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The Things We Leave Behind

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The epic dimensions of Tuesday’s tragedy have summoned a language of superlatives. The worst terrorist attack in U.S. history. New York’s tallest buildings, laid flat. The biggest blow to America’s sense of security since Pearl Harbor.

Historians eventually will try to make sense of the tides sweeping through America. For the moment, however, the random mementos that the victims left behind give an eloquent voice to some of the nation’s private yearnings. An unmade bed, a prized set of golf clubs or a small glass souvenir from a long-ago family outing.

Every one of the some 5,300 missing or dead in the attacks left traces of a life, each as carefully unique as a snowflake. Collectively, these simple things form a mosaic of human experience, a national scrapbook dedicated to a great national theme: the singularity of every individual.

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While investigators in New York continue foraging for forensic evidence, it will be left to the families of the missing people to begin sifting through their loved ones’ personal artifacts. Inevitably, in the weeks and months ahead, there will be questions about what to keep and what to let go.

Last week, Americans joined in an elegiac national symphony of somber pride and grief. The stories below are of a different scale, evidence of the loss and longing, and in a few cases--against all odds--of hope.

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The photograph leans against two bunches of flowers, an image of a young man seated upright and proud in a United Airlines uniform.

The plaque reads Aug. 16, 1992--the date that Jason Matthew Dahl earned his commercial pilot’s license.

The photo and the plaque, inside Mildred Dahl’s San Jose home, tell of a son who rose quickly to the top of his profession. Dahl became a United Airlines captain at 33. For a decade, he flew commercial planes. He loved the sky, almost as much as he loved his family.

Dahl was the pilot of United Flight 93, which plunged into a field in rural Pennsylvania.

Now the photo and the plaque are artifacts that connect a family to one of its pillars.

The photo shows a man of confidence. The plaque says that Dahl “has been found to be properly qualified to exercise the privileges of . . . airline transport pilot.” It allowed him to fly 727s and 737s.

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“I want Jason to be a real person for as long as people remember him and hold him in their hearts,” his older brother, Lowell, said.

Lowell Dahl and his mother will carry the items with them when they travel to Littleton, Colo., for a memorial service Wednesday. About 20 family members from all corners of the country are meeting at the West Bowles Community Church in Littleton, where Dahl lived with his wife, son and a stepdaughter.

Dahl’s family will arrange the photo and the plaque so all can say their farewells.

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