9/11 tragedy rattles, reunites family
A fourth-grade Jamie Gardner was in class on a Tuesday morning like any other when she and her older sister were abruptly called to the office and picked up from school.
Her father, like countless parents across the country, struggled to explain to his children what had happened.
Gardner’s uncle, Mike Gann, had left his home in Atlanta for a meeting in New York that day, and had been expected back that evening.
The date was Sept. 11, 2001, and Uncle Mike, as Gardner called him, never returned.
“I remember that morning was the first and only morning I have ever seen my father, normally so full of life and strength, lose his joy and cry shamelessly,” said Gardner, now a second-year public health student at USC.
Gardner said her sister cried as well, but she didn’t. She couldn’t. She hadn’t grasped the gravity of the situation yet.
Her family packed the car and made the four-hour drive from their home in Charlotte, N.C., to Atlanta, where her uncle and extended family lived. They stayed for two weeks, consoling and comforting one another in the wake of an unimaginable tragedy.
Upon her return to school, Gardner was given a chance to talk about it with her class if she wanted to. She said she and her sister had been some of the only students at her small, Christian school in Matthews, N.C., directly affected by the tragedy.
“I’ll talk about it,” a fourth-grade Gardner started to say matter-of-factly.
But, as she searched for words, she burst into tears in the middle of the classroom.
For the entire two weeks in Atlanta, she had spent time with family members as they tried to collectively cope with the loss. But the enormity of the situation hadn’t really sunk in until that moment.
“I was open to sharing; I didn’t think it had personally affected me to that extent,” Gardner said. “I think it all just kind of hit me.”
Gardner said she grieved not just for her uncle, but the loss it would mean for her family as a unit.
“To see my family so affected by such a horrible event and to know we’re one in a million people who are affected by this — I think that’s the hardest part,” she said.
Her mother, who had lost her eldest brother, especially struggled to deal with the loss, Gardner said.
“She’s emotional in general,” Gardner said. “She was distraught.”
She said her mother went into an “immediately noticeable” period of depression that affected the rest of her family.
“Our house was so on edge,” Gardner said. “Everyone kind of danced around the subject, not wanting to evoke any serious questions and emotions. It was such a sensitive subject.”
Gann had remarried a few months before the tragedy and was survived by his wife and two stepchildren. Gardner said for a time they became a reminder of the loss, and it was difficult to be around them.
“It was awkward for us,” she said. “You know, obviously they’re a part of our family, but it brought back so much emotion, so much pain for us to invite them to things and include them as part of the family when they lost that connection.”
As a result, Gardner said her grandmother distanced herself from her deceased son’s family. It was difficult for her to interact with them, Gardner said, as seeing them served as a reminder of her son.
“There was a significant distance between our family and my stepcousins and their family, just from the pain,” she said. “On both ends, they just kind of separated.”
For the first year especially, holidays were tough for the whole family. But over time, the pain became less severe, and the family has become closer.
“Everyone settled a little bit and was able to deal with their emotions,” Gardner said. “It’s getting less difficult to be around them, and I’ve seen them more in recent years than I did when I was younger.”
She said her mother’s willingness to broach the subject of her brother’s death was also instrumental in the healing process.
“My mom openly talks about it now,” Gardner said. “Because before I was always so nervous to ask about it or hit a strong subject with her, I just didn’t want to bring back any of those emotions or pain she would be feeling, even just by mentioning his name. The way she can talk about it now and [that] my whole family can share stories ... are obvious positive steps.”
Now, Gardner’s family commemorates Gann’s life by spending time together at her grandmother’s lake house in Atlanta on Sept. 11 each year.
“It’s tough. There are a lot of tears and emotion, but there’s a spirit of togetherness — not a happy feeling, obviously, but everyone celebrates the life he had and the family we have left,” Gardner said. “It’s good for us all to be together in the same place.”
She said her mother, her uncle and Gann’s wife and son went for a memorial in October 2001, but aside from that, her family has refrained from attending the many memorials and commemorative services they’re invited to every year.
“It’s a personal thing,” Gardner said. “We like to remember him, rather than the event itself.”
Gardner said the randomness of the attack in particular was “crazy” to her. That her uncle Mike, in New York for a brief business meeting and expected home in Atlanta later that night, could be gone on a sunny September day seemingly like any other, was unfathomable.
She said it’s taught her to take advantage of the time she has with the people she loves.
“That’s the lasting impact it had on me,” Gardner said. “It did bring our family a lot closer. The fact that this is going to affect our family year after year is something everyone is honest and open about. Each person tells the story differently because each person was impacted differently. Just to have that common bond with my family, I guess, really brought everyone closer.”