It’s 5:00 and I’m driving home again, it’s hard to believe it’s my last time. The man on the wireless cries again “It’s over, it’s over”. Dancing with tears in my eyes.
I wasn’t going to write about September 11, 2001 and the 10th anniversary. It seemed obvious, purposely dramatic, maybe a bit flippant, and possibly cheesey; writing about tragedy just to elicit a response, so distasteful. But as it draws near and the stories of loss and gain and love and heroism unfold, I find I am compelled to write about it and it seems that to let it pass by blithely would be disrespectful.
When I was very young people knew exactly where they were, what they were doing, and with whom when President Kennedy was shot. The world seemingly stopped in November 1963. I had three weeks left in the womb, that’s where I was. Now, though, everyone knows where they were, what they doing, and with whom on that God awful morning of September 11th, 2001. The world stopped again, and has not spun the same since. Loss and gain in the same moment, a man quietly leaps out a building to his death while another wins a Pulitzer for his haunting photo of the flight downward to earth. Thousands of families are torn apart while a few people find love in the face tragedy.
There is silence, and then there is deafening silence. There is the kind of silence when you ask a question and the person hesitates, you know what’s coming . . . they are about to lie, to break up with you, to not break up with you when they should, to say something uncomfortable. It’s a silence we all know, it makes us roll our internal eyes and think “Spit it out, get on with it”. But then, there is that most peculiar silence that signals you something is wrong . . . very, very wrong. That silence is horrific, terrifying, and in that moment you wonder “Do I want to know what’s coming? I only have a nano-second of blissful ignorance before the terror comes out”. That was the silence of that day. My dearest friend, Therese, was living with me then. She was embattled with her own life changes and as a result slept on my couch for several months. We went through many tragedies together during that time and have come to see it as fortuitous and divine that we were led to be roommates during those months.
That particular morning the phone rang early, back then plain ol’ push button house phones were still the norm. Ours was black, rang loudly, and sat right by T’s head. It woke me up that morning, but it must have really jarred her. We were both asleep still. I heard her early morning, confused voice, the not quite focused voice, and then I heard something odd . . . the t.v. She turned the t.v. on. It seemed strange, but I was rolling over to go back to sleep and didn’t think too much about it, then I heard it . . . the nothing. The void. The absence of anything. Utter shock. The deafening silence. It crept down the hall from the front room and filled my room. It filled my mind. It filled my heart. I was scared. Something had happened, someone must have died. I have a choice, if I don’t go in the front room then time will stop right here and I won’t have to know and it never will have happened. If I don’t move, then it never happened . . . but then I’ve abandoned my dearest friend in a dark time, whatever it may be. I would never do that. I get out of bed, I pad down the hall, and I see it. I see her horror. Her indescribable look of horror. She has no words. She is stripped of her normal eloquence and inhumanly large vocabulary. Some pieces of that day are blurry now. Did she just point at the t.v. screen and utter a caveman like “ugh”? Did she say anything even remotely cohesive? I don’t remember. I only remember being on the couch, watching in horror and just as we are beginning to wrap our brains around the fact that this is real, this is not some sort of epic “War of The Worlds” hoax, one of the towers really has been attacked by terrorists, just as we are getting that . . . it happened again . . . and we saw it. Right before our very eyes, we saw it. We huddle together on the couch crying, helpless, watching people choose to jump out of buildings rather than being burned to death. People are dying, Pulitzers will be awarded. The symbiosis of life and death.
The horror continues. A plane crashes in Pennsylvania, the Pentagon is bombed, what would be next? Who is safe? And then, wait, back up, the Pentagon? THE PENTAGON?! MY BROTHER AND HIS WIFE ARE THERE! OH JESUS FUCKING CHRIST, LEE AND SARAH ARE THERE! DEAR GOD GET THEM OUT, GET THEM OUT! I DEMAND IT, I AM NOT EVEN ASKING I AM TELLING YOU FIRMLY AND RESOLUTELY, GET THEM THE FUCK OUT . . . NOW. I cannot reach my brothers house, phone lines are down, or crammed full or God only knows what but I cannot reach my brother and his wife. Where are they? WHERE ARE THEY? JESUS FUCKING H. CHRIST ON A BIKE WHERE ARE THEY?!!!! Ten years ago I did not have a home computer. Why would I? I had one at work and who the hell wants to be on a computer on your free time? Oh how times change. I know that I need to go to the office and at least try to reach them via email. I have no intention of working and if I had any means of reaching them at home I would, but I need that computer and it’s in my office.
