“The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.” ~ Thucydides
“Wake up! Wake up” my sister exclaimed as she shook me awake. “What?” I mumbled grumpily eyes still closed swatting her hand away blindly. It was the first year I was home schooled, and the luxury of being able to sleep in a few minutes later and wear my PJs was not lost on me. I was going to milk it for everything it was worth.
Of course my big sister needed to leave me alone to let me accomplish that.
“We’ve bee attacked,” she whispered.
“What!” It was now my turn to exclaim as I sat straight up opening my eyes to look at her.
“Shhh! Mom didn’t want me waking you up. But I thought you should know.” Despite being eleven years old, I knew. I didn’t know what I knew but I knew it was absolutely terrible horrible atrocious and any other negative descriptive words I could think of.
“Where?” I asked as I scrambled out of bed.
“Is Puff alright?” Asking after our older sister who lived in a suburb of the city.
“I think so. They hit the towers.”
I scrambled to follow her quickly down the stairs into the kitchen where our mom was watching the television.
My mom looked at me, then looked at my sister simply stating. “You woke her up.” My mom didn’t even have the heart to admonish my sister. That above all spoke volumes at the seriousness of the situation. My mom was strict, not in a cruel way, but as I tell my nephews now, “I want you to be the best little boys you can be” way.
Jacquie just shrugged unapologetically. She always treated me with a maturity and knowledge well above my age. This was one of those times as our worlds were literally changing.
It wasn’t just the fact I had been jarringly woken up, and I NEVER responded well to being woken up, something my mom also knew. It was the fact that my eleven year old brain couldn’t comprehend. Part of me understood full well what was happening. The year before, I had written whole articles about the SS Cole bombing. My teacher had been inpressed with the insight I had for my age. I knew about Bin Laden and Al Qaeda and even terrorism. To me that happened in Israel or Ireland. NOT here.
I didn’t feel insightful now. I felt scared, as I watched with my mom and sister. I wanted to scramble into my moms lap like I was a toddler again. An age that I had disdainfully tried never to be in so I could keep up with my siblings. I wanted to suck my thumb and curl up with my childhood stuffed animal Puddles. Maybe if I went back to that age, this wouldn’t be happening.
It looked like something out of the action films my siblings would watch and some times let me too when my parents weren’t around.
It didn’t look real.
But it was.
While it could have been a scene from a Bond or Die Hard movie. It wasn’t. It was real. Real people. Real families. Real injuries. Real terror.
As my sister and I stared riveted at the screen, my mom proceeded to start calling people making sure they were all right. With my mom having grown up a half hour outside the city with the towers in plain sight, we had a lot of family in the tristate. My eldest sister who had recently gotten married, lived in Poughkeepsie only an hour and a half away. My mom couldn’t get her.
She went through the list of family members and kept going back to my sisters number until finally, finally she reached her. It had felt like hours but was really a matter of an hour. The antenna that was on top of the World Trade Tower serviced phone and cable to much of the New York area including where my sister lived.
She had no idea what was going on until my mom broke the news to her.
I was at an age where my realization of an innocent world had turned into a fallacy. The world had come crashing down and as a girl stuck between naiveté of the young and the awareness of a teenager I was grasping trying to comprehend what was occurring. And knowing no one could truly explain this. That evil had rocked my our country and my world at its core.
As a history buff even at that young of an age, I had learned a lot about world events including Pearl Harbor, which at the time was the only thing newscasters could compare it too. If there was even a comparison. Every time I read a historical fiction book, like the Dear America series I would try to rewrite them. Make sure there WAS a happy ending. Pearl Harbor: they stopped them in time. Titanic: they had enough life boats and even if they didn’t they still went back. I would even attempt to romanticize Cleopatra and Antony or Marie Antoniette and King Louis XVI. Of Course they survived and lived happily ever after.
There was no hoping for happy ever afters. Even in my young idyllic state I knew that. This was history. I was witnessing the horror of history and you can not rewrite that no matter how hard you wish too.
