Eleven Years Ago....
Last Tuesday I woke up to greet a southern New Jersey morning in all its September glory. The humidity that had plagued our region for weeks on end had finally given way to the cool, crisp air that signals the start of autumn. Abundant sunshine, a slight breeze, and barely a wisp of clouds, coupled with temperatures hovering in the high 70s made me yearn to spend the day outdoors.
In meteorological terms, we had stumbled upon a picture perfect day. Much like the weather that had greeted an eerily similar Tuesday morning, 11 years ago, on September 11, 2001.
When a colleague arrived a few minutes after 9 am to the hospital public relations office where I worked, she shared some troubling news. Seems a plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York City, located less than an hour away.
My first reaction? Honestly, I don't recall, but I know that I would not describe it as surprise. I, like many others on that day, naturally assumed a small engine plane had veered of course, and, with a building so tall, a tragic accident such as this seemed inevitable.
I called my husband Bob at his home office. Like me, he had not yet comprehended the magnitude of the events that were yet to unfold. Citing his busy schedule and an upcoming meeting, he said he'd call me back.
A few minutes later, another co-worker came in to share the unbelievable truth. Another plane had struck the World Trade Center.
This could not be an accident.
This could not be random.
We were under attack.
We walked the short distance down the hall where several people had gathered around a television housed in the physician's lounge. As the news replayed the searing image of a jet plane making sickening contact with the building, we gasped in horror.
I recall my emotions in vivid detail as I watched the moment of impact. Anger. Anger that whoever flew plane number one into the building wanted to make sure that TV news cameras were fixed on the World Trade Center so that the world could witness, live, in vivid, heartbreaking detail, the shock of plane number two.
First New York City.
Then Washington, DC.
A field in rural Pennsylvania.
Where would the terrorists strike next?
We were at war.
With a growing sense of dread and urgency, I irrationally longed to crawl under my desk and hide, as if the terrorist planes could not find me there. Instead I tried to call Bob again, and, much to my dismay, could not get through. Panicked, I needed to tell him to pick up our innocent four-year old daughter Melissa from day care. For, once again, I held onto the irrational belief that the terrorists would surely find her at Kiddie Academy, but she'd be safe at home.
What's more, my inherited daughter Jessica, at the beginning of what has evolved into a successful career in political and grassroots advocacy, had been in New York on that beautiful Tuesday morning working on a local election. We were somewhat sure that her destination did not involve the World Trade Center, but still....unbridled fear filled our hears.
When I finally reached Bob, he agreed to "rescue" Melissa from day care. He spent the rest of the day fielding calls from worried friends and family who, knowing of Jessica's plans, needed the reassurance that Bob could not yet give, for we had not heard a word....we could not get through.
At the hospital public relations office, we discarded the routine of a typical Tuesday as we drafted statements for the media, responded to hundreds of callers wishing to donate blood, and watched as the towers came crumbling down.
By 2 pm, a bright glimmer of light flickered during this unnaturally dark day. Jessica had called. Tucked away in Brooklyn, she had observed the events of the day from the other side of the East River. Horrified and shaken, she was, nonetheless, safe.
I'm not sure what time I finally left my office on that day. During the drive home, the streets were eerily quiet, thanks to the recently imposed state of emergency in New Jersey. I desperately wanted to turn on the news, to find out the latest, to get answers to the questions that now plagued an entire globe. However, I refrained from situating myself in front of the television and instead, gave my daughter the rare treat of eating her macaroni and cheese in the living room while our TV played the well worn Disney classic Beauty and the Beast. Images of death and destruction filled every void that day, but I'd be damned if I'd let my four-year old witness footage of people choosing between a blazing inferno or a fall from 100 stories high.
During the surreal days that followed, while the realization that our world had forever changed slowly took hold, I found solace in the innocence of my beautiful daughter. While shielding the horrors of September 11 from her, I subsequently shielded myself as well. I took comfort in her sweetness, her smile, her delight, her routine, her likes, her dislikes, and her complete ignorance of her changing world. Perhaps, in holding onto her innocence, I tried to hold onto the notion that things could still be the same.
A planned trip to Disney World two day after September 11 had to subsequently be cancelled. We told Melissa the pilot had become sick, and, with the complete trust that a preschooler instinctively bestows upon her parents, she believed our tall tale.
I'm not sure how many years passed before we finally came clean about the pilot, the airplane, or the horrible events of that terrible Tuesday morning. When we did talk about it, we made sure to explain in terms she could understand.....even though the events of that day were still beyond terms we could understand.
Three months after September 11, 2001, Bob, Melissa, Jessica, and I visited the famous Rockefeller Center in New York City. Thousands of tourists had the same idea, as we braved the cold and the crowds to get a better look at what was perhaps the largest and most beautiful Christmas tree I had ever seen. Despite my claustrophobic dislike of being surrounded by so many individuals, I couldn't help but feel a strong sense of satisfaction. We were all there, in New York City, thousands strong, determined......and unafraid.
The terrorist did not win.
Life went on.
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