Notice the spurs on the rubber boots?
In 2001, we’d only been living in New York for a year. Our boys started pre-K and Kindergarten that fall. Our youngest (I’ll call him Small) was into costumes and our oldest (T) had started a collection of cicada shells. My husband had just built a clubhouse in our backyard, and I was beginning to find time to write again.
Each year when the 9-11 anniversary hits, I try to avoid the news and the reminiscing. But this year it seemed enough time had gone by that I might go back and see what I wrote when it was still fresh.
The short version of my 9/11 story is this…
The long version is below, and you’re welcome to read it.
September 11, 2001
When the woman who runs the gym tells us a plane has hit one of the twin towers, I’m thinking a cessna. We all are. Something small. And a sense of queasiness about what the falling debris from the plane might do to a person walking along the sidewalk below.
We’re all on the treadmill in a women’s gym, warming up until our aerobics instructor turns up.
“Strange about the plane,” I say to the woman next to me.
I find out she works at the airport. “Especially on a day as clear as this,” she says.
We’re trying to listen to the radio but it’s hard to hear over the machines. My mind is already on to other things—what to do about the little one’s bedwetting, to step up the night-training or just invest in a rubber sheet—when I think I hear something peculiar. “Did they just say a second plane hit?”
The woman who works at the airport looks ill and gets off the treadmill. We all turn our machines off. No one says a word, we all just pack up and leave.
On the way home, I’m nearly hit by an ambulance going way faster than I’ve ever seen an ambulance go. I turn on the radio and there are call-ins—people saying where they are in the tower and asking the deejay to tell the rescue workers where they’re trapped.
Before long I’m glued in front of the TV. I see what’s happening now, though it’s not registering. I feel far away like I’m under water, like I’m half-asleep or watching from the inside of a balloon. I see the attack on the Pentagon, where my dad regularly visits, and then the TV goes out. We get our signal from the twin towers.
Back to School
I head to my kids’ school. I need to do something. The sky is absolutely clear and bright blue. Why do I keep thinking this?
At the school, I let the administration know I can help look after any kids whose parents don’t show for pick-up time. The parents are beginning to gather in the parking lot. Normally, this is where we all share stories, a common complaint is how we never get a moment’s peace with our spouses because the kids interrupt any grown-up talk with their constant chatter. Today, we’re looking around, doing a mental head-count. Who’s missing?We try to look cheery for the kids and encourage them to just play with each other as we wait to see if everyone is picked up. Several times I surprise myself by having the peculiar thought of what a beautiful day it is.
It’s hours of waiting, but slowly they come—many covered in white soot who walked all the way here from the Financial District. One of the moms was on the 60th floor when the first plane hit, and had made it to the 30th floor when the second plane hit; another was next door when it collapsed; another took a cab all the way home, though she had no money, having lost her purse in the mad rush. We hear from Alex’s parents who are in Italy celebraing their 10th anniversary that they’re stranded because there’s a stop on incoming flights. And Cammie’s mom (a cop) calls to say she’ll be working overtime; she’s staying to set up a makeshift morgue in Brooke’s Brothers.When D–’s mom shows up, we ask, “Have you heard from Wade?” Not yet. He was scheduled to give a computer presentation that morning at Windows on the World. “Just let us know if you’d like us to watch D–,” I offer.
I go home with just my two. Driving home, I realize why the sky seems so perfectly blue. We live near two of the busiest airports in the world but there are no planes flying.
I try desperately to make things normal for the boys and not let them hear the news on the radio. I’m restless until David walks through the door. It seems to take forever.
After dinner, we sit on the front porch, watching to see who comes home. Our neighbor, Da-woo, made it out of the towers but doesn’t have his sight back completely. We hear that someone who’d just come to Special Friends day at the school didn’t make it. Over and over, we all ask, Any word from Wade? Is he home yet?
