[A version of this post originally appeared on September 11, 2011.]
I've struggled with whether to blog about my memories of September 11, 2001, as suggested at Geneabloggers. It seems trite, somehow, a superficial way to treat the scariest, most vividly horrific day of my life. But I've been thinking about that day all weekend, and I want to write about it. So I'll write, and I think I may even hit "publish" when I'm done.
The night of September 11, 2001, and the afternoon of the next day, I wrote down my experiences, because I thought I'd want to remember them. I didn't realize at the time that I wouldn't be able to forget if I tried. I've never had to refer back to what I wrote when writing or telling someone how I experienced the day. The memories are too vivid, and too detailed. This will be long, I must warn you. I've tried to edit it before, and I can only revisit the memories in minute detail. They don't make any sense to me when I try to cover just the important points.
I was a sophomore in HS, in Chemistry class, when an announcement was made over the PA system. The assistant principal got on, and announced that the principal was going to make an announcement. Then the principal came on, and announced that two planes had been "purposefully" flown into the Twin Towers. My first reaction was a flash forward, to some time in the future, as I told my yet-unborn children how their grandfather had been killed the day the World Trade Center was bombed.
I specifically remember thinking "bombed," though I knew quite well that the announcement had not said that the towers had been bombed. But what word does the English language have for when you fly passenger planes into skyscrapers full of people? "Bombing" was how we conceived of terrorism at the time. It wasn't immediate that we were actually able to settle on using the word "attack" to describe what had happened that day. If you read other people's accounts of their memories, they are often full of terrified phone calls telling them to turn on the TV because "something happened in New York!" And so I thought "bombed," though I knew the word was inaccurate. But mostly, I just thought my dad was dead.
But only for a split second. Immediately thereafter, I went into what I suppose you would call "denial." It was simply inconceivable that my dad could be dead. I wouldn't be able to handle that. He just couldn't be. And so, I went about my day. "If anything's really wrong," I thought, "they'd tell me." (By "really wrong," I, in my adolescent self-centeredness, thought only of things that would affect my own life.) I had two close friends in that class who, I later found out, didn't know what at all to do with me. They knew my dad worked in the Twin Towers, but I was not at all acknowledging the fact. I simply did my chem lab. I burned my finger on some hot glass. But I didn't talk about my dad. (My sister, a floor below me, I would later learn, was crying and leaving class repeatedly to call my mom. I, meanwhile, was acting as if everything would be okay, because, well, it just had to be.)
When my first of two periods of Chemistry was over, an unusually large number of people were called down to the office. I took comfort in the fact that Laura and I weren't among them. If anything were really wrong, they'd be calling us down to the office. All those kids who got called down, those must be the kids whose parents were injured or killed. Our dad must have been okay. It didn't occur to me that it might be hours, if not days, before some people were accounted for, and that there was no way that anyone had heard from or about my father - or anyone else's - yet.
During our second period of Chemistry, there was another announcement: a plane had hit the Pentagon. And another: all after-school activities were cancelled. And then, after that period - we were called down to the office. I went to my locker first. I took the long way to get there. I just didn't want to hear what they might be about to tell me. I ran into a friend. She said she'd been looking for me, she wanted to talk to me. I - not at all realizing the scope of what was happening, not realizing that it must be first on everyone's mind, not just my own - thought she was going to tell me what the drama with her boyfriend at the football game Friday night had been about. Instead, she asked how I was. "I don't know," I answered. "I'm going to find out." How I was depended entirely on what they told me in the office - and again, at this point, I assumed that "they" (the office staff? my mother? the authorities?) would know whether Dad was okay.
Outside the office was a large crowd of students. One gave me a pinky-swear that my dad would be okay. I thought that was inane, but didn't say so. Another told me that my sister had been crying, really hard. I don't remember who that was, and I'm glad, because it made me think that Dad was dead and Laura had already been told. (She was probably just trying to let me know that my sister needed me.) Another told me to go talk to the woman wearing the red sweater. I went to talk to her. All she told me - this was supposed to be the big moment of truth - was that Virginia Ward was coming to pick me up. "I don't know who that is." But that was the name she had. A friend suggested that it might be Virginia R*****. She was the only Virginia we knew. Of course it was her. But I wasn't thinking clearly.
She came to pick us up, and then we had to go get my youngest sister at elementary school. Virginia asked me to come inside with her, since I was the oldest. In the front hall - there was a desk set up, anticipating the high demand for pulling kids out of school - a teacher told us that the kids hadn't been told yet. Virginia told me that I'd have to tell Anna, because she should hear it from family. I was lost. I felt like just a kid myself. I didn't know what was going on. How could this be my job?
As Anna left her classroom, she put her chair on her desk, just like everyone always had to do in elementary school. I seemed like such a normal, everyday, childhood movement. I couldn't believe it could coexist with what I was about to tell her. As we walked down the hall, she asked "Why are we getting picked up?" and I had to tell her. "A plane hit Daddy's office building." She reached out and held my hand. And then Virginia added, reassuringly, "But the plane hit very high up, and your Daddy's office was very low down, so I'm sure he'll be okay," or something to that effect. I only remember the beginning of the sentence, because it was new information to me. I hadn't known where the plane had hit, or remembered what floor Dad's office was on, and I hadn't thought to ask.
When we got to the house, there were lots of cars outside, and all I could think of was the scene in Cheaper by the Dozen where (spoiler alert) the kids come home after school, and they know something's wrong because of all the cars lined up outside the house, and it turns out that their father has died of a heart attack. If there are lots of cars outside, then Dad must be dead!