I get in the car, turn the key, and the radio comes on. I notice that whatever cacophonous, possibly base, and revolting morning show would normally be offending my ears right now has become a whole other animal indeed. I am grateful and happily surprised to hear that even the loudest and most ridiculous of radio on air hosts are professional broadcast journalists today. Today they deliver the news with dignity and compassion. I am proud, but I beg for life to go back to normal. I want to hear Lewis & Floorwax make off color jokes about human anatomy and peanut butter. It’s degrading and vile, but it will mean the world is normal again. I drive to work. The streets are barren. The entire world is stricken. We have been sucker punched. There are a few people at work, but no one is working. Everyone is glassy eyed and wondering around aimlessly, like zombies. One man I work with is retired from the Army. I see the look of despair and helplessness in his eyes. He is fighting tears. I see that he feels a type of pressure and separation I can’t know. He is trained to serve his country, but here he is in a mortgage office. He feels there is something he should do, but what? Why is he even here? And then I know, he feels a sense of duty. It doesn’t matter if it’s serving his country or being a good employee, he is a dutiful person. We are all broken today, but duty and honor are still intact.
I search my email, no word. I send emails and wait for a response. I get nothing. I finally am connected with another brother, Eddie. Did he call home and get Therese? Did he email me? Did I reach him at work? I don’t remember, I only know he told me Lee and Sarah are safe. Lee and Sarah are safe. Lee and Sarah are safe. Lee and Sarah are safe. Have you ever heard more melodic words in your life? Those words are a song, a hymn, an anthem. Lee and Sarah are safe. Do you feel the calm those words bring? This is my story. This is my world. My little world is ok. The big world is suffering. An email arrives, it’s my boss telling us all to go home, my Army co-worker races out the door with nary a goodbye. I laugh at the message and wonder, “Did you really think anyone would stay?” Still, it was the right thing to do. Today isn’t a day to pick on my boss. We’re all lost today, and besides, Lee and Sarah are safe.
I go back home. Finally I am able to talk to Sarah on the phone. I collapse. I break down at the sound of her voice. Fears I didn’t even realize I’ve had these past few hours come tumbling out. I am terrified in my own home. I am miles and miles from my family and I am not safe in my own home. For the first time in my life, my country is not hallowed ground. What will be next? Where? Who? Are they flying over head right now? Will my little house be bombed too? I don’t feel safe in my home. I’ve never felt so vulnerable in my life. This is not an embellishment for the sake of interesting story telling, I’ve never felt so unsafe and vulnerable in my own home in my life. I have no control over what happens to me. Anyone can walk in my door right now and kill me. Planes are going down everywhere, people are leaping to their deaths, Lewis & Floorwax are acting like adults, my world is not safe. And then my sister in law, Sarah, exudes grace under fire. She calmly, firmly, reproaches me. She is likely wagging her finger at me as she tells me “Don’t you dare feel that way today. That is mental guerilla warfare and that is how they want you to feel. If you feel scared today then they have won. You are safe. You are safer now than you were this morning and don’t you give in to them, it’s unpatriotic.” She is right, and she gives me hope. I did not vote for President Bush, but he was the President on that day and I am an American on any day, I will be sure of that every day of my life, no matter who is President. I am safe. Lee and Sarah are safe.
Lee was indeed in the Pentagon, but unharmed and he was out performing his duty as a former officer and always a gentleman by driving people home who could not get there otherwise. He was out driving the streets of D.C., where God only knows what could still happen, to make sure his co-workers got home. Lee and Sarah are safe, and now others are safe at home somewhere in the D.C. area, where they should be, because Lee took them there. He is a hero.
On the t.v. the world continues it’s twisted, tormented decline. Lives are changed forever. It’s become unimaginable. Back then I hadn’t met my friend Maura, or her brother David. As I write this I wonder how Maura felt that day. Did she know her brothers were on the scene, saving lives? How scared and proud she must have felt. David was with the NY Fire Department. There are people in the world who are willing to save you, to save me, to save every one of us and they have never even met us. There are hero’s who will rush into a fire to drag you and your pet out and bring you to safety. David is one of those people. David has lung issues now, the ramifications of one day, of one minute in one day, can be so far reaching. David is a hero. He should wear a cape . . . every day. There are so many who should. In my world Lee and Sarah are safe. In the worlds of others how many people are able to count their loved ones among those who are safe because David was there? Another of her brothers owns a bar, 80 blocks away from the site. People covered in dust and debris walk in and he gives them water, an oasis in the middle of their long march home. Another hero. What a welcome sight his bar must have been.
I think back on the Pulitzer prize winning photo. It’s beautiful, quiet, serene, not at all a scene of horror. The man in the photo is not flailing wildly about, it’s as though we are watching his last moment of prayer and resignation and acceptance, he is going to meet his maker and, quite possibly, is already there in his heart. It’s one of the most peaceful moments I’ve ever seen, almost intrusive, watching this mans final, personal atonement. And below him, thousands are shrieking . . . and thousands are being hushed forever. It is said there are no atheists in fox holes. I wonder if the same holds true for burning buildings. The three men I admire most, the Father, Son, and The Holy Ghost, they caught the last train for the coast . . . the day the music died.
Tomorrow marks ten years. Tomorrow is the first Sunday of the football season, a day normally filled with immense joy for me. I do love my football Sunday’s don’tcha know. Life goes on because it must, and at times life stands still because it must. So tomorrow, when the National Football League poses the question “Are you ready for some football”, my answer will be “Yes, but after a time of quiet, reverence and reflection”.
It’s a tough day. Do whatever it is you need to do. Blessings to each of you.