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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Remembering

 

The day is here again, twelve years later, and we don't want to go there.  It is a brutal, horrific memory.  Each morning that we have woken since, the pain has dulled until we arrive here when it hits us again.  We might not want to dredge up the memory and yet I think it's so very important.  I think it's crucial to bring our minds and hearts back to the terrifying pain because we, who are blessed to be here on this day, in this country, we owe them something.  And I find that after I push through the pain of remembering, I can, at the end of this day, focus on the days following September 11, 2001.  It is in those memories that I am able to find thoughts, not of terror and fear, but of bravery, kindness and love.  It is with those memories that I have found something with which to honor those we lost.

In the days following, September 11, 2001 I remember the clear blue and quiet sky, suddenly absent of the whir of airplanes which I had become accustomed to hearing fly over my house near Dulles Airport.  I remember walking slowly and gently through the days, feeling absolutely no urgency to do anything or go anywhere. I remember smiling weakly, but deliberately at strangers and getting a comforting, sympathetic smile back.  I remember giving the cashier at the grocery store a pat on the arm and looking her deep in the eyes.   I remember letting people merge in ahead of me on the highway.  I remember that before that day, I had been irritated that the slightly elderly contractor I had hired was taking forever to finish my basement.  I remember after that day watching as he rolled up in his truck, a giant American flag flying out of the back window.  I remember staring into his weathered, sad eyes and knowing that I couldn't care less about my basement.  I remember that after that day all of us were better to each other, for each other, for a long while.  

Each year on this day I remember that morning and a few years ago I wrote those memories down for my children, but really for me.  I posted it last year and I'll post it below again just to be sure that I read it and remember.  It is rushed and rambling and panicky which is exactly how I felt.  There are and there will be folks who will write more eloquently, who will have much more harrowing and heroic and meaningful lessons to impart about that day.  Still, I think for each of us it is important to sit with our own memories of that day no matter where we might have been. 

I was a housewife and a mom, safe and snug, in my home on that morning.  Today I'll remember every detail, every emotion, every urgent plea to God. Because in going back to the horror and the guilt I felt at being spared, I will also go back to the bravery, the patriotism, the unity, the grace, the compassion and the giving that came after.  I want to remember all of it.  I want to remember how we all behaved better for many days and weeks afterwards, so that today I can work to be better still.  Those beautiful souls that we lost that day are not here to live their best life.  They deserve that we do just that.  They deserve that their country and their people always remember to try to be better for them.

September 11, 2001
My 2 year old was watching Blue’s Clues.  My 8 month old finally was taking a nap.  Things were changing – I was feeling better.  This was how a day in the life of a stay at home mom , a girl who had everything she ever wanted, was supposed to be.  Only 3 weeks before I had suffered confusing and terrifying panic attacks.  What was wrong with me?  It couldn’t be postpartum depression.  My baby was 8 months old.  Didn’t that happen soon after the baby was born?  But today, I was feeling like I was fixed.  I had seen a wonderful, helpful doctor.  The baby was finally sleeping a bit more.  He was scheduled.  My 2 year old was happy and about to start preschool.  My husband was funny and cute and smart and understanding.  He had taken care of me when I was hurting.  I was blessed.  I made the beds.  I cleaned up the rooms.    I remember thinking that morning that all was going to be okay.   I remember I was wearing a white t-shirt and khaki shorts.  I was thinking:  I’ve still got a tan, I’m lookin' kinda cute, I’m happy, my family is healthy, I’m not panicky.  This is a good day.

The sun was bright.  The sky was perfectly blue.  My baby, ironically, I guess, was wearing a blue onesie with “Future President” on it and a picture of the White House…a gift from his uncle who worked in the State Department.  My toddler was watching Nick Jr.  Today, 8 years later, the rain comes down.  Today there is another boy.  Two at school and one sleeping in a big boy bed.  Today it seems so far away.  Today it isn’t the first thing I think of when I wake up anymore.  Today the memories, though I thought I would not forget a minute, are less clear.  What I do remember:  the sky, the sun and the quiet in the house except for that Steve guy in the striped green shirt and his dog, Blue, taking my son on an adventure to find a clue.  

I first saw it on the internet…the first building smoking , then went upstairs standing in my bedroom watching the plane hit the tower...not even listening to the commentators…not conceiving of its gravity…just something bizarre that happened.  I seriously did not consider that people were in that building for quite awhile that morning.  A small plane off course?  A pilot who had a heart attack?  Maybe one or two deaths in that plane…tragic, but not big news…I wasn’t thinking of people in the building.  I wasn’t thinking terrorism…I wasn’t thinking about what would come next.   I called Steve who was in downtown DC and asked if he saw it.  I watched it over and over while talking to him…straight into the building.  Weird, huh?  Steve hadn’t heard about it.  What I didn’t know as I spoke to Steve was that I was watching the second plane crash into the building, live.  We hung up.  A regular hang up.  Probably didn’t say I love you.  I probably got a diet coke.  I checked on the baby.  I kept watching upstairs - my baby sleeping, my toddler watching…maybe Dora now.  I kept watching. But now I turned up the volume.  I listened, too.