We went inside, where a number of my aunts and one uncle were, with my mom. Everyone was crying, and everyone hugged us. I saw Mom crying; it was to be expected. I saw several of her sisters crying; to be expected. But then I saw my dad's sister's crying face, and I knew he was dead. And then someone said something along the lines of "there's nothing we can do but wait," and I realized for the first time that no one knew anything yet. They were all just as clueless as I was. We were all waiting for news.
I remember seeing a tower fall for the first time as I walked into the TV room to greet my uncle, but I had no conscious awareness of what I was seeing. My mom went upstairs, and Virginia came over and whispered to me that maybe I should go up and check on her. This seemed uncharacteristic of me (you'll recall that I've already mentioned my adolescent self-centeredness), but I did it anyway. Mom said she just wanted to shower. I came back down. Virginia left, but soon returned with several pizzas and a few bottles of soda before leaving us to wait and watch with family. No one was hungry.
Most of my detailed recollection ends here. All the waiting was kind of a blur. I don't really know what we did with ourselves, and what I do remember, I don't remember in order. My aunt arrived, bringing with her my cousin Grace, who was not quite 2 at the time. She was, for me, literally a saving Grace. She prattled happily in baby talk, and let us occupy ourselves with something other than the news and the worry. We colored. She was just learning her colors, and that day, everything was "lello." I thought that was ironic. Or symbolic. Something. I noticed, as we stood around coloring, the outfit I was wearing - new clothes, because it was the beginning of the school year. I had on a green three-quarter sleeve shirt, with light blue jeans and a black belt. I made a mental note not to ever wear that exact outfit again - whether out of respect or superstition, I'm not quite sure, but I know I never did it.
At one point, Grace and I were alone in the play room, coloring. The phone rang. There was a bit of a commotion. I couldn't tell whether it was a good commotion or a bad commotion, and I couldn't make out anyone's words. I was terrified. For a minute, I couldn't bring myself to go into the other room. I wanted to stay where I was, pretend I hadn't heard anything, and not have to hear whatever they had learned. I forced myself to pick Grace up and go into the living room, where my mom said, "That was Lester's wife Leann. Dad and Lester are walking uptown together."
We didn't have any details - Dad and all of his friends had been trying to get in touch with their wives, but the cell phone service was overcome by demand, and most of them couldn't get through. When Lester finally reached his wife, I guess, she was given a list of numbers to call to let everyone's family know that they were alive. My family is probably not the only one that thinks fondly and gratefully of Leann, though most of us have never met her. On such a terrible day, she was the one tasked with the telling of good news, and we who received that good news have never forgotten her.
It occurs to me now that I had spent the entire day assuming any news would be bad news. It's not a hard assumption to make, when planes are crashing and buildings are falling. It's only in retrospect that I'm able to see that on that day, no news was almost always worse. For my family, and I'm sure for many others, the phone ringing was heart-stopping, but it brought good news. It was when the phone didn't ring, undoubtedly, that the worst news slowly dawned.
The rest of our afternoon became about logistics. Locating Dad, and other relatives at work in the city, and trying to get them home. No one could drive into the city, Dad's car was stuck in a parking garage near Ground Zero (though we had yet to hear the phrase) and mass transit was suspended. Who could get the closest to a bridge or tunnel, to pick them up as soon as they got onto the New Jersey side? How could we organize it? We got one phone call from Dad, from a restaurant he had stopped at, but after that he was difficult to reach.
We played soccer on the front lawn at one point. We might have watched a movie? My aunt brought my cousin by after picking her up from school, "because of Uncle Kevin." I hadn't even been sure that I would be picked up from school, and Uncle Kevin was my dad. I was only beginning to comprehend how much bigger this was than just how it affected me.
People were stopping by the house, some of them not even knowing that Dad had been in the World Trade Center. The best man at his wedding happened to be in town - I was reminded that it was my parents' anniversary. A coworker of his, who had mercifully taken a vacation day, dropped something off. Neighbors, friends, everyone wanted to see how we were.
Late that afternoon, two of my friends came by the front door. I stood on the step and talked to them for a while. They asked about my dad; they told me how school had gone after I left. They told me that Samantha D*** had been crying in gym class. "Why?" I asked. They looked at me like I was crazy. "Because of your dad." I was still so focused on how I was being affected that I wasn't aware of what the attack meant to other people, those who knew my family and those who didn't, those who were in the towers and those who weren't.
Then we saw someone walking up the road, his shoes in his hand. I assumed it was some dumb teenager. Who else would carry his shoes in his hand for no good reason? "Who is that?" I asked. My friend faltered. "I . . . I think it's your dad." It hadn't occurred to me that he would be walking home, and so it hadn't registered that it could be him. I stayed on the step, unsure of what to do. Should I run to him, or run inside to tell everyone else that he's home?
Suddenly, my mom burst out of the side gate, somehow having seen him coming from the backyard. She was followed by my sisters, my grandmother, and everyone else at my house. I'm still not sure why, but I stayed put for a minute, until my aunt came to the door and urged me to join them, at which point I did. We had our reunion near the top of our next door neighbor's driveway.
There's more, of course: the church service that night; doing my math homework before bed, since I was pretty sure my new math teacher was so strict she wouldn't find even a national and personal tragedy to be a reasonable excuse for not handing in your homework; crying on the soccer field the first day that after school activities returned, as the physical exertion finally caused my emotions to overflow; the dreams I had in the weeks after, where I watched my dad die on TV; gathering at my grandmother's on Friday, with a "God Bless Kevin" cake, so that everyone who had worried about my dad could see him. My experience of September 11 extended well past the hours of the actual day. There are things that happened months or even years later that I consider part of my memories of that day.