Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Why I Remember....

Last night as we were sitting down to dinner together, my husband turned to me and asked, "You know what tomorrow is, right?" I'm sure at lot of other stay-at-home mommies can relate - weekdays seem to run together and it's hard for me to keep track of days of the week, much less the actual numerical date. "The 10th?" I guessed. Then I saw the weighty look on his face and realized that I was indeed wrong. "The 11th?" I asked in disbelief. "No. Not already."
Usually, I feel the 11th of September coming, particularly back when the events of the day in 2001 were still very fresh. There's a sort of hesitancy many people in the country experience whilst going about their normal, day-to-day lives on September 11th. I don't care if it's been over a decade. After seeing what we saw on television, and for some us in person, on that terrible day twelve years ago, it's difficult to approach this day as just another day because we remember watching the people jump out of the towers. We remember watching them crumble. We remember seeing Manhattan vanish in a cloud of dust. It was worse than any apocalyptic movie we'd seen up to that point or since because it was happening.

This year I feel the anniversary in a different way. It's because I've realized that my son was not born in the 9/11/01 generation. He won't feel the same way about it that me or my husband do because he didn't experience the horror of watching these terrible events unfolding for himself. We have to take it upon ourselves to try to instill in him what it was like, why it was important...important then, important now, and important for him to understand. He's too young right now for us to try to explain. For years to come, I won't feel comfortable showing him actual images or footage from 9/11. The best way I know is to start from where I was that day... Thankfully, as a dedicated writer, I kept a diary.... 

First, a little context. Today twelve years ago - and I'm dating myself here - I was a sophomore in high school. Yes, I realize, a baby. I didn't live anywhere near the Twin Towers or the Pentagon or that field in Pennsylvania. Far removed from any of them, my family was in the midst of a brief, two-year stint living on an island in northeast Florida. I didn't know anyone in the planes, anyone who worked in the buildings, or anyone who lived anywhere near them. In fact, as I walked from my second class of the day (for the life of me, I can't remember what it was) to my third, World History, I was completely oblivious to the fact that the first plane had already struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center. As a typical, insecure, high school girl, I was concerned about my hair and my clothes and the fact that my daddy didn't like the guy that I was crushing on. My account wasn't written until a week later on September 18, 2001 [I've edited it a little to condense it down - I was a wordy creature even in adolescence]:
Ground Zero, April 2003

"Tuesday seemed like any other day... The day before, Monday the 10th, had been the most beautiful I'd seen since...spring. I remember I came home from school in high spirits... I grabbed my book...and went to read the last five chapters on the trampoline. I remember hearing an airplane fly by overhead and looked up to scold at it, wishing it away. I had enjoyed the silence of early fall; birds chirping; wind chimes clicking every so often...

"Tuesday's hair day wasn't as under control. I was wearing my new Bongo jeans with my collared, sand-colored shirt - my least favorite. 1st and 2nd period went by as usual. I got to third period and sat down to see [my teacher] turn on the t.v. I got all hyped up about not having to do work: "Oh cool, a movie!" And I thought it was a movie at first. Then I saw the date at the bottom left-hand corner of the screen: September 11, 2001.

"I panicked. I paled. I feft a huge wave of nausea wash over me when I saw the second of the two New York Twin Towers...collapse... The planes had been hijacked by an unidentified terrorist group. Terrorism had hit America with such a...force, it put not just the U.S. itself, but the entire world, into shock and terror.

"'Today the United States was attacked by a faceless coward,'" said [the President] in Louisiana... Bush had been in Jacksonville [a half hour from where I lived] that morning, reading a book to an elementary school class when he was told of the first attacks... [Later, in Louisiana], he made his first speech of the week, asking the nation to remain calm and not panic. So many people have been killed... The Twin Tower attacks were the most devastating. Not only were the people in the buildings vulnerable, but when the towers unexpectedly came crashing down, they buried firefighters and policemen also, who had shown up to put out the fires... No one has been pulled out of the rubble alive since Wednesday. Thursday everyone seemed to have a flag hanging in their front yard...

"I have deep pride in my country. We have been impacted like this before...and we have overcome it... America is going to overcome this. Maybe it won't be tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, next decade, but we will overcome it... GOD BLESS AMERICA!"

