11 September 2011

What I will tell my children

On September 11, 2001, I was a freshman at Eastern Illinois University. That morning I had an Intro to Theatre class. I went, learned about some concepts about drama and stage performance, and went back to my dorm room with the intention of doing my English 101 homework before class in the afternoon.

Sometime after ten--I don't know what time it was--my roommate came in our room and changed the channel. I'd been watching some rerun of something on TNT. She switched to a network channel. "Don't you know what's going on?" she asked. I told her no. Another girl, who lived on our floor, was with her and glared at me. "This is why people leave their dorm rooms open," she snapped.

I thought something had happened on campus. I thought it was something local. But the news coverage told a different story.

By the time the news was turned on in our dorm room, the first tower had fallen. It didn't seem real. I didn't understand what was happening. It had to be some kind of accident, right? But one word burned into my ears and on my heart as I watched chaotic news coverage of what no one fully understood: attack.

It didn't register at first. Attack? What did that mean? As in, someone did it on purpose? Who would do that? Why would someone do that?

I'd grown up in a world in which mass attacks like this simply didn't happen. Violence was one person against another person, sometimes a small group of people. Events like Columbine were a rarity, but a special circumstance. When Timothy McVeigh attacked the federal building in Oklahoma City, it was 1995. I was only 12. That kind of violence was beyond my comprehension. And, again, it seemed a special circumstance. But the attacks on September 11th were different. These were the kinds of things that happened in war-torn nations on the other side of the world.

I watched the news all day. I didn't go English that afternoon. I went to lunch with my roommate, and we ate in silence, our swollen, teary eyes watching CNN in the dining hall.

I went to bed that night feeling like a different person.

That was my experience ten years ago. And when my children are old enough, I'll tell them where I was on that day, how I felt, what I did. And maybe they'll write an essay for school about it. But I hope, instead, they'll use what their father tells them for school assignments.

My husband was still in high school on September 11, 2001. He was in school.

After the first plane hit, the teachers turned on the TV in the cafeteria. The first thing Gamer Dad saw was smoke billowing from the first tower; he thought it was a fire. Then he watched as the second plane hit.

He and the students went to their classes, but spent them watching the news and talking about what they saw. Being so close to Washington, D.C., there was worry about invasions, and the city being a target. And then the Pentagon was hit.

My husband's father is a retired Air Force colonel. Ten years ago, he was working at the Pentagon. Gamer Dad said that when he heard about the Pentagon, he froze. The only thing he could think about was that his dad had gone to work that morning, and Gamer Dad didn't tell him he loved him before he left because he was tired.

Students tried to make phone calls from their cell phones, but no one could get through to anyone. Gamer Dad went to the office to use the phone, and one of the counselors let him use hers; she knew his dad worked at the Pentagon. He called his mom, and he said it was one of the scariest phone calls he'd ever made because he didn't know if she knew what was happening. She did, but hadn't heard from his dad.

Gamer Dad knew people who had family members who should have been working in one of the towers, but weren't there that day. And both the parents of one girl worked at the World Trade Center. He never found out if her parents were all right.

A couple of hours later, a note came to Gamer Dad from the office. It said "Dad is ok." He still has that note in his wallet.

Gamer Dad didn't get to see his dad until two or three in the morning. He was busy helping transport people here and there, and was part of the emergency command team that stepped in to run things after the attacks. But Gamer Dad stayed up until his dad got home.

When I asked Gamer Dad to tell me his story for this post, he told me that as he was riding the bus home from school, he realized it was the first time that he felt like he was part of a country because everyone was sharing some level of pain in this tragedy together. Everyone knew someone who was affected by the attacks. It was unifying, and he felt that.

Ten years later, I am encouraged that the focus of our memorials is those who tragically lost their lives on that day. We tell stories of heroes--in and out of uniform--who sacrificed their own safety (and, in some cases, lives) so others could live. We pray for the survivors, the families of the victims, each other, as we still try to make sense of what happened.

2753 empty chairs sit in Bryant Park to honor
the memories of those lost on September 11, 2001.
Most importantly, we remember.

We don't let what happened become just another tragedy. We acknowledge that this was different from other violence we have known in our lives and in our society.

Across the nation today, there are memorial services. Flags are at half mast. People are going about their lives, yes, but when they write the date on a check or see the calendar on the kitchen wall, they stop for just a moment and remember.

They think about where they were ten years ago. They think about those they know who were there, the families of those who didn't come home.

Ten years from now my son will be 12. My daughter will be 10. They'll be in school and, very likely, this day will be the focus of a social studies lesson. They might come home and ask me, "Mom, do you remember where you were on September 11, 2001?" And I will say yes. I remember vividly.

And I will never forget.

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