Refusing to let the 9/11 anniversary be owned solely by horror

By Billy Sothern, The Lens contributing opinion writer |

On September 10, 2009, my wife Nikki was at her midwife’s office hoping to get some indication that our baby – four days past due – would come soon, ending her mounting pain and discomfort.

It wasn’t until Nikki got back from her appointment that I saw the possibility that my daughter could be born on September 11, the eighth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Nikki told me that a woman we had met in our birthing class had been at the midwife’s office as well. And though she was a full week past due, fixing to burst and desperate to have her baby, she had postponed her induction because she didn’t want her child born on such an inauspicious date.

I had moved to New Orleans from New York City a month before the attacks; family and friends worked in the financial district, fast by the Twin Towers, and my father and step-mother were on New York bound-flights that fateful morning. And so the date – 9/11 – was likely to be forever etched in my mind as a day of horror and anxiety, made only worse by its exploitation as a pretext for war and the curtailment of civil liberties.

But my wife was in agony so I quickly reconciled to the idea of our child sharing her birthday with that mournful American anniversary. When I got home in the late afternoon, Nikki’s labor had become much more pronounced. We left for the hospital a little after midnight.

In the birthing room, I tried my best to comfort Nikki during her ordeal, playing Bach’s Cello Suites and Nikki’s favorite arias from the St. Matthew Passion on the little stereo she had bought for this purpose a couple of weeks earlier, when it all seemed so distant and theoretical. At a certain point, she began to seem really focused, in a distant place all by herself, and I started playing Philip Glass’s Solo Piano Works. She had speculated days earlier that Glass’s familiar, round, cyclical musical forms might reach her at a time like this.

When that selection ended, with Nikki clinging to my shoulders and neck from her birthing tub but still, evidently, hours away from delivering the baby, Addy, our doula, asked what we should put on. I told her that there was an opera by Philip Glass on the iPod, and that it was long enough to keep us from having to change the music again. “Satyagraha?” she asked. I hadn’t remembered the name. Without even glancing at the liner notes, I had burned it onto my computer, from the New Orleans Public Library’s music catalog a few years earlier. In the scores of hours I had spent listening to the opera, its music and Sanskrit libretto, though unintelligible, seemed truer to life and the thoughts passing through my mind than any music I had heard before. “That’s it,” I told Addy.

It begins with a low voice and a deep stringed instrument that wound around the room. Sometimes urgent, sometimes slack, at times the music almost disappeared into the rhythm of Nikki’s contractions and then her pushing. When the baby’s head finally emerged and then I held her against my fatigued but triumphant wife, the final act of Satyagraha pulsed in the background, and then stopped, unnoticed.

I sent news to our friends and loved ones by text, “Rose Mae Sothern born at 4:57. I am in awe of mother and child.” I consciously omitted the date, not wanting to associate the sad anniversary with the miraculous birth of my daughter.

But as time passed, and I was able to spend hours and then days with this new life, it became clear to me that it was seemly and even necessary, for Rose, and others, to have been born on this date, for things to occur that could create new anniversaries that might someday eclipse the tragedy. I sent out another email, this time owning the date: “Rose Mae Sothern was born at 4:57 a.m. on Friday, September 11, 2009, weighing in at 8 lbs., 10 oz., and altogether transforming the meaning of that date in our history for me.”

I got a response from Rebecca Solnit. I had met her when she visited New Orleans while researching her book, A Paradise Built in Hell, on the magnanimity of people in the face of disaster. She pointed out that September 11, 2001, had been, for the most part, “a day that people behaved beautifully under the most extreme circumstances in New York City, millions of them in contrast to the 19 who sought to destroy.” But she made another observation, which gave rise to a sense of wonder, beauty, and synchronicity that tempts me to believe the world is not simply spiraling meaninglessly but instead is ordered, even blessed. She told me that September 11, 1906, is the day that Gandhi began to harness non-violence as a tool against oppression in South Africa, a method of resistance called “satyagraha,” a Sanskrit word meaning “the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence.”

Without any of us knowing it, Nikki labored and Rose was born on the anniversary of satyagraha, to the rhythms and sounds of an opera that Philip Glass wrote in honor of  Gandhi and a vision of social justice through non-violence.

As my daughter’s second birthday approaches, and with it, this terrible tenth anniversary of a date that swallowed her birthday as its name, I do my part to remind people that as much truth and love exists on that day as any other. Approach me in the park, as she romps by, and ask me, “How old is that precious little girl?”

I will tell you, stressing the date, “She was born on September 11, 2009. So she’s almost two.” My hope is that you will see in her face that satyagraha exists – as it did in 1906 and, yes, 2001 – and that its power is undiminished.

Billy Sothern is a criminal defense attorney and the author of “Down in New Orleans: Reflections from a Drowned City.”







Help us report this story     Report an error    
The Lens' donors and partners may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover.
  • Capt. John Swallow

    Thank ye for this gift of perspective. May yer journey be filled with satyagraha!