MESICK — Benjamin Townsend got cancer in 2000 and he’s thankful.
It meant he spent a lot of time with his teenaged son in the year before the boy died.
Now, when Townsend tells strangers the date of his son’s death, they think he was one of the nearly 3,000 people who were killed by terrorists that day.
But it’s not true.
Jeremy Townsend was 15 on September 11, 2001 and had just received his learner’s permit. He died the way 3,200 people do every day: in a traffic accident.
“I didn’t really know what grief was even though I’d help people through it as a pastor,‘ Benjamin Townsend told the Cadillac News. “I didn’t know really what it was until I went through it myself.‘
In the aftermath of the crash, the Townsends were busy dealing with their grief over Jeremy’s death and their own injuries. Benjamin, a Baptist pastor, had a head injury and his ear was nearly severed. Townsend’s wife, Debbie (the mother of their children) had multiple injuries that will affect her for the rest of her life. Their youngest child, Bethany, had a cut spleen.
It was years before they learned the details of what had happened to the country.
Townsend, who suffered from short-term memory loss, has few memories of that day; his wife tells him he woke briefly in the car and asked, “What is happening to our family?‘
Jessica Boonstra — one of Jeremy’s two older sisters — had been just blocks away in Mesick when she heard the sirens. Her mother, who was trapped in the car for hours, called from the intersection of M-37 and M-115. A driver in a commercial truck had fallen asleep and missed the stop sign. Jeremy, who was driving the family to a pastor’s conference in a borrowed car, was killed instantly.
Boonstra rushed to the scene, then to the hospital in Traverse City to be with her family. She called clergy, friends and family. They came to wait with her at the hospital.
She noticed people crying while watching TV in the waiting room.
“It’s going to be OK,‘ she told them. They told her to look at the screen.
“I couldn’t even do it,‘ she recalled. That night, she watched the news with a friend’s parents and found out what happened for the rest of the world that day.
“And that’s when I kind of realized it’s not about us anymore,‘ Boonstra recalled. “I mean, God had this happen for a reason. We don’t like it. But there’s so many people that are hurting, and we can grieve with them.‘
For the Townsends, losing Jeremy shortly after 8 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001 has meant that everybody remembers the day he died. In a small town like Mesick — where students were dismissed for Jeremy’s memorial even though he was homeschooled — the Townsend family’s ordeal made an impression.
“When people gravitated to us, they were helping those people in New York, you know what I mean?‘ Townsend said.
Everybody remembers the anniversary of Jeremy’s death because everybody knows where they were on Sept. 11, 2001.
“Every year I get bombarded with emails on September 11,‘ Townsend said. “It was tough to take early on. I didn’t want to hear about it. I didn’t want to know about it. I didn’t want to remember it.‘
For years, the elder Townsends would leave town the week of the anniversary.
“I couldn’t be here during that time,‘ he said. “My wife couldn’t be here.‘
But in recent years, that’s started to change.
Townsend has a harder time getting away because he has too many commitments — he’s a Wexford County commissioner, he serves on the region’s mental health board and serves as deputy supervisor of Springville Township.
Grief is like a hole, Townsend explained. It’s always there, but it gets smaller. With time, you stop falling in.
“But it’s how you use it. And the best way that I’ve found to use it is just to help others that are going through — we’re all going through — tough things,‘ Townsend said.
Now, he loves to hear stories about his son — who he says was not perfect but was “ideal.‘
“He would always want his friends to do the right thing,‘ Townsend said.