Vanessa Langer was a New York girl, through and through.
“Her favorite song was ‘New York, New York,’” recalled her mother, Liverpool resident Donna Marsh O’Connor. “There is actually a wedding video from a woman she used to work for where she and her boyfriend at the time were dancing to ‘New York, New York.’ She just loved the city.”
That love showed in her apartment, decked out with gear from the Giants and the Yankees – “She called Paul O’Neill her future ex-husband,” O’Conner joked – and in her job, located on the 93rd floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center. Langer was an office manager for Regis Business International, an office furniture supplier.
Langer – a stunningly beautiful 29-year-old wife who always wanted to be a mother, O’Connor’s only daughter, best friend to her then-14-year-old brother James – was at work on Sept. 11, 2001, when the planes hit. She was somewhere between four and five months pregnant; reports from her obstetrician and the New York medical examiner differ.
Langer’s was one of just 283 bodies pulled whole from the rubble; her mother is thankful for that one small mercy, pitiful though it is. Many families – 1,717 – got no remains at all to bury. She was found on Sept. 24, 2001, but given the volume of remains rescuers and morgue workers had to identify, her family wasn’t notified until the first Monday of the new year, Jan. 7, 2002.
‘Not an activist’
In the months and years since she lost her little girl, O’Connor, a writing instructor at Syracuse University, has become much more politically active than she ever imagined she would be.
“I never expected to know as much as I know about the greater political system and how corrupt it is,” she said. “I was never really interested in class theory or economics. It kind of dropped on me. I was more a writer of creative non-fiction and art. I was more interested in an artistic genre with not even social criticism but what I would call social admission of our collective weaknesses. My area of interest was really race relations.”
After Langer’s death, O’Connor became much more politically active. She is now a member of the steering committee for September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a group of about 200 families of 9/11 victims that advocates for nonviolent resolution to conflict. She was a vocal opponent to the Bush administration and its politics, interviewed by such news agencies as MSNBC and the New York Times. O’Connor also served locally, acting as a member of the Liverpool school board and launching an unsuccessful campaign for the Onondaga County Legislature.
Despite all of this activity, O’Connor said she doesn’t consider herself an activist, per se.
“In my mind, an activist is someone who, really, full-time, puts every single waking moment thinking, at least, about the issue,” she said. “Because of my grief and my, I would say, fragile state, in some ways, I often, even at the height of [my feelings of], ‘Oh, my God, we’ve got to address this,’ I would retreat and just be with my family and say, ‘Nope, it’s someone else’s problem today.’ It’s a matter of, I consider myself a vocal person, a writer, but an activist – I have never considered myself a true activist.”
She also doubts she would have gotten as involved as she has if she didn’t have such a personal connection to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, though she suspects she would have had some interest.
“I can’t know,” O’Connor said. “My guess is no. I mean, my guess is that I would have continued thinking about race, and it would have been complicated by the Islamophobia post-9/11, and I probably would have been engaged in that, and I probably would have also thinking about our civil liberties and the Constitution, because the concept of America was always very important to me. In fact, I remember teaching my students to be very aware of the creation of an ideology.
“But I don’t know that I would know as much as I know just in terms of the details of 9/11 as I do now. It wouldn’t have been a personal ‘what happened to Vanessa.’ It would have been what happened to the city I love. I was born and raised in New York City.”
In fact, O’Connor just dropped off her youngest son, Jackson, at college outside New York City.
“All of my kids love New York City,” she said. “I don’t know – maybe it’s in the blood.”
Death is not a thing to celebrate
The last decade has wrought many changes, but it has not brought closure to O’Connor and her family; that’s something she doubts she’ll ever truly have. The demise of the man primarily responsible for her daughter’s death did little to assuage her grief.
“Immediately, my response was sadness,” O’Connor said. “It was late evening when it broke on the news, and I didn’t understand why my first instinct was to cry. I mean, why would I? And then, when I thought about it, it’s clear – when something like that happens to your child, you are locked in a relationship with that person for the rest of your life. You never could have imagined when you were 5 or 6 that the name Osama bin Laden would be important in your life. He would be a person who made a pivotal and horrible change, but he had a kind of power over your life.”
