Wednesday, September 07, 2011

I remember | 9.11.01

It’s impossible to write about September 11, 2001 without clichés, without sounding maudlin or false. I’ve avoided writing about it for those reasons, but this year I realized I’m teaching students who were five and eight years old when it happened, very near to my kids' current ages. Most students have little to no understanding of that day. Some day I’ll have to explain it to Addie and Henry, who were born after it happened, and they'll want to know where I was, what I felt.  Even the ordinary, the same, deserves remembering and telling. For that reason, I’m including this memory in my blog.  After ten years there’s another piece I’m ready to write about, too.

Like millions of other people, I woke up to a phone call that Tuesday morning. It came just after the first plane hit. I was twenty two, home sick in my dark bedroom on a planned absence from student teaching. The early phone call woke me in my bed. My first thought was that I was in some kind of trouble for taking a rare day off.

“Turn on your TV,” Brian said. I complied with curiosity and tried to understand what I saw on the 13-inch screen. I scooted to the foot of my mattress to get a better look. Frantic reporters tried to make sense of a gaping mouth in the side North Tower of the World Trade Center. I remember talk about what kind of plane could have flown into a building. There was speculation about a small aircraft, a general lack of immediate suspicion, and for a moment: at least the appearance of calm.

I stared at the news crawl across smoking tower, wondering what this was.  I recalled the enigmatic hysterics of my French teacher during the 1993 and 1995 bombings at the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City; for some reason this resonated with the same hollow tone. The intensity of the reports started to turn. Trepidation crept into the voices of reporters like dye through water. The second plane hit. It seemed like another camera angle of the first until I realized there were now two jagged gashes, two plumes of smoke. I held my breath, stunned at having watched people die. The tenor of reporting turned, decisive. From that point I couldn’t leave the TV.

Time stopped, but the devastation continued in what felt like an endless chain of dominoes. A plane hit the Pentagon. The South Tower collapsed. Another plane, down in a Pennsylvania field. Then the North Tower curled in on itself sending a second shadowy cloud of decay across Manhattan. I was scared to be in my house alone, scared to be seeing but scared also to turn it off. I felt torn. Should I go in to school? I knew if I went, I’d be in the way--useless--another worried soul for my master teachers to corral. I wanted to stay home where I wouldn’t have to be brave. I wanted to be with E. I wanted to believe that what I watched on TV was not real, that such absolute mortality wasn’t unfurling, live, before the eyes of the entire country.

For three days we watched the TV together, half expecting the rest of the world to unravel like a threadbare sweater. Time and streets were still. People only looked each other briefly in the eye as if to say “I know.” We stared at the TV screen in our apartment until our eyes dried and there was nothing left for reporters to say. The devastation was unimaginable. The country was numb.

Our concern became E’s parents who were in Alaska on a cruise. Their flight, like many others was canceled and painstakingly rescheduled. I’ve never been so happy to see someone at the gate, so relieved to have them on the ground at home. Even the drive to and from the airport made me nervous. Like so many that weekend we headed to church looking for answers, peace that might make this bearable. It didn’t come.

Most of my memory of that time is so universal and common. Nothing about my experience is remarkable, but I remember the entire morning I heard the news.  There is, though, one small piece unique to my recollection which makes remembering that fall all the more painful. Somewhere in the time around 9/11, E and I conceived our first child.

I can’t say with any truth if it was before or after, but I suspect in the “after” of the tragedy, we didn’t have much concern for things like birth control. It wasn’t a planned pregnancy, but it wasn’t an unplanned one either. I can’t imagine why we made that choice during that horrible few weeks, but I do know that life narrowed to a pinpoint; family and home became the focus for everyone. E and I had each other. Perhaps that’s why. I don’t know--but I do know it happened somewhere in that cloudy time.

The memory stings because I miscarried that child in November of 2001. Though we moved joyfully out of our small apartment and into a rental house in the short time I carried that small life, losing it bookended the confusion and uncertainty of the September tragedy. Those months were once again a time of fear, of feeling unsure about what was ahead, of feeling like certainties could not be counted upon. The miscarriage was surprising, drawn out and painful. I wouldn’t take pain medication for it. I needed to feel the loss, but it surpassed my tolerance for emotional and physical pain. Though that tiny loss was nothing compared to what so many endured across the country, it shook me because it represented uncertainty in my own home. I settled deep into a depression the likes of which I have not experienced in the rest of my adult life.

In the ten years since, distance quiets both memories. I can’t say either is forgotten, because each left a deep imprint: a fear-memory and a pain-memory. Both events left me feeling helpless. Both marked, in a way, the opening of a door to adulthood, different than marriage or graduation. Both events showed me how life takes unexpected, painful turns. There’s nothing more adult than death, nothing else which demands with such certainty that we look beyond our assumptions and keep moving forward.

What I try to remember about the fall of 2001 is how people came together, how even in fear and shock, man is basically good. I try to remember how people reached out to help those in crisis. I try to remember how no one bad thing is forever.


  1. Will you please be my kid's teacher someday?

    You will?


    I'm so glad I know you.

  2. That was such a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing!

    It's so weird to think that the kids you are teaching now were so little then. That was my sophmore year of highschool, just a few short months before you became my teacher!

  3. Love Tracy's comment above. :-) If I ever have children, I hope that you'd teach them!

    What a beautiful post.