Sunday, September 11, 2011


9/11/11   9/11/01

I don’t remember the weather in Orchard Park, NY that day.  People in New York City remember their morning as ideal.  “Crystal clear blue” - how many times did we hear that description?  It was like that this morning in Richmond: quiet and peaceful.  Just like that day.  10 years.  I’ve just gotten up and made coffee.  I turn on the memorial at ground zero in New York.

* * *

I’m working in my home office.  I go to the kitchen for a cup of tea, and return several minutes later.  The red light on my phone is blinking.  It’s a message from Michel, it’s simple and direct: “Turn on the TV.”  I turn on the small set on a shelf above my desk that is normally off except for news.  I can’t figure out what I’m seeing: black smoke billowing out of the World Trade Centers.  I call Michel.  His admin answers and I must sound frantic.  “Don’t worry, Michel is OK, he’s not in New York today.”  I say “Yes, I know that.”  Of course I know that, I’m his wife.  It is then that it occurs to me that he frequently goes to the World Trade Centers to meet with State Tax Attorneys.  She puts me through to him.  “What is this? What am I seeing? What happened?”  He answers my question.  I don’t understand.  He says the same sentence. “Planes hit the World Trade Center”.  I can’t understand this, I can’t process it, his grammar doesn’t sound right.  It’s the word ‘Planes’ that keep tripping me up, the plural nature of it.

* * *

It’s a beautiful day there today.  8:46 am.  A single bell tolls. The families are there and I’m struck by these people and how they are dressed: some are in their Sunday best, others in more humble attire, t-shirts emblazoned with a memorial image or slogan.  Many carry photos of their smiling family.  The people in these photos died in terror; there is no hint of it in the images, they didn’t know.  They are frozen moments, hundredths of seconds in time.   The families slice across ethnic and social strata; they all occupy a common class, bound in grief in thousands of different memories.  Obama speaks, Psalm 46.   Bush speaks, Lincoln’s  letter to a grieving mother.  Giuliani, more echoes.   And then they start the heartbreaking roll call.    This never fails to break my heart.  The names, so many names.  They are read one at a time; it will take hours I think.  I wonder if it would be more poignant to have each name read at the same time as the others by thousands of those left to mourn them.  A cacophony of despair, a towering vocal babel of their loss and mourning.  These names are so varied, some are so common, dare I say American?  No, that doesn’t  fit.  The day after the attacks, a French newspaper said “Today, we are all American”.  I’m struck by the name “Adams” read over and over again.  Could they be related somehow to the Nation’s founding father?  Others have syllables and consonants that would make my tongue cramp.  Did the whole world perish that day?

* * *

My eyes are glued to the set.  The South Tower falls.  The newscasters talk about it being surreal, like something out of a Hollywood action movie, but it is horrifyingly real.  I wonder how many people are in there.  Tom Brokaw said something like “Thirty Thousand”.  The hospitals are mobilizing, every ambulance on call.  The Red Cross puts out a call for blood. Emergency rooms wait for the wounded.  Cardinal Egan is giving last rights on the sidewalk.  They switch to field reporters covered in ash and grit.  It occurs to me that I’m supposed to fly to Boston tomorrow for work.  There is no force in heaven or on earth that will get me on a plane in the near future.  I pick up the phone and call my best friend and colleague BJ.  “You’ve seen the news.”  I say this as fact.  He answers quizzically “What news?”  They’d lost their internet connection before nine that morning.  They know nothing.  I tell him about New York, about the gaping fiery hole in the Pentagon.  I’m frantic, frightened.  I tell him I will not get on a plane.  He reassures me that the safest time to fly is right after a hijacking.  He can say this with detached logic, it’s just a concept right now; he hasn’t seen the images yet.  My eyes are on the TV.  There is a report that another plane has crashed in Pennsylvania.  I gasp for air and scream into the phone “The planes are falling out of the sky!”  How many more will crash?

* * *

The network runs a piece on the firefighters, how they are asked everyday by well-wishers about that day.  It never leaves them.  “The 10 House” , “54 and 4”, nearly 400 first responders were lost, more than ten percent of that day’s death toll came from those who went to the scene to help.  The newscaster is interviewing the last survivor pulled from the rubble.  Jenelle Guzman-McMillan spent 27 hours in the rubble, her head on the body of a firefighter who perished trying to save her and others.  This is her first time back to Ground Zero.  She grips the tissue in her hand and reflects on that day and the decade since.  She has moved on, married, had children.  She finds comfort in her faith; she mentions something about a Tabernacle church.  The interviewer asks her how she feels to be back.  She hesitates, measuring her words.  “We all have to face our fears.” 

* * *
The second tower is gone.  I call my father and break down in tears.  He is quiet.  I’m sobbing, incoherent.  He asks about Michel.  I realize he thinks he was there, that something may have happened.  Reports of where the hijacked planes originate filter through.  Boston, Newark, National or Dulles?  They speculate on the fear of the passengers on board – did they know what was happening?  There are reports of Palestinians handing out candy and celebrating despite Yassir Arafat’s condemnation.  They show pictures.  I don’t understand this. What kind of a civilization is this? This is joy? 

* * *

James Taylor sings “Close Your Eyes” – a lullaby I sang to my own kids over and over and over again.  I feel the tears.  There are many children there, I wonder about the young teens who probably have little memory of the mother or father lost.  I wonder: do they remember only the faces because of photo?  Is there some imprint of them somewhere from 10 years ago?  They open the memorial to the families.   They touch the names etched in the stone.  A young girl does a pencil rubbing: ‘Patrick Qui…’.  Tears on black granite, the names are all they have left that is tangible in this sacred place.

