REPRINTED FROM 2011
NPR has been hosting one In Memoriam after another. “Where were you?” “What’s your story?” “How did it change your life?” These themes are omnipresent in the media. It’s like an attack all over again.
I personally try not to think about 9-11. From the moment of recognition of the event, I had a spontaneous growth of a new lobe, perhaps hemisphere, in my brain. It’s where I keep all 9-11 information. I can retrieve the tiniest piece of data in the blink of an eye, like it happened yesterday. The rest of my brain should work as well. I keep hoping that I’ll forget some of it someday. But so far I can still see the spectacular blue sky as it appeared from my backyard; smell the toast beginning to burn in the toaster; and feel the pain where I’d spilled my piping hot cup of tea as my hand started to tremble along with my son’s trembling voice.
We lived 30 miles from the Pentagon. My bags were packed and locked. My ticket, passport, emergency numbers and information, and all the minutia one takes to Europe when traveling alone, was stacked and ready. All I had to do was wait for my husband to come home from work, drive me to Dulles, and I would be spending the next 10 days in Lyon, France with a girlfriend. We were going to party like it’s 1999. I already had rollers in my hair, and had just gotten my first cup of tea when the phone rang.
It was my son, uncharacteristically calling me from college. He was trying to catch his breath; trying to speak through what I recognized immediately as hysteria. Then I panicked. I too couldn’t get enough air. What had happened? Was he hurt? Was he in the hospital? Who was dead?
The “Oh My God” that barely made it out of his mouth told me that whatever it was, it was serious. But then he said, “You’re HOME”, the “om” part of the word trailing off from lack of air. And at that second I knew that it was his worry about me – that it was his panic for his mom – that he was the adult that had one foot out of his dorm room, ready to come help his dad in the event my plane had already taken off.
He knew when my trip was scheduled, but not the time. He thought I might be in the air when he heard about the planes. An overseas plane out of Dulles would be the perfect vehicle, full of jet fuel, to crash into the Pentagon. Crash into the White House. Crash into anything, even the World Trade Center. At this point that plane had not yet been identified. But my flight was scheduled for a 9 p.m. departure, not 9 a.m. And that Tuesday flight was chosen specifically for its price, a slow traveling day, a light plane belly, and perhaps an easy upgrade at the gate.
The next sound I heard from him was “Turn on the TV.” It was at this moment I learned you can have four people on call-waiting, and then they start to disconnect. My friend in Lyon, my friends at home, anyone who knew of my flight plans had picked up their phone to call me all at the same time. It was chaos. I calmed my son, deleted all the waiting calls, and called my husband whose cell phone was still functioning. I told him what was happening. I told him to turn on WTOP. I suggested he take the beltway to Alexandria and then double back down 301 and come across to I95 heading north, TOWARD D.C., to get home – Had he not done that he wouldn’t have made it home for 10 hours, as I95 South (out of D.C.) was at an expected standstill.
We watched the tragedy unfold before our eyes. I saw the live coverage of the towers falling. I didn’t eat a thing or even think about my trip for probably 12 hours. I’d heard everything was grounded. There were several more calls from my friend in France. Her husband had called her to say he’d be at the office for the next month, probably sleeping there. He knew details because he worked for Interpol. We both worried he knew more than he was telling us.
And the rest is unremarkable. I stayed glued to the television for a week. It took over a year for Air France to return my money, but only 6 days for them to start dunning me to reschedule my flight….like I was going to leave my home and take a vacation any time soon. My twelve-hour fast was followed by a twelve-week eating binge while glued to the television. The world had changed. Of this there was no doubt. It was the first time I’d ever flown an American flag in front on my house – once I finally found one to fly.
I have been to Europe since, three times in fact, but always flying with a companion. Flying alone is my new fear – a residual from 9-11. I’ve since learned that there can be days and weeks and months, even years, that make the events of 9-11 pale in comparison. But those days are muddied in my mind. That personal tragedy, and all that surrounds it, is in a place so deep, to this day it seems unreal.
9-11 is as crystal clear in my mind as the sky was blue above New York City. Total clarity to be remembered forever. Where were you?