Small brings out a shoe box filled with a rubber band ball, army soldiers, wine corks, a dried gecko, and the plastic chess rook he found today. His hair smells like his teacher’s perfume and I know he’s been well-hugged at school. He’s chattering about his birthday, which isn’t until next summer, but he’s already got a good idea for it. He wants a raw egg cracked on his head. I say, Okay. Τ lets me wiggle his loose tooth and tells me what color the Tooth Fairy’s wings might be. The boys talk constantly, and now I have no desire shush them. There’s this rush of birds flying over our house, and no planes flying so the sky is quiet. It’s amazing.
We decide to send the boys to school. I figure the teachers are in better emotional shape than I am, and I feel obsessive about being near the radio. All day I’m absorbing bad news and ratcheting up my level of fear. I need to do this. These spooky fighter jets are the only planes in the sky, and it feels like we might learn about war first-hand in our privileged and protected country.
After school, we bring D– home with us. Her mother’s down where the twin towers used to be, hoping to hear from Wade. Our neighbor and D–’s best friend, Madison, joins us. And soon the kids are in the back yard in their bathing suits, playing with the hose and cups of water. Everyone is laughing because they don’t know what’s happened yet. And I take D–’s picture because I don’t know if she’ll laugh like this for a long time.Madison’s parents, who plan to take D– overnight, stop by for dinner. We all sit in my kitchen that night eating macaroni and cheese with no sides. Everyone feels sick.
We Thought We Wouldn’t Tell the Kids
I cried for the first time today. Up until now, I’ve just been throwing up. And hugging everyone. My God, how much hugging everyone’s doing—strangers, neighbors, friends. I cried after I dropped the kids at school. Cried at the traffic light, cried at the next one. I’m driving home and someone’s car is shaving creamed with the message, “Die, Arabs, Die.” I can’t believe what I’m seeing.
Τ’s best friend is Moroccan (and Muslim) and her family is just as scared and devastated as we are. I’m nervous for them.
It feels like all I do is listen to the radio and listen to stories of friends’ close calls and wait by the phone for news from Wade. It’s my dad’s birthday, and I still haven’t been able to reach him. I leave a message on his machine.
When I arrive at school for pick-up time, D– is sitting on the teacher’s lap, looking blank. I dreamt last night that Wade was at school when I picked up the kids. It’s starting to sink in that I’m not just sad for his daughter and his wife. I miss him.
I haven’t wanted to tell the kids about what’s going on. I like the idea of preserving their innocence and not burdening them, but it’s getting more difficult to keep what’s happening separate from them. As we’re waiting to collect our kids, we’re told one of the dads freaked out today, running through the schoolyard screaming, “She’s missing! Oh, God, she’s dead!” His wife worked in tower 1. (She actually escaped but was too stunned and confused to make it home… turned up days later.)
The second meltdown was my son’s Kindergarten teacher who broke down in class and then decided to explain her breakdown by telling them that “bad guys aimed planes into buildings on purpose.”
It’s also getting hard to explain the kids missing from class to attend funerals for those who had just visited school for Special Friends Day. They are simply picking up pieces of the story around them.
Τ has a lot to tell us about planes and bad guys hiding and smoke and fire all the way home. He makes it sound like there will be bad guys hiding in the toy box in their room. And when we get home, I decide to try to contain the fear by showing them a still photo of one plane heading towards one building. It works. It all seems much less scary and much less related to their daily world. I only wish I could feel, or at least act, like all was fine and safe.
At night Small feels “teeriful” about someone trying to hurt people on purpose. During prayers, he thanks the firefighters for saving everyone. I let him go ahead and believe everyone was saved… and that the firefighters are still alive. He also prays for the men who crashed the plane. He has a bigger heart than I do.
