On the morning of 9/11/01, I turned on the TV as I got ready to go to a literature class. I was looking forward to the day–ironically, our class was scheduled to watch “Apocalypse Now.” Suddenly though, the world turned surreal. “Good Morning America” showed an image of the World Trade Center, morning sun bouncing from its windows, smoke pouring from a hole in its side. As I tried to process what had happened, another plane, tiny as a mosquito, buzzed around and slammed into the second tower. I called my mother. As we spoke, reports came in of the Pentagon being hit, then of a crash in Pennsylvania. Trembling, I said, “I think the world is ending.” From different cities, we watched as the blue New York sky turned to smoke before our eyes; the newscasters were holding down panic.
Like everyone else, I was a wreck. My brother, a Navy pilot, was ordered to fly over the New York harbor, to protect the city from further attacks. My brother-in-law, a warrant officer in the Marines, confidently assured me that the world would not end. He wasn’t afraid, he was angry, and the strength in that anger calmed me a little. My next door neighbor enlisted in the Army within days. At least there were three guys I knew who weren’t shaking in their boots.
At first, I stayed glued to the TV, but it was impossible to take it all in. The city had been leveled in more ways than one. No rich, no poor, just lost souls wandering dazed amid tons of rubble, looking for their loved ones. The images were horrifying–office workers jumping to their deaths, the charred remains of what had been the tallest building in the world. Footage of airplanes exploding into its towers looped constantly.
I have PTSD, and it was kicking in something fierce. Terror and dread made it hard to think. I couldn’t stop shaking. I had two children to care for, but the realization that I couldn’t protect them from the world felt like a kick in the stomach. It was impossible to shelter them from this tragedy. Like most parents, I grieved, knowing they’d never experience the freedom and safety that previous generations had taken for granted.
We found some solace in creativity. I wrote a very bad song about love and sang it like a mantra. The kids and I painted pictures– some of the towers, some of other things. Later, we went to the campus and visited with an Episcopal priest I knew. I was seeking wisdom and comfort, but she had none–in fact, she seemed almost as traumatized as I was. I remember thinking, “There are no wise men today.”
We attended a campus vigil, held beside a beautiful fountain. Someone brought candles, and we lit them and placed them on the wall around the water. Some sang songs, some said prayers, some cried. We were all lost in grief. We were afraid. We were mourning for the world.
I’m more of a thanker of the Universe than an actual praying woman, but I remember praying on 9/11. If anyone was listening, I wanted my words to be heard. A couple of days after the planes hit, I visited a beautiful old church. I’d passed its red brick, ivy-covered walls covered many times. Not being a churchgoer, I’d never been inside, though I’d once written a fan letter to the kindhearted, outspoken priest who led it. I sat alone on a long pew in the sanctuary. Soft sunlight poured through stained glass windows the color of gemstones. I cried an ocean of tears and silently spoke to whoever might be tuning it–God or fairies or atoms that might carry my plea for peace to the proper universal authorities. “Please help us,” I begged. I have no idea how long I sat there, trying to get it together. I felt I had no where else to go.
Nearly 3000 people murdered in less time than it took to bake a cake. Safety was an illusion. Clouds felt suffocating, every airplane held a bomb. For me, almost a year passed before the impact of the tragedy began to ease up.
A dozen years have passed. My brother’s no longer flying, my brother-in-law’s retired. My daughter’s now in the Air National Guard, at a training school in Mississippi. I miss her terribly. We spoke last night via Facebook, and the subject of Syria came up. I sent her a poem I’d written about these endless, senseless wars. “That’s a good poem, Mom,” she wrote sweetly. Then I asked her what she thought of it all. She said:
“I think I don’t like when babies die because of corrupt leaders. And if someone asked me to risk my life to try to prevent someone from gassing thousands of people including hundreds of children, I would ask when my plane was arriving.”
I was a bit dumbstruck (or keystroke-struck). Her heart’s bigger than twelve World Trade Centers. How was such a girl born to a chicken-hearted pacifist like me? How do we ever begin to thank those who take on the task of defending and protecting other human beings? Regardless of politics, greed or the hidden agendas of the Powers That Be, our soldiers are the ones who put their lives on the line, so that children can paint pictures with their mothers. There’s love in that. There’s selflessness.
I don’t know why I’m writing this. I’ve just been thinking about that day, and about the thousands of families who lost loved ones on 9/11. We’ve all moved on, but we’ll never forget.