O’Connor said her family felt no joy over bin Laden’s death; their family does not celebrate the death of another, no matter what. In fact, she saw it as yet another of the terrorist’s crimes.
“In that sense, if I think about the power and the resources and the ability for this man to make other people act, what a waste,” she said. “Imagine if he had used that ability to make men act in ways that were kind or compassionate. It was sad.”
O’Connor also said the media’s characterization of the so-called “American reaction” to bin Laden’s death was not necessarily accurate.
“They captured what was visible at Ground Zero,” she said. “They can’t capture on camera people in their homes, you know, somber over yet another death, yet another horrible event. So they capture the celebration, and that gets cast the world over as Americans dancing in the streets.”
What we’ve lost….
In the intervening decade, O’Connor and her family have learned to live without Langer, as difficult as it is.
“I’m sure you can ask anybody who has lost a child,” O’Connor said. “No matter what relationship, there are just some relationships that will function as a rubber band around your life. You move away and you’re joyful, you laugh – we’re a joyful family, and we spend a lot of time laughing in our family. But it’s like a rubber band, and there are times when you won’t be able to predict when that rubber band is going to tighten and it’s going to bring you right back to the moment or the day or the days surrounding or the memories that are absolutely poignant.”
O’Connor recalled a late-night flight back to Syracuse from an interview in New York City.
“The lights dimmed in the aircraft, and all I could think about was hearing Vanessa cry for the first time when she was born,” she said. “I just spent the entire flight sobbing.”
The death of a child is different from any bereavement you’ll ever experience, O’Connor said, even the death of a parent.
“You don’t get over that the way you get over even the death of a parent, as heartbreaking as that is and as much as it stays with you for the rest of your life,” she said. “It’s different. You’re responsible for your child. You expect them to be there at the end of your life. You don’t leave a child behind. You’re continually wondering, what is your responsibility to this being, even though this being isn’t there anymore?”
O’Connor said surviving, though it seemed impossible at times, was basically the only option, especially since she still had two other children.
“You know, you have to live,” she said. “I mean, I have two sons. I adore them. They deserve joy. I feel like I spent as much of their childhoods crying and somber as it was fair to do, and then some.”
… and what we can get back
O’Connor said it helps her to know that others grieve with her on the anniversary of the attacks.
“I am happy when people know that they lost something profound on that day,” she said. “I want them to feel that, because I feel that much of what they lost that day they can take back. A lot of what they lost that day they’ll never take back, and some of what they lost that day that they can’t get back, it’s good that they lost it.”
One loss we as the American people suffered was our sense of security.
“[We had] this naïve sense that we’re entitled to safety when there are so many places in the world where people don’t have that same right and that same sense,” O’Connor said. “We shouldn’t feel like our own government or our own way of life protects us. We’re all in it together on the globe, and that was a wake-up call.”
In the days and weeks immediately following the attacks, O’Connor saw, through her grief, America come together as a nation to help one another. She saw a kindness and a brotherhood that, in the years since, has been lacking. She said she’s hopeful that the memory of the attacks will bring that sense of benevolence back.
“The American people can wake up and stop fighting each other so hard,” O’Connor said. “Stop worrying so much about the deficit and worry about the compassion that we’re losing on a daily basis. Most people, whether they admit it or not, are struck with fear sending their kids to school, because the social anxieties are heightened, the social meanness is heightened. We’re just a meaner, more hardened nation at every level, and that we can change. We can take that back.”
O’Connor said she sees it especially right here in our own backyard; she saw it firsthand while serving on the Liverpool school board.
“In our area, in our suburbs, on our school boards – yes, in some places, there is corruption, and it needs to be ferreted out, but the backbiting every single moment, every single day, toward people who don’t deserve it – it just isn’t going to stop.”
O’Connor said she hoped people used the anniversary of the attacks to make these important changes and to remember what’s really important: to remember the real losses we suffered, the kindness and the beauty in the world, beauty embodied in a 29-year-old woman who wanted nothing more than to be a mom and work in New York City.
“If we’re not going to use 9/11 to understand what we really lost and not what we pretend-lost,” O’Connor said, “then I hope this is the last time we think about it.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.