How Will They Observe the Other Events of Sept. 11?

Times Staff Writer

On the morning of Sept. 11 last year, her 19th wedding anniversary, Chris Spencer arose in San Diego, kissed her husband, made breakfast for their four children and turned on the news. At first she thought she'd tuned in to a movie by mistake. When all channels showed the same thing, she understood.

She knew right then that there could be no celebration that night. And not on that date ever again.

"What happened on 9/11 was too horrible. We didn't want that date as our anniversary anymore," she says. "We decided to change it by marrying each other again. We'd send the same invitations to the same people but arrange it for a different date."

Of course, there have been infamous days throughout history. The day the Titanic sank, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. assassinations, to name a few. Each have been strangely horrible and wonderful for people whose happiest occasions occurred on those dates. The question for them: Is it wise--or even possible--to rewrite personal history in order to snub fate? In this age when wrinkles can be erased, hair can be replaced and anxiety removed with a pill, what could be wrong with simply revising the anniversary of a joyous occasion? Especially if the original date, such as Sept. 11, has become shorthand for tragedy. Many find nothing wrong with that at all.

Others might argue that reality rules, that imperfection is inherent in every person, thing and plan--that when it pops up to mar the physical or spiritual it must be embraced and acknowledged. What is, is. There is no way to un-write history.

The Spencers say they discussed such things in the months after Sept. 11. "As time passed, we just kept thinking that our 20th anniversary was coming up, that it would be such a joyous landmark for our family. Yet we were both so deeply saddened and affected by what happened at the twin towers that we knew it would diminish the joy of any celebration," Spencer says.

Spencer, 46, describes herself as "a romantic and a CPA." She works from an office at home so she can keep an eye on the children, an 11-year-old, a 7-year-old and 2-year-old twins. Her husband, Dan, 50, is a sales executive. The decision to renew their vows on a different date was not superficial or frivolous, Chris says. It was a reflection of how deeply committed they are to each other, and how sincerely sorrowful they are about the tragedy. They felt it would be impossible for them to express both those emotions on a single day. And, unlike a birthday, it was an event whose date could be changed--just by doing it over.

They consulted their pastor, Kathleen Richter, of Tierrasanta Lutheran church in San Diego. "She thought it was a wonderful idea," Spencer says.

She found the names of the 99 original wedding guests and reprinted an original invitation, which included Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 in its entirety.

It begins: "Let us not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments/Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds ... "

The Spencers' big problem was finding a time when all the family and friends could attend. "We tried four successive dates; none worked until we hit on Aug. 10," one month and one day earlier than their ceremony 20 years before.

The replay took place on a Saturday, and "it was the most wonderful event," Spencer recalls in a phone conversation. "When we first said our vows years ago, we sailed through them beautifully. This time, all the emotion that came from 20 years of being together, from having our four children there with us, from the experience of Sept. 11, and from seeing our relatives gathered after so many years--it turned out to be much more emotional than the first time. We both stumbled through our words. We both started to laugh. We acted like newlyweds."

And with a second wedding comes, of course, a second honeymoon. Their four days at Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico, was so memorable that Spencer couldn't find the right descriptive words: "Wonderful, tremendous .... " Her voice trailed off in awe.

The day after their return, Dan's brother, Jeffrey, who was 45 and had never been sick, died suddenly and unexpectedly of heart failure. "We went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows," Dan says. He left a wife, and two children, ages 10 and 2.

Now, just a few weeks later, Chris says she and her husband realize they have another reason to feel "happy and thankful" they renewed their vows when they did. Had they waited for their original anniversary date, Dan's brother would not have been with them. "At least he saw the whole family together one more time, and they got to see him. We all had such a happy time before this awful thing."

Among the Spencers' good friends is a Lemon Grove couple who also married Sept. 11, one year after they did, in 1983.

Judy and John Fergus, 53 and 60, were in Las Vegas for their 18th anniversary on Sept. 11 last year. "We wanted to go home immediately but couldn't get transportation. After hours of watching events on TV, "my husband and I decided to get out of our room. We went into the casino, and everybody was holding hands, singing 'God Bless America.' People from all over the world, none of whom knew each other. They were all consoling each other. If you started crying, someone came up and hugged you. People held onto each other. I felt so much compassion flowing.

"When I think back on it, so many people's arms were around me whose names I will never know. For such a terrible day, it was a wonderful place to be. Everybody reached out and took care of everybody else."

When her friends the Spencers said they were changing their anniversary date, she and her husband discussed the idea. "We both felt that this was the day we married and we cannot change history. That day is where our memories are--and those memories won't be erased even though something awful occurred on the same day. I think you can mix the good memories with the bad. We chose not to change our date. In fact, we decided it was important to keep it."

Sept. 11, 2001, was the day that Julie and Michael Kunkel, of Lake Ann, Mich., had selected for the induced birth of their child. "We were in the hospital room, watching TV, when the planes started hitting the buildings. The hospital was in chaos. Nurses ran in and out, trying to watch TV as they worked. The doctors all looked disturbed. Our daughter was born in the afternoon, and the day's events definitely gave us something to think about other than what we were going through."

Julie, 30, teaches high school; Michael, 31, sells insurance. Their children--now 1, 3 and 5--will all be in day care on Sept. 11 this year, their daughter's first birthday.

Michael says he and his wife have talked quite a bit about how to celebrate this day, which has produced such conflicted emotions. "Our baby's birth was such a definite bright spot that we must celebrate it. We also have reverence for those whose lives were lost. We want to commemorate them as we rejoice that she was born. We decided to do something special. There are 75 kids in the day-care program, and we want to bring treats for all of them, not just for those in my daughter's group as we would ordinarily do. We want to do something to make it happy for everyone that day."

Josie O'Grady, 20, was in a hospital near Black Hawk, S.D., when the planes hit the twin towers as her son, Isaiah, was being born. "I thought it was kind of neat that he was born on that day. With all those people losing their lives, I brought a new life into the world. You can believe we are going to celebrate his birthday in a big way."

O'Grady, who works at a day-care center, lives with her parents. Her son's father lives in Kansas, she says. "We are best friends, and he's coming down here for our son's first birthday."

Helen Piccolo was in Las Vegas on Sept. 11, 2001. She'd traveled there from her home in Rockledge, Fla., to celebrate her 76th birthday with children and grandchildren who'd converged from around the country to be with her.

"Oh, it was a terrible day. We'd gotten there the day before--and then, on my birthday, the tragedy happened. We just all hung around, feeling sad." At least she was with her family, she says. And having a birthday on Sept. 11 has turned out to be an icebreaker and conversation starter, she adds.

"Every time I have to say my birthday, or fill out a form saying when I was born, like at the eyeglass store, it stops people cold. And it starts an immediate conversation. They want to know where I was, what I was doing, whether I mind having a birthday on that day."

Piccolo says it's an interesting side effect of the tragedy, and she is happy to talk about her experience--"it gives me something in common with people I wouldn't ordinarily get to talk to. Like everyone else, I am so saddened by what happened. But it doesn't make me dislike the day on which I was born."

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