I said the words, “September eleventh,” while I nodded, not understanding what she was trying to show me.
“Nine eleven,” she said and then walked back into her office.
I sat looking around me for someone to explain. I wrote the numbers, nine, eleven, oh-one. I didn’t understand.
I had never referred to our emergency service as nine eleven. I always said Nine One One. I was in shock and didn’t understand the symbolism. All I knew was the world changed.
September 11, 2001. We all have a story about our morning sixteen years ago. We all have a memory about where we were and how we found out and the aftermath of significance to our lives. This is my story.
Now to interject, I should tell you that I’m not sure I’ve ever spoken about this with the gravity of my intention today. It may be a little emotional and this may contain triggers.
In my lifetime, we had become a global community. As a child, the only way I would speak to someone on the other side of the world, barring an international excursion would be mitigated by a postal worker. I had pen-pals in other countries. I put pen to paper and mailed letters to recipients across the state, the country, and the world. I was pulling in information, personalities, current events, right from the kids who experienced it. I loved the exchange of paper, photos, and words.
And then the internet exploded. More connections. Everything became digital. We shared photos in an instant. My pen-paling lessened and new international friends were made with instant gratification.
Information as well as entertainment flowed with ease.
“A plane crashed into the World Trade Center,” a voice in the office announced. My myopic brain scanned my memories. Did I see this building? Was that the observation deck I visited? I didn’t understand it was an attack.
There was an odd air that morning. I felt like something was off when I boarded the train to commute. But with my mental illness, I can’t always honor those guttural feelings I have. I heard thousands of stories where people weren’t feeling right that morning - a collective unease with the sunrise and tick of the clock.
“A second plane crashed.” My mind raced. Something is not right. I whimpered the words, “Is this on purpose?” My fingers went to work dialing up news on the computer. Any news channel. All news channels.
I remember feeling dark with an unease that I couldn’t explain. I had no idea what was happening and how it would impact my life.
I worked in an historic building. I discovered one of our related buildings was threatened. We were told to go home. I sat and looked at the news reports on the computer. It was hours before I left the office and when I finally did, downtown Philadelphia was a ghost town. Everything looked grey. There was a veil of ash in the clouds from New York. There were exactly three people on the train with me at one pm. I sat in silence with my eyes darting back and forth to ensure none made a sudden move.
For weeks I sat on the floor of our apartment and looked at the television screen. Over and over I listened to the same words trying to reason what occurred and what the result was. I had babies in my care and I couldn’t even care for myself.
“I don’t want you to go to work,” my six year old said to me.
“I have to go to work,” I squeaked when I mustered the courage to face the world again.
“I don’t want a building to fall on you.”
I couldn’t promise that wouldn’t happen.
I grew up with an overbearing father who would boast about the strength of America. He was a bombardier in World War II and got a pass for a lot of his opinions, although I challenged him as much or more than he challenged me. I was afraid of the monsters in my home and in my head; not the ones roaming the streets of the world.
To compact the protection I felt, I grew up in Philadelphia. We had five hundred homicides before April one year. I saw people with weapons on the streets, while riding mass transit, and have had more than my share of encounters with guns and knives and fists and steel-toed shoes. Still, I always felt safe walking the streets to get where I was going. I always felt removed from the situation, even when I was victimized. My father was a cop. There was an inherent sense that he would protect me from anything outside. We were strong. We were the strongest. Come at me!
I suppose growing up in a house where I heard enough stories of atrocities but saw enough of a strong police presence; I somehow believed I was safe. Certainly there was some insulation between me and any evil of the world.
Militant killing happened in other countries; on other soil. I grew up knowing America to have a defensive military strategy. No active military bases in the contiguous states. I grew up with an understanding of international war without having to live through the tension directly. I was a Cold War Kid. I didn’t understand how different an outside threat is from an internal conflict.
Nine Eleven changed all of that. Today I can’t think of the numbers without remembering the blackness of that day. I can’t say it without reliving the hollow feeling in my belly and helplessness I felt for weeks while I tried to pull myself together and do anything other than breathe. I was breathing. Some no longer could.
Streets were closed off. Homeland security was a new faction of protection present and the guns, bullet-proof vests, and handcuffs were brazenly displayed on officers whose presence noticeably increased. Park Rangers were stationed on streets of the city, requesting we walk out of our way to control the pedestrians as diligently as they directed vehicular traffic. Identification was newly necessary to move anywhere that may have been threatened by what was broadly referred to as terror.
A new racism emerged. But this racism was reasoned. People were hiding their faces. They were hiding their country of birth. They were hiding their affiliations. And the fact was and remains, the terror is as much within as it comes from outsiders. Those who are not like we. It became tolerated to be prejudiced at everyone who was not only different than we, but exactly the same. It was frightening and infuriating. Myself included. There were too many sheep and the wolves weren’t easy to see.
There was a time when I became angry with my dad. He was well on his way to Alzheimer’s. I think this may have been the cancer years. But my dad who was always good at the very least of causing unnecessary fear about the mundane had missed this completely. I remember avoiding him. I couldn’t face him. I couldn’t listen to a racist rant. I also didn’t trust myself to not feed into it and become afraid – I was already disappointed and numb.
Today is sixteen years later. I still hear my baby’s voice through tears ask me not to go to work. I stayed home that day with her. But when it was time to go back, I walked in fear that a building would fall on me and she would have to live whatever years she had remaining with the aftermath of that specific fear. Every year since, I have reflected on the horrors of the day and wearing gloves and mask to process receipts and looking hard at where a stranger’s hands fell with their backpack on the train. I think about the horrors I endured from my own reflection. There was a psychological meltdown far greater than having a building fall on me.
I read something that fear is being afraid and courage is walking through it. I think the change of climate as a result of these attacks for me as an American is a courage that through the years I’m trying to honor within me. I’m afraid of so much and I realize all the frightening things that I wash off and walk through daily. And still, when Nine-Eleven rolls around, the numbness returns and I can only breathe.