Sept. 11, 2001, was Valerie Sanetrik's 10th birthday. Mom Denise Morris had a party planned, with cake ready.
Then came the devastating news that terrorists had hijacked four planes and killed thousands of people. Any idea of celebrating fell by the wayside.
While discussing the postponement of the birthday fete, Val asked about the victims who "will never get to have another birthday," Morris recalls.
So the family made a decision: They would still have a birthday gathering, albeit a smaller, more somber one, and instead of just marking Val's birthday, they would also light candles on the cake for those who were killed.
Every year since then, the family has gathered on Sept. 11, with one cake and candles for Val and another cake and candles dedicated to those who lost their lives.
"We all celebrate her birthday," Morris says. "And we all celebrate all of their birthdays."
The 12th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks will be marked by formal events such as public readings of victims' names, wreath-laying ceremonies and charity fundraisers.
But across the country, there will also be countless modest actions to honor the heroes and memorialize the victims of that day, such as a family in Norfolk, Va., blowing out the candles on a special cake.
People will donate blood, fly American flags, attend religious services and take baked goods to firehouses. They will spend extra time with family, give money to charity and volunteer at soup kitchens.
Some who take these small but significant actions have a direct link to the horrors of Sept. 11, such as losing a loved one. Others don't have a close connection but want to commemorate the day.
Nearly half of Americans plan to observe this anniversary in an informal way, such as saying a prayer or taking a moment of silence, according to a new American Pulse survey. Thirteen percent will do it in a more formal manner such as attending a memorial service.
Even with the passage of time, the desire to recognize each anniversary remains strong, says David Paine, president and co-founder of the 9/11 Day Observance.
His organization encourages people to perform a good deed in tribute to the victims. For this Sept. 11, more than 20,000 people have made such a pledge on the group's 911Day.org website. The 9/11 Day Observance expects to have more than 40,000 pledges by the end of the day Wednesday.
"The reason you see this outpouring of support with Sept. 11 is that the entire country feels like they were victims," Paine says. "They are trying to find a way to pay respects and find a way to regain control over what they felt."
Those who volunteer or do some other constructive deed want "to take what was painful and turn it into a positive experience," he says.
SOMETIMES IT'S SIMPLE THINGS
The homage on Sept. 11 - deemed by Congress a "National Day of Service and Remembrance" - is varied. Some people take brownies to a firehouse or clothes to the needy. Others give something more personal: their blood.
The New York Blood Center says Sept. 11 is a popular day for people to show up to make donations. The numbers aren't as plentiful as they were in 2001, 2002 and 2003 - at 6,103, 3,599 and 3,150 respectively - but they are higher than normal.
Last year, 2,562 people walked in on Sept. 11, compared with 1,727 a week later and 2,127 two weeks later.
"Sept. 11 is a special day," says Harvey Schaffler, New York Blood Center executive director for donor marketing. "People like to pay tribute through a personal tradition."
Louise Kramer and Tracy Nieporent have carved out their own ritual. Each year, just before Sept. 11, they meet for lunch in Manhattan.
On Sept. 10, 2001, Kramer, then a journalist, and Nieporent, a partner in the Myriad Restaurant Group, met at his company's Tribeca Grill for their first-ever business lunch.
"The next day, everything completely changed," Kramer says. She stayed in touch with Nieporent while reporting on stories such as how downtown restaurants provided food to World Trade Center recovery workers.
They've continued to meet every year, usually in the same seats at the same restaurant, to reconnect and reflect.
Christopher Neck's Sept. 11 tradition is more strenuous: He clocks 10 miles on a treadmill.
In 2001, Neck was in Blacksburg,Va., running on a treadmill and watching TV, when he first heard about the attacks. Now he marks the anniversary by recreating that morning's exercise.
"We all have our different ways of commemorating or remembering," says Neck, a management professor at Arizona State University. "This is my thing. It's a simple thing, but it means something."
EXPECTS PEOPLE TO FORGET
Lisa Della Pietra, who lost her younger brother Joseph when the twin towers collapsed, knows that with each passing year, the number of those who honor the anniversary is likely to diminish.
"Do I think people are going to forget? Of course I do," she says. "I'm not foolish."
But she is also well aware of, and thankful for, all the people who remember.
There are the friends who contact her each Sept. 11, as well as those who donate money to the 9/11 Scholarship Fund at Brooklyn's Poly Prep Country Day School, which pays tribute to her brother and 10 other alumni and one student's parent who perished.
On Wednesday, Della Pietra won't be at any elaborate events. She'll be in the 9/11 Memorial Garden at Poly Prep for a quiet ceremony there.
Then she will return to her Brooklyn home and plant mums in her garden.
Those flowers will come from someone who has his own way of marking the day: They are provided by her florist, who refuses to accept money for the flowers she plants each Sept. 11.
"He says, 'This is my gift to Joey and the garden,'" she says.
And while Della Pietra knows the nation's tributes to her brother and the other 9/11 victims will fade with time, she hopes that they won't disappear completely.
"I always hope that the morning of Sept. 11 - even if it's just for a second, one small second of your life - that people will just stop and think about that day," she says. "You hope that every person who wakes up that day thinks in some small way of the 3,000 people who perished."
By Laura Petrecca, USA Today; contributing: Rebecca Castagna