Originally published 9/11/2014. Our stories about that day will always be relevant.
If we are old enough, we remember that horrible moment fourteen years ago. The moment we heard. That morning was no different from any other morning. But then, in an instant, it was. And it changed everything. How did we make sense of it for our children? How do we make sense of it now?
I woke up and made the usual school preparations before dropping off my girls and while pulling away from the campus curb in Studio City, I received that devastating phone call. As the call ended, I watched frenzied parents running back to the classrooms where they had just delivered their children. Time felt frozen and my ears were ringing. I was angry, sad, scared, sick and shocked. And I felt guilty for feeling all those things, because, how dare I? It was not about me. This inconceivable event had happened to other people. Thousands of them.
After deciding it was better to leave the girls in school, I drove home, turned on the TV and watched those towers fall repeatedly, every time hoping for an antithetical outcome. I reminisced on walking to City & Country School on 13th Street while looking downtown at those landmark skyscrapers just a few months before. My north and south guide when exiting the subway and a permanent fixture in that unmistakable skyline.
Thomas was only two and to distract him from those awful images, I pulled out paints and helped him begin working on an abstract Pokémon character. I worried about my New York friends…my New York family. I unsuccessfully attempted multiple calls, but the lines were jammed and as I stared at the TV, memories saturated my weary brain.
It is only my third visit to the city and I don’t know it well. I’m shopping with Morgan (not yet 3) and Wendy (5 months) in the basement of the World Trade Center. I exit to find freezing, torrential rain, and I, unprepared Southern California weather wimp, am without an umbrella. I wave down multiple cabs to no avail. The girls and I are drenched and cold and I finally catch the eye of an available driver and he pulls to the curb. A businessman (an obvious long jumper in his former life) cuts ahead and into the backseat, slamming the door while avoiding eye contact. I stare, open-mouthed, as the driver shrugs and drives off. I don’t know the subways or which direction I am facing. I fight back embarrassing tears, fully aware of how pathetic I must look.
A man materializes before me and with kind, smiling eyes, places his open umbrella in my hand and saunters off. I watch him, speechless, and as his eyes twinkle, he shoots me a “hats off” wave, sans hat, and walks away, dripping, Armani suit ruined, the twin towers his backdrop. The meaning behind my tears flips a one-eighty.
Who were you, kind stranger? Are you safe now?
The day felt interminable as I tried formulating a dialogue with my girls in my head. While waiting in the carpool line, I looked at the tear-stained faces of other parents and realized everyone in the country and perhaps the world was thinking, talking and crying about the same thing. My smiling girls walked towards me and my heart cracked, knowing they were about to grow up a little bit more and a lot more quickly than I wanted.
Morgan looked at me and knew something was off. “Mommy, what’s wrong?”
I wanted them to hear about this from me. “The twin towers in New York fell down and I’m sad.”
“Mommy, what do you mean? Why?”
“It’s complicated, sweetie. Planes crashed into them and they are gone.”
“Mommy, that’s scary.”
“I know, sweetie. It is scary. But, you’re safe right here with me.”
“Were we safe in New York?”
I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to lie. I didn’t want to tell her the truth. I didn’t even know the truth.
“Yes, we were safe in New York. And you are safe here. There are some very unhappy people in the world who sometimes do very bad things.”
“But why, Mommy?”
“There are people who are very sad and angry and they sometimes make bad choices. You know how we have talked about bullies at school? Well, this is kind of like that.”
My answers felt thoroughly deficient.
We arrived home and before I could get inside and turn off the footage mesmerizing her dad, she saw it. The look of horror on her face was gut-wrenching and I felt sicker than I had all morning.
“Mommy! Why did those planes do that?”
I felt weak, helpless and heartbroken. I was at a loss for how to explain such acts of hate and violence to an eight-year-old. I sat on the couch with my girls on either side.
“There are some bad people out there who hate our president, our country and our beliefs.”
“But why?” Tears. “Did those people die? Are we gonna die?”
Thomas picked up on the tension and climbed into my lap.
“It’s okay to be sad and it’s okay to be scared. What happened to those people is very sad and scary. But you are safe right here, right now.”
They did not seem convinced. I wasn’t convinced.
Wendy looked at me expectantly. “You’ll take care of us, right Mommy?”
My eyes welled up and I felt a lump in my throat. “Of course I’ll take care of you. I’ll always take care of you.” I felt devastated.
We lack the prototype for discussing these things with our children. There is a natural age appropriate evolution we slightly modify with each child. I found flexible communication to be extremely important and have embraced the notion that when questions are asked, those questions are joined by a desire and readiness for answers. The challenge often lies in the attendance of younger siblings. How do we properly respond to the questions of our oldest while providing age-appropriate information to the others? We can only assess the structure of these events as they come, communicate as lovingly as possible and hope for our best.
This horrible event changed the course of my life. Over the following days and weeks I reminded myself that I had a choice. I could pay closer attention, or crawl more deeply into the pit of denial where I was immersed. I decided on the more difficult, but the only real life-saving choice of the two. Split by anger and gratitude, I promised myself that I would look at every ugly part of myself and I would deal with all of it. I would find my truth and my beauty and I would share them with the world at the risk of getting hurt. I would make healthier choices for all of us and those choices would affect my level of attention to every precious moment. I still had those choices. Choices the victims of 9/11 no longer had. My truth was not a negotiation and I would reveal it. That moment of discovery of this tragic twist fully opened my eyes to the state of my unhappy marriage and, a few months later, I ended it.
As for the individuals who didn’t think twice about running directly into the wreckage, risking everything for the possibility of saving just one life, and all others who were and are still directly affected, I am again at a loss. If this event had such a profound effect on my life and on the lives of my children, what did it do to those families, firefighters and survivors left behind? We can only imagine. And we will never forget.