Writing a tribute to a 35-year-old woman who, according to many, had it all is much like an apprentice trying to paint the Sistine Chapel in a day. A life well lived and lived fully is difficult to capture in words, not because there is little to say, but because there is much, and the best phrases have become the worst of clichés. However, it is never good form for a writer to apologize to his reader prior to giving his words a chance to speak for themselves. So, I offer no apology for what follows, but only hope that my words might provide a simple foundation upon which your imagination, O reader, might stand as you reflect upon the things lost and the things gained five years ago when the towers fell.

Mari-Rae Sopper was a beautiful child with a big smile and an even bigger heart that only grew as she did. From a young age she showed a marked determination and ability to succeed at those things she put her hand to, and chose gymnastics and academics as the two arenas in which to excel. She competed in gymnastics through college at Iowa State University, went on to study law, and even spent some time working as a Judge Advocate, General in the U.S. Navy.

According to her family and friends, Mari-Rae was both talented and generous, a combination that is not always common but is always refreshing to discover when one comes across it. An outstanding athlete and scholar at the local and national level in both high school and college, Mari-Rae left a legacy behind her that spoke as much about her values as about her abilities. Although her life was cut short on the Day of Infamy, Mari-Rae’s full and intentional life is alluded to over and over again in the many tributes and reflections left behind by friends.

“When I last spoke to her it was over the telephone, also in May, and she was giving me advice on how to get the best price selling my house –and she offered to babysit. There she was–a single woman willing to watch my toddler on a weekend night — because she loved my daughter Madeline — and because she was just that generous of a friend. But her sister was coming in town so I told her not to be silly. Now I wish I had taken her up on her offer so I would have at least seen her one more time.” –Jennifer Eichenmuller

“I got to spend Mari-Rae’s last weekend with her, and I am very lucky to havehad that time with her. It was a classic “Mari-Rae” day. She left me three messages in a two hour period, each one lasting about 3 minutes and detailing her day as it unraveled. We arrived, on time, ready to pack her out for the movers arriving the next morning, and discovered she had no packing materials. She was out of boxes, had a quarter of a roll of scotch tape, and nothing to wrap her wares in. Dave and I did the best we could to wrap all of her pictures and valuables in towels, sheets, and blankets, until her sister Tia came to the rescue with a bunch of boxes. We all went out and celebrated her farewell for California at Lauriol Plaza. She moved the time up for her party from 7:00 to 6:00, because I had a flight out later that evening from BWI to Newport. That is the kind of friend Mari-Rae was. She would rearrange her own party to fit the time schedule of her out-of-town friend.” –Sandy

When the planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon five years ago, Americans and sympathetic friends around the world gathered to mourn the loss. We lost 2,996 citizens that day; and in a country that is run by and for the people, that loss was heavily felt. More powerful than the symbolic value of the towers and the Pentagon, the destruction of American life was an attack upon the heart and soul of our nation. Edifices, offices, and command and control centers do not adequately represent the American way. America, the land of the citizen-soldier, the citizen-ruler, the citizen-shopkeeper, is a land characterized by her people; indeed, it is one of the few nations of the world that can be said to exist solely for the sake of her people. Marvelously, this truth is not lost upon Americans, who instinctively recognized that the great tragedy of September 11, 2001 was not in the monetary loss, not in the symbolic value of the targets, not even in pain and suffering of the friends and family of those who died. No, the great tragedy of September 11, 2001 was in the loss of her citizens, those people like Mari-Rae Sopper, who made America. Yes, they simply made America. Their plans, goals, dreams, histories, and daily actions were the pieces of America. At times they were selfish, petty, lazy, and insignificant. At other times they were magnificent, humble, selfless, honest, and true. In all of this, and because of this, they were the common men: The common men and women of the United States of America whose common goals, common lives, and common sense composed a nation of universal ideals and values. To lose them to the diametrically opposed ideology of men who have little concept of or concern for the value of the individual, the commoner, in the context of a community was the greatest tragedy of all.

Unsurprisingly though, this tragedy has little served to destroy America or the American way. Though much was lost five years ago today, much was also gained. Americans were reminded of their identity, of their duty, and of their love—and even as worthless steel and iron fell twisted to the ground in a dirty and smoldering heap, the spirit of true patriotism was rekindled from sea to sea. Americans, who had for so long been so engrossed in their daily affairs that they could not see beyond the dust on their windowpanes, were lifted up to remember who they were. And to remember who you are is the first step towards becoming who you ought to be.

Remembering what it is to be an American is the beginning of the journey towards discovering what it means to be human; for to be common is not opposed to greatness. Reflecting upon the achievements and dreams of those who have died reminds us that there is some thing in the heart of each man that makes him desire to do large and wonderful things; and there is another thing in his heart that enables him to do those things. Christianity (rightly) calls this the image of God. There is also the common pettiness of man that cannot be glossed over either, even in a tribute to those we love. This pettiness and wickedness is also part and parcel of the American citizen and the human condition. After all, the entire reason for creating a democracy is to limit the evil effects of men one upon the other. Christianity again (rightly) calls this sin. In a cosmos governed by an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God who was made Incarnate, man is both insignificant and indescribably valuable. The great depravity of man is held side by side with his great dignity, and both ought to serve the purpose of humbling us even as we look ahead with hope—humbling us because we do not deserve even the smallest blessings we receive, and offering us hope because we bear the very image of God, and are surely not completely forsaken.

As we remember Mari-Rae Sopper and the 2,995 other men and women who died, may our tribute and memorial not be a vain journey down memory lane. May we do more than drink in the bittersweet feelings of loss and love, and joy and pain as we reflect upon the deaths of those we love. Our memorial is not a paean to the nostalgic achievements of man, so much as a reminder of who we are, where we are, and who we ought to be in light of what is to come.

For more information about Mari-Rae Sopper, please visit: http://www.mari-rae.net/

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