It seemed like the day blurred together. When the towers fell, the already horrendous day seemed to deflate. The emotions that had blown up in horror and disbelief seemed to go numb.
At one point, I wondered if my mom would shut the television off. Usually I was allotted an hour on week days and I always saved that for Disney. But as the morning went on, I long surpassed that.
But my mom who was as Type A as I am now, didn’t seem to notice. She, who was usually so on top of things from us kids to daily house hold needs, seemed dazed. Once again I was struck at how deplorable it was. Which at that age was the worst word I knew to even put into words what had happened. If my mom who was always so put together was shaken, what did that mean for the rest of us?
Around lunch time, my mom finally noticed that I was staring at the television and gathered me in the kitchen to make lemon bars. The television was still on in the background with the reporters saying the same things and flashing the same images over and over again. Tower two being hit and both towers falling. There were also tons of conspiracies. I didn’t understand them. But I understood the fear.
So we made lemon bars. For years after, I kept going back to that moment every time I would eat one. Mixing the batter, stirring the custard, licking the spoon and bowl. Usually my mom would admonish that I would get food poisoning. Instead only half heartedly said my name when I did it. And it was filled with inexplicable sadness.
Around two she shoved me outside. I might have been eleven, but even I knew she wanted to desensitize me from what was happening.
Ironically, my older brother was painting the garage roof and he had the radio on at maximum volume. As I rode around on my pink and purple bicycle I was so proud of, I began to hear the story of flight 93. It had seemingly crashed with no purpose into a field in Pennsylvania. The reporters were throwing all kinds of theories out there. Each one unsubstantiated. They also mentioned other possible hijackings which also turned out to be false.
Dinner was melancholy with my parents and siblings talking in subdued tones. I just sat there. Observing. Thinking. Wondering what was next. Jacquie and John described what it was like at school. How some of the teachers had kept it hush hush and others were letting students watch on television.
When I went to bed that night it felt like my parents squeezed me a little tighter, and said a couple more I love yous. We did every night with out fail, before and after. My mom always said that if anything ever happened that was the last thing she wanted to have said to each of us. Nine years later when my sister was killed, I would remember my mom saying that, and that it was one of the last things I had told my sister before she left.
The following days my parents tried to keep it as normal as possible. But it wasn’t norma. The news was on 24/7 it seemed. Everywhere people were talking about it. At skating practice my coaches would talk furtively amongst themselves and the parents always sealing their lips if a child got to close.
But I knew. We all knew what they were talking about.
Any innocence I had left was destroyed that day. Compared to loss of life it is nothing. But for those of us young and old who remember, it changed all of us. How could it not?
I came across my journals from that period recently, reading over what they said. The unspoiledness of before and the sadness of after. The realization of a cruel cold awakening we all received. Knowing that evil wast just Spiderman fighting Doctor Octopus on Saturday Morning cartoons, but could happen outside of them as well. That the evil was much scarier then that of a demented comic book character.
It was also with the understanding that with the evilness also came real heroes. Not the cape crusaders I saw on TV and read about, but fire fighters, police officers, even ordinary people who wear no uniform, but still have the courage to do what is right like those on Flight 93. That though history can not be changed after it happens, even the most tragic events give us hope, courage, and love. That it might be our worst moments, but it is also our best as well.
As an adult I am reminded of that every day as a New Yorker. Something changed in all of us that day. But realizing how vulnerable we are, does not make it bad. Rising from that vulnerability is at our core who we are as New Yorkers and most of all Americans. When we are at our worst, we are always at our best if we choose to be. And we need to always remember that.
Tonight, I will gaze up at the sky, as I do every year since I have lived here, I will see the twin beams of blue representing the twin towers that make my eyes mist every time they are lighted. Beams I saw for the first time on television when I was just twelve years old. Fifteen years is a long time. But for those who lived through it, those who lost people, and those of us who live here, we are reminded every day. Of both the best and worst of humanity. Of the courage and resilience that the people in this city have. Those beams are a reminder we walked through the darkest storm and yet, we still to this day continue to shine. But most of all, we WILL always remember.