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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.

Reed Johnson

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For three years, Dr. Yeneneh Betru of Burbank, a specialist in internal medicine, waged a relentless campaign to ship kidney dialysis equipment to his native Ethiopia, where such machines are exceedingly rare.

He moonlighted to pay for his project. He lobbied Ethiopia’s health minister for help. He wrote the country’s embassy in Washington.

Finally, having cleared a mountain of red tape, Betru planned later this month to ship the six machines in his dusty garage to Addis Ababa by boat.

“He wanted to do something big for his home country before he got married,” said Jim Stramoski, who refurbishes dialysis equipment for hospitals in the San Fernando Valley and helped Betru assemble the equipment. With Stramoski’s help, Betru was able to put together the six machines at a total cost of about $15,000. Brand new they would have cost roughly eight times that much.

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Betru, 35, was among the victims of hijacked American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon. His plans might have ended there.

But now there’s hope. Betru’s employers have pledged to finish his mission.

“[We want to] put together the money to make sure he gets it to Ethiopia in honor of him, to make sure his dream can be fulfilled,” said Adam Singer, president of IPC, a North Hollywood-based company that manages inpatient hospital practices across the nation.

Betru was director of medical affairs at IPC. He also served patients at Consultants for Lung Disease and at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center, both in Burbank. Just the week before the attacks, he had returned to Ethiopia to be married to a young woman named Zelalem.

Sirak Betru is gratified by the offers of assistance from those who once worked with his brother. Searching through his brother’s garage over the weekend, he recalled how Betru wanted to open a medical clinic in Addis Ababa but instead settled on sending the dialysis equipment after hitting roadblocks.

Sirak Betru sifted through the things that were so important to his brother--tubes, switches and knobs, dials hidden behind plastic wrappers. Sending these lifesaving machines back home, he said, will complete his brother’s journey.

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