This speech was adapted and delivered by John Titus at the nondenominational church service on Sunday, September 11, 2005, for the Department of Peace Conference at the L’Enfant Hotel in Washington DC. Marianne Williamson hosted and spoke also.
I feel truly blessed and at the same time deeply saddened to be here with you this morning. If my daughter was still alive, I would be sitting amongst you listening to someone else speak, perhaps even her. She was and is an angel of peace.
I believe that each of us has a purpose in life to continually search for divine truth to direct our ever-expanding love to do good in this world for the sake of all. We are all interconnected in ways we cannot fathom; what we do to another we do also to ourselves. Marianne, you have been a shining example of this as you continue to touch the hearts and lives of people everywhere. What you are doing to further the causes of peace is helping our world in so many ways and is so essential in a world so entrenched in violence and war. Bless you.
As I share my thoughts, feelings and glimpses of my daughter with you this morning, I may have to take a moment to regroup as the sadness finds its way to the surface and longs for release.
During a speaking event last year by another person I admired, Wilson Van Deusen, who has since passed on, he would often stop in the middle of his heartfelt talk with tears streaming down his cheeks and then continue on when he was able. He said that during these moments was when he was overcome by the presence of God; the tears would not allow him to talk and he soaked it in. My tears surely represent the presence of God or perhaps a gift from God as they symbolize the powerful love I feel for my daughter, the deep sadness in my heart, the feeling of forlorn brought about by her absence and the immense joy that she brought into my life during her time here on earth. They also represent the severe pain and anguish I feel daily since her horrendous death. When I allow myself to feel the depth of my pain in an honoring way and not a self-indulgent way, it is in those moments I feel more fully alive and connected with God, in spite of the pain! I wish I didn’t have to feel the pain but, it is within me and it needs released.
Today, as I stand in front of you, my family, my wife’s family and many of our friends, perhaps 75-100 people are gathering in Ohio in celebration of my son, Zachery Ian’s birthday. He is 27 years old today. His birthday will be marred for the rest of his life as this bittersweet day comes each year. This is also my grandfather’s birthday and very likely the day my daughter, Alicia, was conceived. She was born on June 11th, 1973. This was one of the happiest days of my life as was the birth of each of my four children and two grandchildren. My children and now, grandchildren are my hope for the future. I’ve always envisioned that my children would grow beyond me spiritually, psychologically, intellectually, compassionately and even physically. And, they have! Alicia was an incredible young lady in every respect. She was my wife, Bev’s, hero; and, she was mine also. And, I know that she is with us this morning with her smiling face and angelic presence.
It has been four years since that horrific day when Alicia was so violently taken from us; four years since my life was completely turned upside down, along with my hopes, my dreams, my joy, my laughter and my innocence, or at least what was left of it. Every moment of every day since then has been a struggle to go onward and, although I can put on a smile, just below the surface of my outward facade lies heartache, bringing with it the power to destroy or, as I have found, the power to re-create. This is a gift from God that too often is left unopened, but is there nonetheless.
In my early journal writings I wrote about my pain, my sadness and depression. It felt like I was standing at the edge of a deep, dark abyss; at times it felt like I was spiraling downward and I feared that if I went too far, I might not be able to find my way out. It was a pain that I felt with my whole being, deep in my soul. But, even in the midst of that darkness and depression, I felt the presence of God, I could see the light above, and I knew I would eventually be alright. I knew also that I had to do the hard work of grieving, to feel and try to understand the feelings, work through the pain, find forgiveness in my heart and seize the opportunities that availed themselves to do good in the face of evil. If I were to survive, I could not hold onto the anger; I must learn to forgive those who did this to Alicia and the nearly 3000 others who perished that day!
So, how does one go about forgiving the murderer of his child?
At Alicia’s Memorial Service, I spoke these words that came to me from my early childhood teachings that Jesus had spoken on the cross while being crucified: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”. I realized that forgiveness was not about sanctioning the deplorable acts that had been done, nor was it about excusing the injustice that was incurred; it was a divine gift that I must give myself in order to transcend this evil act and not let it destroy me also. Forgiveness meant letting go of the anger and the need for revenge. It also meant letting go of the ego and opening up to the divine. I knew that revenge wouldn’t bring my daughter back or resolve my pain and sadness. I needed to turn my grief into a positive force that would counter the atrocities committed; I needed to do this to honor the person that Alicia was, a joyous young lady who loved life, loved people, and lived each moment as if it were her last. She was a compassionate and forgiving soul who had been entrusted to Bev and me for 28 wonderful years. Incredibly, Alicia has confirmed my choices in many ways as I have felt her presence, seen her face and knew that she was with me, encouraging me, cheering me on like she had done so many times in life.
Early in my grieving, one of the things that bothered me was the thought of where Alicia might have been working on the morning of September 11th (she was a flight attendant on UAL 175). We knew that at least one flight attendant had been stabbed on her plane and didn’t know if it was her. The afternoon of September 11th, 2001, Bev and I went up to Peach Mountain, which is near our home. I had to get out in nature and tried running through the woods to escape from the pain and to work out some of the conflicting emotions that flooded my confused mind. As I ran, the tears blinded me along the way. Afterwards, we sat overlooking the valley below as I prayed for peace within my soul and then meditated. I asked God to help us get through this, to give us strength, to help us find forgiveness in our hearts and to help our world to find peace. During the meditation that followed, I saw Alicia as if she was there with me; she was in the back of the airplane holding a small boy, his head was in her lap and she was caressing his hair. I could see the boy clearly and I saw that Alicia was completely at peace! It wasn’t until sometime later that I saw a picture of the boy on a website that displayed the pictures and profiles of the passengers. A few months after that, without any prior knowledge of my vision, a lady we knew who is clairvoyant reiterated this same vision I had. A couple years after that, the FBI confirmed that Alicia was not in either First Class or Business Class, which is where the hijackers were on the plane.
