocent victims if I don’t go back inside?”
How incredibly selfless is that? How immensely heartbreaking is that?
I looked up from the monument. I couldn’t handle it anymore. My upwards glance was greeted by more names along the wall of the monument. Thousands of names. 2,996 to be exact. David’s story, whatever it may be, was just one among many.
Sept. 11 was a horrible tragedy. As Americans, the loss still hurts us and inspires fear to this day. However, as human beings, we need to remember that there are countless people living like this everyday in active war zones across the Earth. We also need to remember that the United States government is playing an active role in the majority of said wars.
The people who live among this violence are just like us. They each have a name. Each name accompanies a story. Sept. 11 was composed of nearly three thousand stories. The people who died since Sept. 11 in these war zones, that is millions of stories. Millions of fathers, mothers, sons and daughters. Millions of wives, husbands, sisters, and brothers. Stories not only of deceased foreigners, the so called “enemies,” but also the stories of more Americans. We think of them every Memorial Day.
As an American, I feel a connection to other Americans. We share something, we share many things: culture, hometowns, food, friends. But as a human being, I also feel a connection to other human beings. These ties trump those of the nation. These ties are more natural.
It brings me incredible sadness to think about how much hatred has been brought up during recent presidential races, especially this year’s. Some candidates have made horrible promises and hateful vows of building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and of banning Muslims from entering the U.S. to defend against terrorism.
Muslims are actually one of the groups who are affected the most by terrorism. They are being continuously slaughtered in bombings and battlefields all across the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Many are threatened by internal violence. They fear that if they stand up against terrorists in their region, then they will be called infidels and killed.
Others have sought a safe refugee in the West, only to be ostracized because of their religious identification. They are feared by their neighbors, excluded from society, and pushed to the margins.
This all just fuels the fire of violent extremists. They know that if Muslims feel alienated, they will have less to lose by leaving to join ISIS in their fight.
This is why we can’t perpetuate the vicious cycle of islamophobia anymore. This is why hatred will not make America great again. Hatred is not great. It is just easy.
What really makes America great is unity and love. Love for our country, and love for our neighbors. Unity regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnic background. We don’t always succeed in this unity. In fact, not even close, but we fight for it anyways. That is what makes America great. We continue the fight. We don’t give up. We strive to be better. To include everyone.
The truth of the matter is that the wound from Sept. 11 will remain, always. The scar has been made, but the pain does not need to continue. I learned that from the Laychak family.
So, here it is, what we’ve all been waiting for. David’s story. The real one.
David W. Laychak. Birthdate: Jan. 13, 1961. Death date: Sept. 11, 2001.
But then again, I’m not interested telling you about the birth and death of David. I want to share with you the in between, the small, extraordinarily beautiful pieces of his life. Each of us has them.
David was many things: an impressive athlete, dedicated student, prideful patriot, great friend, lively father, loving husband, caring brother. There are so many priceless moments that he has shared with the world. My favorite, being the hopeless romantic that I am, are those which he spent with his wife, Laurie.
There are so many more memories to share, I could never possibly give their love story justice. Nevertheless, I want to share with you my favorite story of David and Laurie — their engagement story. It is a narrative that I first read June 6. The information that is on public display at the Sept. 11 Museum. You can go read it yourself.
At the time of their engagement, David and Laurie had been seeing each other for a while. Everyone could tell that they were in love and expected a wedding soon. Molly, David’s sister, had even seen the engagement ring and was eager to know how he was going to pop the question. David told her that he had a couple of ideas, but never revealed any of the plans to her.
One day, David and Laurie were driving home in separate cars after some sort of event. David’s car was in the lead when they reached a stop light. Here, he exited his vehicle and walked over to Laurie’s car. Now, you see, Laurie’s very organized. She’s perfunctory. She couldn’t help but wonder, at the time, what the problem was. He looked at her and stated, “I’m not moving my car until you answer my question.” And that’s how it happened. He asked her to marry him right there in the middle of the street, through her car window.
When it comes to love, I believe that actions speak louder than words. At that moment David’s message was crystal clear, “I’m crazy, crazy for you.” Of course Laurie said yes.
Almost every day I think of David. And each time it sends a chill down my spine. Sadness engulfs me. It is inescapable. I try hard to block it out but it never works. The only way that I can stop the crippling pain is to concentrate on all of the wonderful things I know about him, instead of just dwelling on his death and that rose I saw in New York. I think of Laurie and David’s children. I wonder how they’ve grown, what beautiful people they must now be. How strong they are. These thoughts give me hope and allow me to continue. Because, like it our not, things constantly push into the future. The past only exists in our memories. If we focus on the future instead, well, that is not set. The possibilities are endless and I hope all the best for the Laychak family. I wish the same for my country. America possesses a rough history. We have suffered alongside the Laychaks and countless other families who were impacted by the tragedy of Sept. 11. We are still going through a lot of hardships today. Nevertheless, our future is not set. We determine it. We need to remember what makes America great, our unity and love, and fight to uphold that greatness each and every day. If not for us, then for our friends and family. For our neighbors and colleagues. For Laurie. For her children, Zachary and Jennifer.