This is bigger than I thought. I have no idea how big.  Matt and Katie.  They sound scared and confused.  It’s deliberate.  It’s two planes.  It’s smoke and fire and fear.  Now that guy at the Pentagon.  Something happens while he’s reporting.  He shakes and ducks at the noise.  What’s going on?  This is big.  This is really, really big.  They’re coming from everywhere.  The planes are coming from everywhere. Now a report that there is some kind of explosion at the State Department.   This is madness.  My house is quiet, the sky is blue, my baby is sleeping, my boy is watching Dora the Explorer. My husband is in DC.  My husband is in DC.  My husband is in DC.  I call him again.  There is no answer.  No voice mail with his voice.  A busy signal.  Again, again, again and I still can’t hear my husband’s voice.  His phone never goes to the busy signal.  Never...it's always the voicemail.  Never the busy signal.  The planes are crashing everywhere.    A field now…where?  Please, please, please.  Not this day.  This will be the day so many have lost their husbands. Will this be my day?  Will this be it?  Now I’m downstairs….I’m outside in the backyard…no neighbors out…no one screaming.  It’s just a day.  The sky is blue, the sun is shining, the baby is sleeping, the boy is watching, my husband is in DC.  I run upstairs and put on my cross necklace.  I wear it everyday…why didn’t I have it on?  What was I thinking?  I’m holding it so tight that my fingers hurt.  Straight to the busy signal again.  Again and again and again…where is he?  Is he gone?  Is there another plane?  Now back to the living room.  I’m kneeling at the white chair…the one I have probably sat in twice since I bought it.  I'm kneeling and  I’m praying with all my might. Not today.  Not today.  Not today.  Today will not be the day.  Please God, please, please.  Please, God, not today.  Bring him home, please, please.  I’ll do anything.  Please, please.  I won’t complain about sleepless nights and loads of laundry and dirty diapers.  I won’t.  Please, please.  I promise.  Not today.    

I am pleading Him with every bit of myself and I’m hitting redial again and again and again.  And suddenly, I am a little girl again and I’m calling my parents.  I can’t find him.  I can’t find him.  Now I’m crying.  Now I’m scared.  My mom is yelling to my dad, “It’s  Jenn.  She can’t get a hold of Steve.  She’s hysterical.”  In the midst of my hysteria, I remember feeling a shred of confusion/offense…hysterical?  I am?  Wait…I’m not hysterical…why is my mother calling me hysterical?  That only lasted a second, probably because I was too busy being hysterical.  I hang up.  I check on the baby…still sleeping…this baby that never sleeps.  Now Joe is watching a third show…who even knows which one.  He has not moved from the corner of the blue sofa…his eyes zoned.  (This has not changed since he is now 10…the world can be crashing around him, literally, and if he’s watching TV, he’s oblivious)

My friend, Becky, calls.  I can’t get Steve on the phone I say.  My voice is shaking.  I’m about to cry again.  The sky is blue, the sun is shining, the baby is sleeping, my toddler is watching tv, my husband...I can’t get him on the phone.   I’ll come over, she says.  Do you want me to come over?  Please, yes.  Before she gets here, Steve calls.  In the exact same moment, I am overcome with gratitude and with embarrassment that I was so worried.  Of course, this is not the day.  Not for me.  This would not happen to me.  He says, it’s okay.  I’m in my car.  I’m on my way home.  Everyone is leaving.  It will be awhile because of the traffic leaving, but I’m following a co-worker who knows a different way out of the city.  I love you.  It’s okay. It’s okay.  It's okay.

And it was okay for me.  It was fine for me.  It was fine for most everyone that I knew personally.  I had nothing to worry about.  I think back and I feel slightly guilty that I was praying for my husband who was obviously (at least now it is obvious) safe, when so many women at home, my age, women exactly like me, had husbands who were not safe. Not safe at all.   Steve was in an office building somewhere in the city…not near the Pentagon and there was no explosion at the State Department where my brother-in-law worked, as had been reported.  All my friends working on the Hill were fine, but at the time I thought the planes were going everywhere.  I had never thought about terrorism for a day in my entire life.   A political science major? And not once had I considered it. Not even when there was the explosion years before at the World Trade Center. It was something that happened far away from where I was. I never considered it. Never. And certainly not as a threat to my family.

My true fear lasted a couple of hours maybe.  There are so many stories of inspiration and tragedy from that day.  That is not my story...nothing tragic, nothing heroic.  Many of us, Americans, were just fine.  Except that we weren't.  We would never be the same again.  I carry those hours and that day and the excruciating weeks and months that followed with me everyday.  I still don’t think there is a day that I haven’t thought in one way about that morning. 

I often wonder what I will tell my kids about it.  They don’t ask really.  They have it in a textbook at school now, just like I had Pearl Harbor in a textbook.  I didn’t think about Pearl Harbor too often really.  Just another day that people mention.  I want to tell them that this day, this September 11th, is bigger.  It is bigger and more horrible and more worthy than all of the other days.  It was the day I prayed and prayed and prayed and got the answer I wanted when so many others did not.  It was the day that their daddy walked through the front door of our house in his suit and his tie like he has hundreds and hundreds of days since.   It was a day that jolted me from my unfounded anxiety and showed me real anxiety.  It was a day that will come again and again every year and I will kneel down every single time and thank God for answering me with what I wanted to hear and I will feel guilty and grateful all at the same time.

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