The Games Kids Play
We are learning about some of the games the kids play at recess these days: Τ and two of his friends are building a trap for “the bad guys,” one green to hide in the grass and one sand-colored to hide on the beach. There are lots of cop-and-robber-type games with high-stake punishments. One boy wrote a letter to the president telling him he wanted to help rebuild the towers because he’s a good builder.Today I’m going to clean my house, really scrub the hell out of it, cook and freeze tons of food. Play music really loud. I have to do something. No more waiting by the phone today.
The neighbors and I continue to take turns looking after D–. Her mom spends most days at Ground Zero. She had to bring a plastic bag to the armory containing Wade’s toothbrush and hair samples she collected from his comb.
I saw Wade two days before the towers went down. He was in his red car, and I was standing beside it in the road. We talked about our kids, their teachers, an upcoming party, and ballet lessons. I have such vivid memories of him sitting on our living room floor, putting together a little track for a wind up car to drive on. At first, I was certain he’d come back. I thought there would be so many rescues in those early days. I didn’t know yet that everything, even desks and computers, had turned to dust. It’s been three weeks.
D–‘s mother, Roxanne, is not a crier. Not really a nurturer, that was Wade’s job. I haven’t seen much of her because she’s been down at the site every day. When I finally do see her, I ask her what she’s told D–. What on earth do you say to a four-year-old?
“I told her, Daddy’s coming home soon,” she says. “When she asked about him again, I told her he hurt his shoulder and he can’t come back just yet.”
“Oh, Rox,” I say.
And she starts crying. She doesn’t know what to do, and now D– says she hates her dad for not coming home.
“Do you think he’s coming back?” I ask.
She used to. But all day, she’s around the other family members with their plastic-wrapped signs asking, “Have you seen my mother/my uncle/my son?” She’s seen on the news how not one victim was rescued. And she knows that Cammie’s mom has moved from the Brooke’s Brother’s morgue to Staten Island, where she searches through the debris for body parts. (Cammie now stays late with the After School program.)
“You have to tell D–,” I say.”
Tell me how. Tell me how you crush a child like that?””You say it like this,” and I make something up that sounds simple and comforting. It’s not that hard when you don’t have a little girl in front of you about to get crushed.
“I’ll tell her that tonight,” she says. “Will you meet with us at school and talk to her afterwards? You’re good with talking to kids.”
I say sure.
The next day, I pull D– out of class—her teacher’s expecting me—and we walk around and eat Cheez-It crackers and wait for Roxanne.
When Roxanne joins us, we all sit at a picnic table outside of the classroom. The kids are giggling inside. D– doesn’t like to sit.
“I hear it’s been different at your house,” I say. “Someone’s not been coming home.”
“And your mom told you what happened?”
Roxanne whispers to me, “I couldn’t do it.”
“You didn’t say anything?”
“I read her the book, Freddie the Leaf.”
Freddie the Leaf is a great book. It’s about a leaf dying. It’s different than being told your dad’s dead.
“Do you want me to tell her?” I ask.
“Please? Would you?”
“Yeah. I can do that.” I turn to D–. “D–, I know why your dad hasn’t come home. Would you like me to tell you?”
“I know you’ve been waiting for him, and you’ve been upset. And your mom has been waiting and looking for him too. Because she knows that if he could come home, he would.”
I’ve lost her. She’s four and she’s bored, even with this. It’s too much talking. But she’s still sitting, so I keep going.
Her mother stares at her. “D–, pay attention. Do you know what Mrs. Henderson’s saying to you? She’s telling you where your daddy is.”
She’s listening again. I’ve already been told she knows nothing of the accident, that she isn’t to know that a plane’s involved (as she has to use planes often to visit relatives), that she believes in heaven and says prayers at night.”
D–, your mother has been looking for your daddy and she asked the police to help. The police said, there was a terrible accident at the building where your daddy works. Many people got hurt and some people died. D–, your daddy was one of the people who died.”
Too fast. I didn’t give her time. I didn’t create a cushion. I look at D–. She looks like she’s not paying attention.
Roxanne has now moved beside her and is holding her hand. “Did you understand that? Daddy has died.”
