Wednesday, September 7, 2011

PYHO: Ten Years Later

In lieu of a PYHO this week, I'm posting my own 9/11 story. A brief PYHO is at the end, reflecting on what it means now that I'm a mom.

Let's be honest: We've all been waiting for this coming September 11th since the first awful one ten years ago. In the early years, the first few anniversaries, historians and pundits all wondered and asked the same questions. "What lessons will we learn from this? What will Americans take away from this? In ten years, twenty years, what will we know about this day?"

Ten years ago, I was a high school senior. My priorities were simple. Keep dating Graham, find a college to attend in the coming fall, and find a way to convince my dad to let me take my car with me to college. I had simple needs and wants, concerns that most 17 year old girls have.

That morning, I woke up conscious of the crisp air, the warmth of the sun on my arm as I drove to school, and acutely aware of how blue the sky was in Chicago. It was a perfect fall day. Driving to school we listened to the radio and I laughed as I heard about someone flying a plane into the World Trade Center. Hadn't someone flown a twin engine into the Empire State Building a few months back? "Morons who can't freakin' fly! It's probably raining and cloudy over there, too." I had no idea.

When I got to school, most girls were already buzzing with the news. I walked into my first period class, Chamber Singers, and Ms. Cunningham had the TV going. It was an old model TV mounted to the wall, black and white with a relatively fuzzy picture. I remained fairly unconvinced that this was a "major, catastrophic event" until I saw Ms. C's face. I looked up at the TV and could see a split screen. Both towers were on fire, and the Pentagon was also in flames. I heard Tom Brokaw's worried voice and prayed to God it was just a bad news day, a freakish series of events that this was all happening today.

We, the Chamber Singers, were preparing for some event....a school liturgy or some performance. I can't remember that detail now, but I do remember Ms. C positioning her piano so that she could see the TV so she could watch while we sang. I remember Sherri Devereaux gasping, her face white, and pointing to the screen. I remember all of us singing and staring at the TV as the first tower fell. I remember praying that everyone got out, doing my best to be optimistic that the tower hadn't yet opened for the day so that no one would be inside, then knowing full well that at 9:00 Chicago time, lower Manhattan would be filled with tourists and New Yorkers alike.

I remember going to Ms. Cruse's American Government class next. I remember the smell of the building that day, the heat of 900 girls crammed into an all-girls Catholic school. I remember rushing out toward the marble lobby because it was cooler, and looking out the front entrance expecting to see.....I don't know what. I remember the rush of cool air on my skin when I walked into Ms. Cruse's classroom with all her west-facing windows wide open. I remember my polo shirt clinging to my back and my polyester skirt hot on the back of my knees. I remember Ms. Cruse coming in to our room in a blue and white sleeveless dress, saying, "Okay, let's talk about what we know." I remember our Principal, Ms. Nolan-Fitzgerald, coming over the PA to pray and encourage students and teachers not to dwell on the events of that day, and to focus on school work. She cancelled all after school activities that day, and our theatre director, Ms. B, was pissed. "We have rehearsal!"

I remember going home, listening to the radio, and hearing the DJ on US 99 choking back tears, encouraging everyone to fly their flags no matter what, even if they weren't properly illuminated at night. I remember passing house after house with a flag out front. I remember talking to my friend Katie later that night, and I remember wanting to not talk about it anymore. It was too confusing, too overwhelming. Maybe, just maybe, it wasn't as bad as we all thought. Maybe they'd find more people alive than dead.

A year later, my family drove to New York City. Not just to see the damage, which at that point was basically two large holes in the ground. We also went to see my mom's cousin, Nunzio, who lived in NYC with his wife and kids. Nunzio, by the grace of God, skipped a work meeting that morning to have breakfast with his kids. He would have been in the towers had he not gone home.

I'll never forget the silence at Ground Zero. In a city of millions, surrounded by traffic and buses and noise, there was a perfect silence. I wasn't sure how to process what I was seeing. I wasn't looking at a smoldering pile of rubble. I wasn't looking at a cemetery. I was looking at what appeared to be a construction zone. I didn't feel reverent or overwhelmed by emotion, just....uneasy. Instead, I paused and swallowed a lump in my throat whenever I passed a board with a handout, a picture, a "Have You Seen Me? Last seen in the north tower!" My heart dropped for those families. They will never know exactly what happened to their loved ones, and I don't know if that's for the best or not.

Shortly after Hannah was born, hours after they'd stitched me up and wheeled us downstairs, I looked at her and held her close. Maybe it's strange, and perhaps I can chalk it up to the post-labor euphoria and adrenaline I was feeling, but I'll never forget looking at her and thinking, "He's still out there." I was so sad that I had brought a child into this world and the mastermind behind That Day was still out there. Ten years ago, we never would have imagined that he'd still be alive. "Mission Accomplished", right? Wrong. Of course, Hannah and That Man only lived in the same world for a matter of months. She will never know the fear of watching the nightly news and seeing a poorly cut video of him released by his minions. She won't ever have to look at him and wonder what exactly he's orchestrating next, and for that I'm so very thankful. all the unfortunate aftermath, even ten years later, and ten years from now, she'll never know what we lost. On that day, she will never know what each American lost as we watched the towers come down. And she'll never be able to fully realize it. She'll always have to take off her shoes at airport security. When she goes on her first plane trip without me, I won't be able to walk her to the gate and say goodbye. She'll never be able to get on or off a plane with her mom and dad waiting at the gate. She'll never be able to get on an airplane, with our without me, without me sending up a prayer. She'll never know what it means to "fly the friendly skies".

I am glad that I don't have to explain the events of That Day for quite a while. I have a little more time to mentally prepare myself for that conversation. I hope, for the sake of all of us, that she never feels indifferent towards 9/11. I hope that no matter what, no matter how we talk to her about it, that she knows exactly what that day means to everyone who lived it. I want her to know why we remember it. I want her to know that it's more than just a day of service and remembrance, though service is an excellent way to celebrate the lives lost That Day.

Funnily enough, Hannah was born on December 7th, Pearl Harbor Day. I hope that as she grows, she understands the importance of 9/11 and December 7th and her place in American history.


  1. It's weird to me that it will be in our kids history books. That they will be tested on it, like we were tested on things like Pearl Harbor, etc.

  2. I look at my boys and it's so weird to me that they will never know a pre-9/11 world. So much changed that day.


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