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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

541 trying to understand how this world operates and possibly more importantly, how do I know myself

Day 541 September 8th, 2021

"trying to understand how this world operates and possibly more importantly, how do I know myself?"

Many of those who died in the attacks on 9/11 left behind children who were so young they never got to know their parents. A new generation has grown up over the past two decades with few if any memories of those they lost; perhaps just a hazy glimpse that continues to fade over the years, or a faint echo of a voice.

"How do I define myself without the most important male role model in my life?"

"Being so young and so vulnerable," An says, "it was a really difficult time."

An's father, Khang Nguyen, was an electronics engineer who worked as a contractor for the Navy. He was killed when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon — a direct hit in the area where he worked. He was 41.

There's a family photo of An — a small boy in khaki overalls, standing outside the Pentagon — taken just a few days after the attack. He's clutching an orange safety fence. Where the plane struck the building, a whole section is gone. There's just a blackened, gaping hole, open to the sky.

Khang Nguyen was born in Vietnam. He grew up amidst the trauma of war, and emigrated from Vietnam to the U.S. in 1981, where he met and married An's mother, Tu HoNguyen. An is their only child.

An's memories of his father are few. "He would sing, sometimes very loudly," he recalls. "A lot of classical or traditional songs in Vietnamese."

In a picture book he made in elementary school, titled What My Father Means to Me, An wrote, "When my father died, I forgot everything from him. I was very sad when he died, but I still love him so much."

To illustrate that page, An sketched a jet plane about to crash into the Pentagon. He drew himself off to one side, with tears falling down his face.

As he's grown, with so few memories of the father he lost, An has had to reckon with huge life questions.

"In some regards I'm on my own," he says, "trying to understand how this world operates and possibly more importantly, how do I know myself? How do I define myself without the most important male role model in my life?"

An, who will turn 24 on Sept. 9, is a software engineer, soon to get his master's degree from George Mason University. It's a degree his dad was on track to get himself when his life was cut short.

In this 20th anniversary year, An sees his upcoming educational achievement as a gift for his father. "It embodies my father's legacy," he says. "I know he would be very proud of where I've gone and what I've persevered for, under his name."

On 9/11, An and his mother plan to attend the annual memorial service at the Pentagon. At home, on the family altar for Khang, they will set out his favorite foods: the Vietnamese noodle soup pho, some tropical fruits, and chè, a sweet pudding. They will light incense, and pray.

reflection by Melissa Block of NPR

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, pastor Gordon MacDonald wrote these words from New York where he worked as a volunteer in the ruins of the World Trade Center:

And more than once I asked myself—as everyone asks—is God here? And I decided that He is closer to this place than any other place I’ve ever visited. The strange irony is that, amidst this absolute catastrophe of unspeakable proportions, there is a beauty in the way human beings are acting that defines the imagination.

Everyone—underscore, everyone—is everyone else’s brother or sister. There are no strangers among the thousands at the worksite. Everyone talks; everyone cooperates; everyone does the next thing that has to be done. No job is too small, too humble, or, on the other hand, too large. Tears ran freely, affection was exchanged openly, exhaustion was defied. We all stopped caring about ourselves. The words ‘it’s not about me’ were never more true.

No church service; no church sanctuary; no religiously inspiring service has spoken so deeply into my soul and witnessed to the presence of God as those hours last night at the crash site.

In all my years of Christian ministry, I never felt more alive than I felt last night. As much as I love preaching the Bible and all the other things that I have been privileged to do over the years, being on that street, giving cold water to workmen, praying and weeping with them, listening to their stories was the closest I have ever felt to God. Even though it sounds melodramatic, I kept finding myself saying, “This is the place where Jesus most wants to be.”

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