About a week before my 32nd birthday, I realized exactly how selfish I was and just how little impact I made in the world and at the time I kept that to myself. In my youth, I thought it was possible I could one day be a leader, however my cherubic cheeks, diminutive size, damaged ego strength and my faulty frontal lobe betrayed me. I was a cartoon character. An adult who looked and seemed like a child in every way. Even while playing grown up in my power suits and wedding ring, the truth was I worked in management in state funded nursing facilities selling hopes of a dignified death to desperate families. They believed me because there was a level I understood vulnerability and how to soothe it as only a broken lady-child can.
On this particular September morning I whipped into the parking lot of the Skatetown roller rink just like I did every morning at about 8:45am. It gave me just enough time to put my mascara on in my rear view mirror and dash across the street to the nursing home to get to my daily 9:00am. As I dabbed my lower lashes, the goofy morning team people on a local radio station, broke in to Foo Fighters to let everyone know that some bone head flew their plane too low to clear one of the Twin Towers in Manahattan and crashed right into it. I shook my head and sighed as I twisted the brush back into its cocoon of gel and wondered if ANY adults knew what they were doing. It was a beautiful day in the Midwest, though I am biased to any September day regardless of the conditions. There is something about the promise of autumn as the slow and beautiful evolution into winter that is tangible visually, by smell, by temperature–such a visceral descent on all the senses toward the bleak and desolate blanket of cold and slush. Or perhaps I just appreciate when all good things must come to an end. As the radio duo blathered on, my assumption was that the plane was a small, single engine private jet that clipped the side of the building because the pilot couldn’t find a Starbucks before takeoff. It was worth being late to my meeting to see how this one was going to turn out, so I pulled out my makeup bag to put on the rest of my face.
At just after 9:00am, as I was thinking about cutting the engine and heading into the building, one of the DJs interrupted the other and there was an awkward silence for just a moment…just long enough that it caught my attention and I did not turn off my engine. “Another plane just hit the 2nd tower. I don’t understand what’s happening.” And neither did I. And neither did the rest of America. I sat in my car for the next 20 minutes and listened intently to verbal chaos. Once I realized no one knew anything, I dashed inside to the tail end of a the daily meeting I typically took over and attempted to lead out of frustration for lack of accountability.
“Did you guys hear about the Twin Towers?” I asked breathlessly setting my purse on the table in front of me. Of course, they hadn’t. They were mostly grown ups and had been at work since 8:30am, like I should have been. “Some sort of accident. It’s probably satellite or something messing with air traffic control.” I of course had no idea, but I was credible enough that people were concerned.
I walked back through the day room where there were two TVs on different stations but both were playing the same footage over and over. There was no single engine private plane losing the edge of a wing. There was a commercial jet filled with people. Regular people, that tore into the middle of the North Tower and immediately turned to smoke. People on a Tuesday morning, many of which who were also on their way to their next morning meeting. Though there was still no explanation, if you stood long enough to watch all 17 minutes of footage there were certain things you knew you could probably rule out.
“Becky! Becky…can you turn this crap off and put on my shows?”
Poor Pearl. She said my name with such certainty and yet my name is not Becky and there were no shows to put on this morning. My heart leaped and sank at the same time as Pearl’s spindly fingers wrapped around my hand. Her wedding bands spun lopsided on her thin ring finger and the diamond dug into my palm. She would never contemplate what just happened and likely 10 minutes from now would not even remember sitting and watching the thousands of sacrificed souls who would forever change history in our country. I wondered if this is what dementia must be like. I stood there watching this tragedy unfold in footage so telling, so horrifying that even after it was over, it wasn’t over as the smoke poured out of each building as if they were chimneys. Papers and ashes fluttered and floated to the ground like the first snow while bodies surreal while airborne sank as if tied to anchors at the bottom of the sea. Footage of chaotic and confused armies of identical living dead covered in head to toe gray soot were wandering trying to find a foxhole that did not exist. Camera crews live filmed authoritative sounding officers standing in the lobby and strategizing their plan. Community servants looking for leadership while nodding heads, axes raised and probably breathing the same sigh of hope I was that there were people who knew what they were doing and there would be an end of the day soon.
But then came the first BANG!! Loud enough that it was audible on the crappy 20 inch TV. The workers stopped talking and looked around. There it was again. BANG. And again. I remember none of them moved or spoke a word but they looked to each other silently, uncomfortably. It was that pause that made me know exactly what was falling to the ground over and over outside of those lobby windows. They went back to talking about how to safely evacuate the higher floors with less authority and I was overcome with that same stillness. Just when I had reconciled the first image of the planes crashing and exploding as the least shocking, it was shown again. Those of us who were not afflicted with dementia or a failing memory felt like we were seeing it again for the first time because now it couldn’t be confused with a bad action film that needed to be changed over to the Price is Right. Now we had an idea of what came after as those recordings from ground zero became reality and unfurled into the collapse of the towers rather than a cut to the harried phone dispatcher who is also try to keep concerned citizens out of the red faced fire chief’s office.
And then life went on.
I had a meeting the very next day with a former employer who charmed me back with a lucrative deal. I spoke nothing of 9/11 again. An old colleague was sitting at her desk and I waved to her smiling and telling her of my soon to be new-old life and how I looked forward to seeing her regularly soon. She and her husband were political figures in my city and I can only imagine what went through her mind as I bounced away seemingly oblivious to our hearts in our throats. I didn’t even ask about her son who lived right across the Hudson River.
But see…that was the thing. I thought no one knew how to act because I didn’t.
It still was far enough away that we could all go on like normalish. I was politically aware enough to know other parts of the world were much more quietly dealing with genocides and bombings and terror every single day. To assume that American lives are so virtuous and valuable as a price above rubies as compared to the rest of the world made me feel conflicted and I wasn’t sure what to do with that even though no one was comparing. I was newly married, had a new job on the horizon and was two years out from a new future and I didn’t want to think about what it meant to have an invisible enemy who could turn my vacation flight into an act of war.
And that is what I told myself. And then life went on. And eventually it did for everyone else too.
Life wondering exactly how a loved one died or if maybe they would show up some day. Life fearful of invisible people who ‘hate freedom’ and creating terrorists out of neighbors and seatmates in our minds. Life of conspiracy theories about government far beyond just the tinfoil hat people. Life of knowing just how good people can be to one another. Life of knowing just how horrible people can be to one another. And life went on.