On Tuesday morning, September 11th, 2001 I was the only one awake in the house. I was sitting at my computer. Writing and drinking coffee. The cat lay at my feet, under my desk.
This was my cat, that day.
This was my husband, that day. This was my son, that day.
They were sleeping. Tuesdays were a regular day off for my husband, a restaurant manager. He was sleeping in, as was usual after his long work week. My son was sleeping soundly, 18 months old.
This was my daughter, that day.
She was already at school that morning, in kindergarten. Probably coloring or singing songs at the morning gathering in her class.
This was my reality, that day. Wife, mother, writing.
The phone rang.
I ran to get it so that my husband wouldn’t be awakened. It was a friend from another part of California.
“What are you doing?”
“Not much, you know, enjoying the quiet.”
“You have to turn on the TV. Now.”
My little son came toddling out through his bedroom doorway, rubbing his eyes. He walked down the hall and grabbed my leg as I walked toward the TV. Still warm from his bed, moist blond curls all smashed around his face.
I said, “What is it? What’s happened?”
She was inarticulate. Finally, as I clicked on the television, she got it out. “We’re being attacked.” Her voice was clouded and hushed with disbelief.
Then I saw the images. Angry smoke billowing, dust raining down on people fleeing for their lives. Tears making muddy tracks on every ash-covered face, humans made into weeping statues by cement dust and disaster. Hands over mouths. Sobbing. Reporters unable to speak through their raw shock.
In horror, I watched the second plane hit.
I was still just standing there. Transfixed. Trying to process. My son was now on hands and knees, trying to coax the cat out from hiding under the futon, where he’d gone when the phone rang. “Siggy siggy siggy siggy heeew siggy siggy siggy…”
I realized that I’d hung up the phone in a reflex. Shutting down all input until I could process the unthinkable.
I looked at my little boy. And I honestly cannot recall what I was thinking beyond total and paralyzing fear. What did this mean for my children? What changes would happen fifteen minutes from this moment? Who was going to be in charge of the world tomorrow?
Of course I snapped out of it. But that three minutes of catatonia will always live in me. It’s as easy to access those few emotional moments in my life as it is to access the feelings of other huge life experiences. Those kinds of moments leave indelible marks. Some are good, of course. But others, like the first dawning realization that we were under attack, leave marks that become a part of the collective consciousness of an entire nation.
“Under attack”. You see, we look back now and we know that the attacks were contained and we didn’t have a war on our soil, but isolated incidents that led to strategic responses. We also know that 2,977 people died in those attacks. 19 hijackers died in those attacks. 6,000 people were injured in those attacks. Individual acts of heroism occurred that should never, ever be forgotten. We have statistics now. Statistics that we had coming in by the end of that very day, in fact, a little at a time. A trickle of information that became a flood. We live in a time when we begin to get the data almost immediately. By the end of that day, we knew that we were looking at terrorism, isolated attacks, and the fear had become more erratic – what/where/who/when – will it happen again tomorrow? By the end of the week the nation had rallied, indeed the world had rallied. We were facing an enemy together.
Ten years onward, I’m not going to talk about the aftermath of 9/11. That’s not why I’m writing today and greater minds than my own are going to address that today in countless ceremonies across the nation. Our nation remembers. Our nation is still living in the aftermath, as a matter of fact. But our collective memory has become about the larger picture of what 9/11 came to be. The statistics of the dead, the survivors, the families. The political, religious and social environments created by 9/11 are also a part of how our nation thinks of what 9/11 means. All of these bits and pieces are wrapped up in our Memory.
But when I think truly of what 9/11 means to me, as an individual, I think of those three minutes, give or take. Three minutes when I felt something that, as an American, was totally foreign to me: complete uncertainty. Three minutes of total fear for my childrens’ future. And then the moments after that: calling my daughter’s school and arranging to pick her up (they canceled school for the rest of that day). Waking my husband, with my almost two year old in my arms, his softness snug against me. Calling my mom, because she was commuting to New York on those very same flights, a couple of times a month. Luckily, she was home that week. My husband and I, drinking cup after cup of coffee, glued to the television. The sound of our children playing in their bedroom down the hall, completely oblivious to what was happening in their world.
Today, I feel uncertainty for our nation again. For reasons not having to do with 9/11. But, on this 10th anniversary of that awful morning, I think we can look back on those few moments of utter uncertainty and we can understand that they didn’t kill us. We came through. We are now in a position of looking backward in time, of remembering them. Regardless of political or religious leanings, We The People have struggled through the last ten years and today we are here still, to continue the struggle. My husband. My daughter. My son. We’re still here, together. We’ve come through tremendous change ourselves, in our family. We’re older too. And wiser.
This gives me hope.
9/11 is a source of strength. It is a reminder that we can get through even the most unexpected and horrific moments.
We should never forget those few moments. They were a bona fide shared experience, nationwide. They are our bridge across all those divides we’ve created in our nation. We may not all have common thoughts about everything that happened when we came out of our few moments of shock. But. Those few moments are common ground, revealing what we all truly have in common when we seek to understand September 11th, 2001.
Those few moments are Ground Zero. A place in time for us to all come together, if you will.
Everything else is just noise and smoke.