A couple of things strike me about this entry. First, I remembered what I wore. Whenever anything significant happens in our lives, our mind places a time stamp on that moment. My dad says he can remember the news of JFK's assassination . He doesn't remember what he wore. He was a toddler, after all. But he says he remembers the devastated look on his granny's face as she listened to the radio. I do remember that I was wearing my favorite shirt the day my sister and I were involved in a terrible car accident sixteen years ago, mostly because it was cut open by the surgical team at the hospital a couple of hours later. Absurd things go through your mind, too, when something awful happens. On 9/11/01, I remember thinking, "Well, maybe if I hadn't worn this horrible shirt, this wouldn't have happened today." Crazy, I know, but so is a lot of what goes through our minds when disaster strikes.

To this day, I remember exactly how I felt when I realized what was going on. Panic, cold sweats, and a sick, sinking feeling in my gut. The part that's missing from my diary was the reaction of the boys who sat behind me in class. They started whooping and hollering and shouting jubilantly, "We're going to war!" I thought this was absolutely horrifying, especially as everything was still unfolding on television. In hindsight, maybe this was the only way their tiny brains could cope with what was happening, but at the time it just seemed crass. We were sitting in World History, after all, where we were learning all about the horrors of war. War was the last thing I needed on my mind. All I wanted to think about was going home to hug my father's neck and make sure nothing had happened to him. It didn't matter that we lived far away from the attacks. Him crossing the bridge over to the mainland that day seemed too far. I wanted to tell my mother I loved her because we had had words that morning. Probably over something insignificant, I'm my shirt. And strangely, I wanted to make sure my ten-year-old sister (who I mostly liked to ignore in those days) knew that everything was going to be okay...even if it wasn't.

I'm glad I wrote down some of the other details in my diary because I've since forgotten them. Sadly, I'd forgotten Bush's opening statement in his speech. At the time, I thought it was pretty epic. I also forgot that he made the speech from Louisiana and not the White House. It's clear I was swept up in a sense of patriotism that was very strong in the months following the attacks throughout the country. We had just come off an election between Bush and Gore that divided the country and left a bitter taste on the air. (I daresay, we in Florida, home of the infamous re-count, were very aware of this bitter divide.) 9/11 changed all that dramatically. Every day until we moved back to Alabama around Christmastime later that year, I remember seeing a four-by-four truck that drove around town with a flagpole attached to the bed and a HUGE American flag flying in all its blazing color atop it. Probably illegal, but the local police let it be. I miss that sense of togetherness that tidal wave of patriotism brought to our country in the wake of 9/11. It seemed to heal not just that bitter divide but the grief and fear that was heavy on everyone's heart. We could use a dose of that patriotism and sense of togetherness now, I think. Without the disaster, of course. It's funny how one hardly seems to be without the other.

Heroes of 9/11

These are the things I'd like my son to know about as soon as he's old enough and mature enough to understand, as well as my husband's take on the day when he chose to forego his homeschooling and went to work with his father and brothers - and some of the eyewitness accounts that are so touching, like this one from author Meg Cabot. And even if I won't show him photos and video from the day, there's one thing I will show him. Nearly two years after 9/11, my family had moved back to the Gulf Coast of Alabama. I was in the marching band colorguard at the local high school. The band director sat the band members down and told us that he wanted to take us to New York and Ground Zero. I didn't care what I had to pay; I was going. So on a cold, rainy day in April, I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with other band mates looking through a tightly-woven fence down into an deep, dark pit. It was hard to believe that this was where those two majestic towers had stood less than two years before. The debris had been cleared away, all but for two, large, steel struts from the wreckage that stood over the site in the shape of a cross. Although we were in the middle of a bustling metropolis, here everything seemed hushed and somber. Along the top of the fence line was a black board with the names of all who had perished in the attacks. I have three photos from Ground Zero I took on that trip with a disposable camera, and these I will share with my little blue-eyed boy.

Today Ground Zero looks nothing like it did in the aftermath of the attacks or what I saw personally in April 2003. My father and sister went there together this July and brought back pictures and memories of their own of the memorial fountain. The museum wasn't yet open. I'm looking forward to returning with my little family and walking through it, holding my son's hand as he learns about that clear day in September and why it is worth remembering.

It might be over a decade later, but I still hug my loved ones close on September 11th. This morning, when it came time to put my minion down for a nap, I couldn't help holding onto him and letting him nap on my shoulder. When my husband came home, I hugged his neck and kissed him and told him I loved him. I did this in remembrance of all the wives and mothers and fathers and husbands, sisters and brothers, and sons and daughters who didn't get that chance twelve years ago....

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