Yesterday I had a thought: what of those working the airport security in Logan and the other airports that day? I used to tell people I was shocked more airplanes weren’t hijacked out of Logan.  I’d flown in and out of it dozens of times and I remember the security being a joke.  I’d put my bags on the x-ray belt and half the time they weren’t even looking at the monitor.   They let those madmen through, they didn’t know.  Were they paying attention?  Were they as complacent as all of us?    Do they carry unimaginable guilt at the role they played?  They were our Maginot Line.

And Bin Laden?  He's gone, dispatched with two bullets from an unnamed SEAL.  I'll admit it: I was happy when I learned he was gone.  Was it joy?  I don't think so.  I don't know.


I look at the clock.  It’s after noon.  I’ve lost 3 hours, I haven’t moved from this chair.  I don’t know what to do.  I get up, and grab my keys.  I drive to our church, Nativity, a couple minutes away.  I don’t do this, go to church in the middle of a work day.  It’s empty, dark and cool.  Light is coming through the windows.  I enter a pew and drop to my knees, cross myself, and bury my head in my hands.  “Please, God…” I don’t know how to pray for what I’m feeling.  I want to believe God can see into my heart.  I get up and walk to the memorial candles.  I light three of them, one for each site.  I kneel again and am so scared, I wonder about all we have lost and what will come.  Later that day I'm home, Madeleine and Luc arrive home from school, ages 10 and 6.  I ask Madeleine if she knows what happened.  She says some bad guys flew planes into buildings.  They watched a little on TV.  Luc doesn’t understand.  He’s 6, I explain its ok, that our military will go get the bad guys.  He asks if there will be war, I answer ‘probably’.  He starts to cry; he thinks bombs will fall in our backyard.  I run and get the globe.  I show him where we live.  Where his grandparents live.  Then I show him where the middle east is, Afghanistan.  “It’s very very far away.  You will be safe.” I’m struck at how certain I am of that statement.  Michel comes home and we look at each other and hug for a long time.  The news comes on, I have Madeleine watch.  The video replay of the plane hitting the building runs.  She says “That’s cool…” and I snap and yell at her.  She says she didn’t mean it like it was good.  I realize she doesn’t know how to respond to this, to process it. I think at 10 years old what she sees is a special effect like the movies. She’s too young and innocent to couple that image with very real terror and death.  She starts to cry, she is scared by my anger and I’m ashamed.  I hold my girl.  What have we lost?

* * *

The coverage of the 10 year anniversary runs a segment on the SEAL unit.  They interview a retired SEAL who now runs the SEAL Team Foundation.  He was fishing that day and contemplating retirement.  He didn’t retire.  The interviewer asks him if he changed his mind because of that day.  He answers “My mind was changed for me.”  When asked if he was deployed to Afghanistan he pauses, his face giving nothing away.  “I was deployed as required.”  The coverage returns to the Pentagon ceremony.  A military choral unit sings ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’… Glory glory hallelujah…Flowers are placed on the benches dedicated to those who perished.  The Pentagon is pristine, there is no evidence – beyond this memorial – of the plane that hit it.  It is unscarred.  They are at Shanksville now.  White granite in a field of grass and wildflowers.   It occurs to me that the terrorists thought to hit the symbols of Americas might: The World Trade Center was the symbol of our economic power, the Pentagon that of our military power, and that fourth plane was headed to the symbol of our government – the Capital Building.  Ironic and fitting that ‘of, by, and for the people’ fought them from achieving their evil trifecta.   And still… all that followed… how much have we lost? That day, members of Congress stood together singing “God Bless America.”  Could they do that today I wonder?

* * *

It’s days after the attacks.  No planes are allowed to fly.  I look up at the sky and it is so blue.  There are no contrails anywhere to be seen. . There were few survivors at Ground Zero, fewer bodies.  They aren’t finding much in the rubble.   Despite this attack, I don’t feel like we as a nation are paralyzed.  I feel like we are galvanized. Today though the sky is blue and American flags fly everywhere.

* * *
Madeleine is 20 and in college.  I text her about James Taylor’s song; she loves it.   She reflects today in simple words “Ten years ago, I was a scrawny little 10-year old who knew nothing of true hate, fear, or profound sadness. In an instant, I learned all three. Ten years later, I'm a not so scrawny 20-year old who knows nothing of life, but will always remember a day in which everything changed.”   Luc is 16 and pays tribute on his facebook page to the young man who worked in the South Tower – a lacrosse player and volunteer firefighter known for wearing a red bandana – who perished while helping many escape.  Jean-Marc was 4 and remembers nothing of that day.  He watches the coverage with me, and I explain – during a re-run of the actual coverage – what was happening, what I was thinking.  I’m sharing this history with him, tell him how I felt that day.  

Memory is thick sometimes.  How do you measure the time before and after that day?  How do you measure what we have lost or gained?  How can you measure the change?  How do you balance these scales?  I don’t know.  I may never know.  I may never understand, there are some things that are just too big.

Just now I look out the window, the sun is shining, the sky is so blue.  I see Luc.  10 years ago he was worried about bombs falling in our yard.  Today I see him, and he’s cutting the grass.

 God Bless America.

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