Alicia continually filled my heart with abundant love during my grief with her angelic presence and I was constantly reminded of all the good works, acts of charity, kindness, love, compassion, hope and joy that she spread during her 28 years and 3 months on this earth. In all that time, I never heard an unkind word against another (with an exception or two when she was a teenager), I never witnessed any act of prejudice or avarice towards another human being, and I was always amazed at the level of wisdom she constantly displayed. She was my inspiration for me to turn my grief into action for peace. I knew that this would be my lifelong quest as the doors opened in front of me, even though, at times, I just wanted to run away. Bev often said the same thing so Alicia even helped us find a place to “run away”, a place where we could get away, recharge and do the work we needed to do.
On June 11th, 2001, Alicia’s birthday, she came home to visit and to share her special day with us. We went for a motorcycle ride at her request and stopped at this beautiful little lake to watch the sunset. It was a perfect moment as the sun sank over the picturesque Half Moon Lake. The sky was aglow and so was I as I shared this special moment with this incredible woman, my firstborn daughter. This was the last time she would visit us at our home. After her death, the following year, Bev, Alicia’s mother and I were riding around this area and stopped to watch the sunset over Half Moon Lake. The sunset was stupendous but the anguish was overwhelming. It was a bittersweet moment filled with memories both wonderful and sad. As the sun sank into the western sky, I noticed a sign that directed us to a cottage for sale. I had been looking for a place to invest Alicia’s life insurance and this was perfect. We bought it the next day and it has been the perfect place to “run away”, to escape from the daily demands for a short while, to recharge, to write, reflect, meditate, a place to share with special friends and loved ones and a place of healing. We decorated it with those things that remind us of Alicia: butterflies, dragon flies, angels, a picture of Flaming June and some furnishings of Alicia’s. It is a place of peace for me and Bev and we love to share it with others.
During that first year of grieving, I did everything I could to help with the healing: I wrote daily in my journal, I talked with caring others about my feelings, I read extensively about death and grieving, I worked with a counselor, I took some time off from work, we traveled to Italy, Canada and around the US, I prayed, I meditated, I made sure I ate right, didn’t over-consume alcohol…but, you know something, you still have to work through the pain and it just takes time! I also became a strong advocate for peace, I read extensively about why we were attacked by bin Laden and the al Qaida, I sought to understand the political and religious implications, I spoke in front of groups, I talked extensively with others, I wrote articles for newspapers and magazines, I called my Congressman, I did TV News appearances and documentaries and, essentially became a peace activist. Why? Because my daughter had been murdered; our president passed it off as “evildoers who hate our freedom”, outright distortions of truth and blatant lies were being passed off to justify the precipitating ineptness and mistakes that allowed her murder to unfold; wars were started in the name of those who died on September 11th; and more innocent young women in Iraq and Afghanistan like my daughter are still being murdered! This, my friends, hurts my heart and aches in my soul.
As Providence would have it, Bev and I found our way to others who were organizing under the name, September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows is an advocacy organization consisting of family members of the victims of September 11th. There are 180 family members and 4000 supporters and we are funded largely through grants and donations. I am blessed to be a part of such a compassionate, caring and wise group of people who are able to see beyond the violence that had been inflicted on their loved ones and look deeper at the underlying causes and possible solutions.
Our rush to war was shortsighted and the loss of valuable life resulted. The ultimate tragedy of war, as we are seeing each day, is the devastating loss of human life as the death toll rises daily. When we invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq, my heart nearly broke as I visualized the scared children, the panic-stricken moms and dads, as the bombs landed around them and on them; and their lives were obliterated. Many of us felt this way while many others simply excused themselves of the pain and justified it in the name of retribution for our deceased loved ones, my daughter. I was appalled and the cry from me and others was, not in our loved one’s names; not in my daughter’s name!
I have come to realize that when tragedy strikes we are given opportunities to step outside of our limited scope of understanding, to expand our horizons and grow our love and compassion to greater levels. It is a time of great fear and trepidation which causes confusion in our minds, limits our understanding and closes us off from our loving side; but only if we succumb to its powerful lure. It is during these times that people are easily led and give in to the false security of abusive power. Conversely, it is times like these that also propel people to step outside of the mainstream, take a stand for what is right and to change the way things have always been. In the history of humankind and the evolution of the human soul, we have arrived at a place where we can no longer turn back; we can no longer afford to do things the way they’ve always been done, using violence to fight violence and wars to build peace. Because now we have the power to destroy ourselves and all that is good! Now we have the technological capability to annihilate all of life as we know it! And, now we have the spiritual power to transform those forces that would choose to annihilate us and to evolve the human soul to a new level of love and understanding. We must choose love over hate; courage over fear; understanding over ignorance and peace over war!
My daughter was blessed with an incredible gift of love and understanding: she lived her life with such strength of conviction and forthrightness in her actions. Her compassion was greater than any I’ve known and her heart was pure. She died at the hands of those who were devoid of compassion and were driven by fear and hate. But, she need not die in vain! For Alicia’s sake and all those who have died from violence and war, let us build peace and a world in which we learn to love one another as God loves us.