But we were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments? Or our treaties whatever they may be worth; our symphonies however seldom they may be played; our peaceful acres, however frequently they may be converted into battlefields; our dreams however rarely they may be accomplished. The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen. We are known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses. — Robert Ardrey
Recently, Andrew asked me about September 11. What was that day like? What happened? Was I scared? I realized that, like it or not, I was a part of history, and one day my grandchildren will learn about this day and wonder what it was really like. I decided to share this from the standpoint of an ordinary American citizen.
On September 11, 2001 at 9:30 AM, I was checking out of the pediatrician’s office for Nate’s six month well visit. Five year old Logan was with me. Ed was in Denver, about to get on a plane to return home from a week long business trip. The receptionist told me about two planes crashing into the World Trade Center, and of course my first reaction was simply, “How horrible. I hope too many people don’t die.” And then slowly the chilling realization that one plane could be an accident, but TWO planes? Definitely an attack. At this point, no one officially knew, and yet we all knew.
Driving home, I turned on NPR to get the live coverage. I remember hearing the whole “planes as bombs” theory and speculation that more were to come. I drove home with one hand covered over my mouth. If it wasn’t over my mouth, it was over my heart. I kept thinking I must have looked like a cartoon character of a woman hearing bad news, but it was such a natural instinct. This is what shocked people truly look like.
I was always one to shelter my children of the bad news and ugliness of the world, and precocious Logan was only five. For once, the radio wasn’t playing Raffi or Trout Fishing in America, it was playing a confusing and scary story, and he had a lot of questions. But the one that made me choke was, “Daddy’s on a plane. Will my Daddy be okay?” Of course he will be okay. Of course, of course, of course. But at that moment, I had no idea.
We were lucky; no one we knew was killed. None of our close friends lost loved ones. If I was still working, I might have known someone. Back in the day, my boss did a lot of business with Cantor Fitzgerald, who lost a staggering 658 employees, but I can luckily claim no personal connection to any victim. Nothing about that horrible day impacted me in any direct way aside from the fear, horror, anxiety and compassion we all felt.
Logan was in afternoon kindergarten, and I dropped him off around noon, business as usual. Then we went to his first soccer practice after school. Looking back, it does seem strange that the world was falling apart, my husband was stranded across the country with no flight home, there was vast amounts of uncertainty about everything, and I just put on my soccer mom hat and went on with life. We were all in a bit of a daze, and pretending to be normal was helpful.
Ed immediately rented a Suburban and began his long trek home with a car full of Japanese executives since all planes were grounded indefinitely. That following Saturday, we attended a large birthday party for one of Logan’s five year old classmates. They were supposed to have tethered hot air balloon rides and fly in a special Irish band for entertainment, but both activities were cancelled due to FAA restrictions. When I think of the pre/post 911 world, that party is something I think about often. We lived in a time where people thought nothing of having hot air balloon rides and a live band for a five year old’s birthday party. Some days it felt like Rome before the fall.
Life continued to go on. I felt rather safe and insulated and fortunate in our little Chester County bubble, and yet for weeks I’d find myself waking up suddenly at 3:00 am and turning on CNN just to be sure another bad thing didn’t happen while I was sleeping. Only after I saw the same old news did I feel relaxed enough to go back to sleep.
We were all inspired by the strength, bravery and heroics of our fellow Americans, but most of all, I craved normal life filled with the ordinary self-absorbed people I used to know. People were nicer for a while, but in an eerie, unnatural way. It made me feel uneasy. I just wanted things to be like they used to, but they never would be again. Ed and I started our kitchen renovation the following summer, scraping off old blue flowered wallpaper while listening to Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising over and over on continuous loop. It was the soundtrack which captured the sadness, shock and hope of September 11. That music was therapy to me, and I didn’t even realize how much I needed it until it seeped into my brain.
Sky of blackness and sorrow (a dream of life)
Sky of love, sky of tears (a dream of life)
Sky of glory and sadness (a dream of life)
Sky of mercy, sky of fear (a dream of life)
Sky of memory and shadow (a dream of life)
Your burnin’ wind fills my arms tonight
Sky of longing and emptiness (a dream of life)
Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life
The events of September 11 confirmed what I always suspected. Some people are capable of horrendous, cruel, unthinkable acts which they rationalize in the name of politics and religion. But more often, people are capable of extraordinary bravery, kindness, generosity, and unselfishness when it’s called for. When I think of that day, I prefer to remember the heroes, not the villains.
After a while, I had reached my saturation point of Dateline 9/11 Survivor Stories and inspirational specials. We had all grieved considerably as a country, and the network commercialization of the grief was starting to make me feel resentful and cynical. But there was one special on PBS that seemed to strike the right note of political analysis, human compassion, and quest for understanding. In this current political season filled with fierce venom and scary extremism from both sides, when it feels like people on opposite teams will never reach compromise or respect or understanding, I find myself thinking of it more and more. I can’t remember the particular details, but I remember the message to this day.
A religious leader of some sort (being PBS, all major religions were represented, of course), was speaking about the horrific sight of people jumping from the buildings, specifically the two people who were holding hands as they jumped. Were they husband and wife? Were they just two friends or coworkers? What was their story? At the time of the show, no one knew for sure. But the religious leader said that he thought they could have been two strangers caught in the situation of knowing that their life was about to end, and they had no choice but to jump or stay put and endure an even worse fate. And in our last moment on earth, when everything else is falling apart around us, it is still our human urge to hold hands and reach out for each other. We will always reach for each other.