When the planes hit the Twin Towers, I was sitting in Spanish class. We were not given a lot of information and, if I recall properly, we were told that there had been a hijacking of a building. Not exactly the most accurate narrative of that day’s events.
I remember being curious as to the state of those inside of the unnamed, hijacked building, film clips of bank robberies and unsuspecting hostages playing in my head. Yet, at the time, it didn’t seem much to worry ourselves over. It was in New York, I was in the corn fields of Pennsylvania.
It was not until they took the TVs out of the classrooms that I began to become concerned. This was a time before social media and the widespread epidemic of mobile devices. No one I knew had a cell phone in school and, as far as social interactions on the internet, our primary form of communication was stolen time on ICQ on our parents’ desktops.
There were rumors that began to circulate around lunchtime thanks, in part, to one teacher who had let a student or two turn on the news before her television was confiscated. Word spread, but none of us knew, none of us had seen.
My mind was unable to process what little information had been passed along to me. My parents were being catapulted towards the ends of their marriage; our home life had become unbearable with tense fragility. Anger, tears, and pain ran our lives. I suffered from migraines and the need to grow up more quickly than previously planned. The fear and distrust were only amplified by the absence of my brother, through no fault of his own, sequestered away at college. No longer in the home with me, no longer my in-house ally.
All of this was aggravated by my Poppop, my mother’s father, receiving emergency surgery on a brain aneurysm only the day before. It was my first brush with illness at this level and, unbeknownst to me at the time, would be my first encounter with death.
My parents had listened to the news broadcasts as they traveled to the hospital to visit him, the radio solemnly describing the moments of impact, the collapse, the Pentagon, western Pennsylvania. When they entered my grandfather’s hospital room, the TV was focused on the destruction and chaos. My Poppop, with what little strength he still possessed, pointed to the screen and said one of his last coherent statements: “War.”
When my parents returned home, my mother entered the living room to find me standing in front of images of smoke, fire, and falling bodies. Fear played on a constant loop. A grey shroud covered the bodies of those who had survived, their faces etched in horror and confusion.
When my eyes found my mother, I asked the question the world had been thinking: “Why?”
She sat me down on the couch, her arms around my shoulders. She was crying, about the attack, of course, but also for her marriage and the updates on her father’s health. In all cases, the outlook was terminal.
She gave me what information she could, her beleaguered shoulders holding so much for so many, collapsing onto mine. We would find ourselves like this in years to come, shoulders aligned in love, in suffering, and in understanding, but at the moment I felt hollow, cold, and so very alone with my thoughts. I stared at a wall, unseeing, my mother’s shaking form a blur on my periphery.
“I don’t think there’s a god anymore,” I stated simply.
My mother’s heart broke a littler further and she groped at my body, searching for the soul, the brilliant light that had shone out of her daughter for fourteen years. She pleaded with me to not say that – not believe it – not voice it – but it was too late. On that day and for many years to come, I had hid my candle and refused to let any see it again, save for glimpses through interlocked fingers.
My grandfather passed away several days later. Three days after we buried him, my father left us for the final time, leaving a note and no goodbye. Less than two years later, we would invade Iraq and not leave.
Every year when 9/11 would roll around I would find myself getting angry. I would speak on America’s hypocrisy, our move toward “freedom fries” and “Remember the Alamo” rhetoric. I never blamed the victims and I always held our servicemen and women in reverent regard, but I did blame America’s holier-than-though attitude and our inability to self-reflect.
It took several years and reading a mentor’s experience of getting caught in the falling towers, climbing over ash-and-smoke-covered bodies, for me to begin my own self-reflection.
Perhaps my anger was not all justly placed: America and their stupid wars. Perhaps my anger was really my fear turned from the inside – out. Perhaps what I was truly feeling every September the 11th were the echos of not only my country’s vulnerability, but my vulnerability as well. My first encounters with abandonment and loss.
I guess we all have a 9/11 story – some are of the heroic, the stuff movies and novels are made of. Some are of the tragic. Some are closer to home. Regardless, each must take thoughtful genuflection and remembrance. Each change our story, whether we allow it to or not.