“It means he can’t come home again, D–,” I say. My body language is tender, sorrowful, but the words are too hard.
“He won’t come to my house?” she asks.
“He can’t come home anymore.”
“Can I still wear my Barbie slippers?”
“Yes,” her mom says. “You can wear the Barbie slippers he got you, dear.”
“Can I have a playdate at your house?” she asks me.
Then she’s up again, walking back to her classroom. I had more to say. I wanted to tell her the good news, that her mother is here, that she is safe, that her Daddy is watching over her. But she’s eating Cheez-Its and turning the knob to her classroom.
“D–!” Her mother is embarrassed. Her child isn’t grieving like we expected her to. She isn’t giving us a chance to hug her while she cries—something we know how to do. Roxanne carries her back, but D– won’t sit.
I put my hand on her to get her attention. “Remember when you say prayers? Do you put your hands together like this?”
“No. I put them this way.” She weaves her fingers together.
“Do you want to know something very cool?” I ask.
“Do you know how when you want to talk to God, you can put your hands like this, and he hears you? Even if you make just a tiny whisper?”
She’s looking straight at me.
“And you know how God can hear you and help you, even though he lives in heaven and you can’t see him?”
“You know that, don’t you D–?” her mom says.
“Your daddy lives with God in heaven now. And guess what?”
“When you want to tell him something when you miss him, you can put your hands together, and he’ll hear you. He can help you even from heaven. And he loves you just like before.”
“What did the police say again?” she asks.
She’s heard. It’s going in. I tell her again about the police and the terrible accident at his work. I tell her how her mother’s been looking for him, and how the police found out he was one of the people who died and that he can’t come to their house anymore.
“What did the police say again?”
And I tell her again about whispering to her daddy, and I tell her how she can show him things, and she bolts up and runs over to a pile of leaves. She asks me to help make the pile bigger because she wants to show him how high she can jump. Then she shows him how she can lodge a Cheez-It the tall way between her back teeth and crunch it from the sides. For that moment, I’m not thinking about how my world is shattered, though it is. And it’s not.
Wade’s service is held on October 13th at the Church of the Advent.
In the back of everyone’s mind as we choose Halloween costumes, we wonder, will this be the next terror attack? Are they going to go after our children? Should we stay inside tonight?We try a party first. It’s the weekend before Halloween. The boys go to a party at their Kung Fu School. Their instructor has them line up along the wall. “Are you going to have fun?” he asks. They say, “Yes, Sir!” All activities at the party require that they remain in that line. Kids are asking to go home early.Halloween night, a small vampire knocks on the door. He opens a pillowcase and I drop in a Rice Krispie treat. He just stands there. I drop in another, but he doesn’t’t move. I say, “Have a happy Halloween” and he says, “Thank you,” but still stands there. I put another Rice Krispie treat in his pillowcase when I realize I’m standing on his cape.The boys call their grandparents and tell them about their costumes and their loot. (We decided to take the risk and leave the house afterall.) Grandpa tells Τ how to eat candy corns stripe by stripe but his attention span is short when it comes to phone calls and he simply sets the phone down and walks away. Besides, he’s not into candy corns; he’s into Milky Ways.
Girls’ Night Out
Once a month for the next year, the other moms and I go out for Mexican food and mixed drinks with the goal of helping hold Roxanne together. For the most part, we don’t talk about what happened but we talk about who ordered the best-tasting drinks and we realize it’s not just Roxanne we’re trying to hold together.
We have color-coded alert days now and today is orange because of the anthrax scare. On the news, there is talk that our mail may be tainted with poison.
When Artie the mailman arrives, he says, “Crazy world. I’m going to have to quit if things don’t change.”
Once I shut the door, I inhale the stack of mail and wipe it along my inner arms like those magazine perfume ads. It’s the waiting and the fear that’s making me crazy. If something bad’s going to happen, I wish it would go ahead and happen.
