Choosing Hope: A College Sophomore Born in NYC on 9/11 Explores the Meaning of Her Birthday

  • September 1, 2021
A young woman with long blonde hair stands on a brick walkway at Ohio State University.
Photo courtesy Leiken family.

On September 11, 2021, I will turn 20 years old. 

20. Twenty years. Two decades. It is hard for me to wrap my mind around these numbers, in part because my entire life has been defined by the numbers 9/11 and the number 2,996: the number of people that died on the day I was born in New York City.

My entire life, all 20 years, has been a balancing of sadness and hope. Again and again, we choose hope. 

As I reflect on turning 20 this September 11, the one truth I have learned about life is that hope is always the answer. Hope, I have learned, is a way to remember and honor those we lost, and to cherish life in their memory.

My birth story, a story I cannot remember, of course, but which my parents have told me countless times, was a symbol of hope not only to them but to countless others on one of our country’s darkest days, and in the days and years after. At 8 1/2 months pregnant, my mom, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society, was on her way to work on that sunny Tuesday with a cloudless blue sky. When she got off the subway at Chambers Street that morning, she saw the North Tower on fire and began walking the 100 New York City blocks – five miles – to my dad, who was at their apartment on the Upper West Side. On that long walk uptown, my mom realized the baby – me – was not moving, so she and my dad jumped into a cab, trying to get to Mt. Sinai Hospital. A police barricade stopped them from entering Central Park. My dad jumped out to explain that his wife was in labor, and then two NYPD cars escorted my parents’ cab to the hospital, lights and sirens blaring. I was born by emergency c-section at 5 p.m. that day. My mom and dad became new parents just hours after thousands lost their lives in the exact spot my mom had started her day. Sadness and hope.

After I was born, my parents feared that my life would be dominated by acts of terrorism and a changed, dark world. But my childhood – we moved from New York to my parents’ hometown of Shaker Heights, Ohio when I was four – was a childhood of birthday parties, ice skating, sledding down the hill at Thornton Park in the winter and apple picking at Patterson’s Apple Farm in the fall. It was the childhood my parents dreamed I would have, a childhood I loved.

The back view of a blonde young woman placing a flower on the 9/11 Memorial
Photo courtesy the Leiken family.

In the summer of 2019, approaching my 18th birthday, I visited the 9/11 Memorial & Museum for the first time, returning to the place where my mom started her journey to bring me into the world. It was this visit that transformed my birth story for me, from something that happened to my parents to my own calling – a calling that ties me, like a tether across time, to the victims and first responders of 9/11. I placed a rose on the Memorial by the name Alena Sesinova, whose birthday, I learned, fell that day. Alena, who immigrated to the United States from Prague and lived in Brooklyn Heights, was 57 when she died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. She worked in Information Technology at Marsh & McLennan, and was very proud of the seven-room apartment she owned. I will forever think of Alena on my birthday, the day her life ended and mine began.

My visit to the Memorial inspired me to host an assembly at my high school – Shaker Heights High School – on my 18th birthday. I wanted to help share with my friends and classmates – all born around 9/11 – the ways we might carry on the message of hope that 9/11 teaches us. 

Little did we know that our graduating class was about to be tested in a way that was just as scary as the tests our parents faced in 2001. COVID-19 hit in the beginning of our final semester. The world went into lockdown, schools went online, senior proms were canceled, graduations took place virtually. We spent months in our childhood bedrooms, looking at our friends and teachers through the lens of Zoom. 

But I think the circumstances of our birth and what our parents had to endure in the aftermath of 9/11 were somehow planted deep within us, because what I observed in my classmates and in myself during the pandemic was endless hope. We knew that, someway or somehow, we would have experiences and adventures and happiness again, just as we did when we were children. 

The pandemic wore on much longer than any of us thought it would, and my freshman year at Ohio State consisted of online classes in my dorm room and weekly COVID-19 tests. I did not meet a single teacher in person. My classmates and I attended no OSU football games. We did, however, cheer loudly at the TV when the Buckeyes beat Clemson to advance to the national championship, and we cried loudly when they lost to Alabama in the title game.

And we continued to hope.

Vaccines arrived this past spring, and I moved into the sorority house last week to start my sophomore year. I am taking my first-ever in-person college classes this semester. Walking the campus with my books and laptop, I feel for the first time like a real college student. This fall, the OSU campus in Columbus is alive with students, and OSU made the brave decision to require vaccination for all students and faculty, to ensure the health of our school community. As a proud Buckeye, I am filled with hope as this school year begins.

And most exciting of all: on my 20th birthday – September 11, 2021 – I will attend the Buckeyes’ first home game of the year in person at the Horseshoe with my friends, right here in Columbus. I will cheer with all my heart for our team, and celebrate and think of Alena Sesinova as we continue to hope for good things to come.

The theme of my 20 years of life is hope, and through my hope I honor those lost on the day I was born. Wishing peace to all those who remember loved ones lost on 9/11. Hope lives on.

Go Bucks!

By Caleigh Leiken, Ohio State University sophomore born in New York on 9/11/01. Read the blog post she wrote about her first visit to the Memorial in 2019. 

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