Thursday, September 2, 2010

September 11th

This is the version of this essay that I used in my parenting column in the paper. Below it is the blog version, which is a bit more personal.

I don’t see a day in my lifetime that I won’t cringe a bit inside when I hear the words “September eleventh”. I’d imagine I’m not the only one. It’s the most memorable day of history to most Americans who are under forty years of age.

We don’t remember Pearl Harbor or Vietnam. The fall of the Berlin Wall was significant, but very far away. Even the bombing in Oklahoma City was startling, but our fear turned to sadness when we found out it was carried out by ‘one of us’.

That day, nine years ago, when we watched the horror of airplanes plunging into our sacred buildings, as it all unfolded on live television, will be seared into our memories for decades to come. It changed our country. It changed how safe we felt in our own land. We’d grown very complacent in our perceived cocoon of safety. We had naively thought we were immune from real attacks by people who hated us halfway around the world. The events of that day changed our politics and it changed our focus.

But more personally, it changed me. It was a catalyst that made me a different wife, and a different mother. Living in Missouri at the time, my greatest fear on September 10th had been a random tornado sucking up my house and my children. Suddenly my worry list became a scroll that never stopped unraveling. I could watch the weather forecast. But I couldn’t predict when a terrorist might bomb my peaceful town.

The possibilities and threats were foreign to me. I didn’t like the feeling of having no control over this danger. I could lecture my children all day about stranger danger and holding my hand at the mall. I could be obsessed when it was time to buckle every car seat correctly. I could buy organic produce and religiously drag them into the doctor’s office every September for a flu shot.

None of it would protect them if a terrorist wanted to do them harm.

I found myself relating more closely to the mothers I saw on the news, the ones who clutched their bloody children in the aftermath of a terrorist bomb that had ripped through their child’s school. In reality my life was a still a thousand times safer than theirs, but I understood the terror of randomness on a much deeper level than ever before.

I had three children home that day. Sam was a baby and both Meredith and Isaac had the flu. Michael was tucked safely in his classroom at school, being shielded from the fact our world had changed in an instant. The one I worried about the most was Jeff. His office building sat in the shadow of the Missouri State Capital building. I wasn’t sure which buildings were going to be targets and I just wanted him home.

As everything shut down, not just his office, but the local mall, gas stations, and grocery stores, an eerie quietness settled over our small town.

We wouldn’t have known except for the fact that Isaac was in a stage of his metabolic disorder where a simple flu required a trip to his specialist at the Children’s Hospital, thirty miles down the road. We were practically alone on the highway, in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon.

I had to keep reminding myself that we weren’t characters in some bad apocalypse movie. Once we got to the hospital things just got more eerie.

Waiting rooms were empty. No one lingered in the gift shop or cafeteria. The few people we passed were standing in clusters around the few available TVs. We reached the check in desk and I had to force myself to look away from the television that hung in the corner of the room so I could explain our visit to the receptionist. It’s glare seemed to crave my attention. There were no other patients. We were immediately led down the hallway into an examination room. The whole visit felt quiet, hollow, eerie. No one knew what to say or what to feel.

A year later we found ourselves living in Washington D.C.

Every day handfuls of commuters walked past our driveway on the way to the local metro station. My children wanted to do something, anything, to commemorate this sorrowful day in our country’s history, especially since we were living in the heart of it all.

They decided to set up a free lemonade stand. The kind where you give away a cool drink, with no charge attached. It was a simple thing they could do, to mark a day we’d never forget.

So they rigged up a table, mixed up the liquids, counted out cups, and set up shop at the end of the driveway. But then something happened that they couldn’t understand.

No one was willing to take a drink for free. One by one people walked by them, asked how much they were charging, then refused to take a drink without paying something in return. It was hard for my children to comprehend.

But I understood. Those commuters were like me. They were still raw from that day, just twelve months earlier, when their whole sense of reality shifted. We’d all lived through weeks of giving blood, raising flags, crying as we sang the National Anthem. It just didn’t seem right to take something for nothing. They weren’t ready. We were all still in the mode of repair and restore. We’d been kicked in the gut and we hadn’t quite healed yet.

Now it’s nine years later. We’re not quite as raw anymore. The American flag magnets have fallen off of many cars and have not been replaced. But we’re still changed.

All of us who lived through that day are different. We learned life lessons in the aftermath, about what’s important and what really doesn’t matter. It’s easy to get caught up in our everyday stresses but down deep we remember what those first few weeks felt like. September 11th changed us all.

Let’s just hope we never forget how much.

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