At night, when we lie in bed, David and I have started to talk about moving further from the city. It may be a false security but the idea is starting to take hold.
The End of the School Year
By the end of the year, so much more has happened than the fear and sorrow of 9/11. The boys had tea parties; took apart broken machines; learned to whistle and tie shoes; played Lego and The Beatles; tried sushi and curry; read Rowling and Tolkien and Dahl; and the June morning when Small turned four, we cracked a raw egg on his head.
It was not, by any means, a terrible year. We’ve learned to be thankful for the small and ordinary pleasures—the boys giggling and waving from the window, walking into a warm home, the smell of dinner cooking, the sound of the boys talking to each other from one bunk bed to the other when it’s time to sleep. But as the school year comes to an end, we can’t help but notice that the teachers look ten years older than they did at the beginning of the year. So do I.
We’ve been casually looking for our dream house these last few months. We thought our first house (this is our third) was our dream house. It had hardwood floors, exposed ceiling beams, bay windows, stained glass, a stairway so wide you could lay sideways in it, built-in china cupboards, picture rail, crown molding. It was breathtaking but it felt like we were pretending, playing house. It was too big. It had too many bedrooms. It swallowed our furniture, and we kept finding ourselves hanging out with friends on the floor of the kitchen or on the crumbly back steps.
What we’ve learned is we like any place we are together, and we like cozy nooks. But we’re also craving a little more space outside, something woodsy, more tromping grounds, not so many wires in the sky.
We have these dates where we grab sushi and tea and just drive. We’re looking for something not so big, not so perfect, and tucked into the woods—something we can fix up, but only a little, so it stays small and the grounds stay wild and unruly.
I’m cleaning out the boys’ room and on the tops of the dressers, way up where I can’t reach, there’s all this peed-on underwear, which I know is Small’s because he’s the one who wets the bed.
All day, as I pack for the move, I find evidence that I haven’t been watching them all that closely. Dental floss is knotted around doorknobs and handles, attaching one thing to another. And of course, there’s the “secret laboratory,” which I found shortly after our house went on the market: a hole the size of a softball they dug through the plaster in the wall. We’ve patched it but it’s not pretty and it looks like the boys have tried to scratch their way back in.
We’ve talked about the move, how it’s a good thing for our family. And the boys seem okay with our frenzied 30-second cleans and being shooed to the lawn as strangers go through our house. Still, I wonder if Τ remembers his face pressed against the window of the car as we left our last house, or understands the hard truth that when a grownup tells him he can always call or write his friends, it means those friends are gone forever.
Under a stack of magazines I find a t-shirt that’s been cut up with scissors. The cuts have been patched with Scotch tape, as if I might not notice the damage.
I carry the shirt around until I find the boys. They’re in the living room in a fort they’ve made out of packing boxes. Small’s in costume, wearing only underpants with two undershirts tucked into them, one in front and one in back to look like a loincloth. He’s standing in a box holding a pretend-spear over his head.
Τ sees what’s in my hands and quickly tells me, “That’s Small’s shirt,” as if that frees him from responsibility.
“And it’s cut because—?”
Τ casts a suspicious look at his brother, who’s busy stabbing something with his spear, and seems to wait for the verdict. He’s hoping I’ll punish the little brother and not notice who did the skillful scissoring.
I fold the shirt and hand it to him.
“Better find a box to pack this in,” I say. “I hope you have as much fun in the new house.”
We were not the only ones to move a little further from the city. In fact, every one from our Girls’ Night Out group did the same by the end of the year—some all the way out of state. We’re all looking for ways to shake off the fear and to have a fresh start.
And maybe the move wasn’t about false security after all. We’re busy making this space feel like our home, finding good spots for the rock and seashell collections, making good use of the empty boxes, and finding all the best climbing trees.A new school year has started, and when I look at the class photos, I’m glad to see there’s still innocence there. And bright futures ahead.