Thursday, September 8, 2011

Where were you?

This weekend marks the 10th anniversary of one of the worst days in the history of America. A moment that became our generations, "Where were you when Kennedy was shot?" Thousands of lives lost, families ripped apart, and a rare moment in time when our country was universally united over something.

I remember 10 years ago I was sitting in my 11th grade math class when the phone rang. A student was pulled aside into the hallway and I heard faintly, "something happened...but she's ok..." and I immediately thought, "oh my God, something has happened at the World Trade Towers. I wonder if my mom is ok." My mother didn't work in the towers, but commuted on the path train from Hoboken which stops underneath the buildings. Chalking it up to my overactive imagination the period ended. Funny though, because when it comes to my mom and danger, I tend to have a sixth sense about things. I knew when she had skin cancer and I knew twice when she had been in a car accident.

The next period was my study hall so I went to the nurse with my friend Katrina to drop off my emergency contacts list. I was about to leave the room when I realized the nurse and two other students were crowded around a small radio listening intently. I listened too, heard the news, and immediately said, "I need to call my mom. Right now. She works a few blocks away." The nurse was of course sympathetic and handed the phone over. I looked over the contacts sheet thinking it was ironic that I was calling her because she was having an emergency, not me.

I got right through and I could hear immediately that she was frantic and terrified. She had just talked to my aunt and was about to leave. I'll never forget the mixture of relief that she was ok but worry that grew as she told me that she just missing being in the building and after someone rushed into the office saying that a plane had just flown into the world trade center. She went outside to look. By then the second plane had hit and she stood there watching the buildings burned, horrified about what had happened and hysterical. She came back inside to feel what felt like an earthquake as the towers collapsed one after another, fearing that something had happened to her building as well. Despite building security staff telling the employees to stay inside she was leaving as soon as we got off the phone. She told me she loved me, asked me to call my dad and my grandma to tell them that she was ok and then she got off the phone.

I think I was in shock because I still didn't understand the gravity of what had happened. I called my family members then went to the library, looked online at the news to see what was happening with some friends and proceed to flip out as I read articles, listened to online news broadcasts, and started to see pictures of what downtown looked like. Rumors circulated and friends started to be concerned about loved ones. I wondered if I knew anyone involved and I realized that just because my mom wasn't in one of the buildings didn't mean she was safe. I called friends I knew who were in the city to check up on them. And I tried to call my brother to reassure him that she was ok and the teachers at the middle school wouldn't call him out of gym to let him talk to me. Really? I thought. On a day like today you won't let me tell my brother our mother isn't dead? After a brief rant I hung up and went about the rest of my day hoping everything would work out ok. Hoping people were ok. I still didn't realize how many people had just died.

When I got home I tried to go about my normal routine which included listening to the voicemails on the house phone. There were 16. Family and friends from all over the country had called to see if my mom was ok. And there were three from her as she wandered around the streets aimlessly trying to see in the pitch black smoke and find her way to the ferry to get home. She was wondering where we were, why the school hadn't let us out early. My mother is the kind of person who shows her emotions rarely. But you could plainly hear that she was terrified.

By the time my dad had gotten home my aunt had dropped off flowers and wine with a note saying that despite everything she loved my mom (their relationship was strained at the time) and I had called back the family members to say she was ok. The last message she left was that she had managed to find her way to South Street Seaport and was getting transportation home. Now we just waited. Around 6:15 (the normal time of my mom's arrival) she walked in the door, dirty and tired. We crowded around her as we all enveloped her in a family hug and everyone cried. Just like the US would come together, we rallied around her. A rare chance for us to act like a real family. No fighting. Just support.

She told us about her day. How it took 8 hours to get home. The people she saw walking around dazed and dirty. The paper that was floating in the air like snow. The sounds. The smells. "It was like something out of a war movie. Except I was there, covered in soot with random people as we tried to make our way home." She told me about how someone she still doesn't know the name of gave her his cell phone to call us. And how when she finally emerged from the smoke there were shop and restaurant owners standing in the streets with hoses cleaning them off like cattle and offering up bottled water. It made me happy to think that there were good people out there after hearing about the greedy people who were also driving up gas prices in our area to unlawful prices.

There were other instances of humanity throughout the day like where she found strength in a most unlikely place. But the bottom line was that my mother really didn't know if she would make it home for several hours. The fear of near death, a death that people we knew had met with, stayed with her for several weeks as she suffered through Acute Stress Disorder (think PTSD, but shorter in duration) until she was allowed to go back to work and walked through the streets lined with the National Guard and machine guns. She wouldn't watch the news and at one point broke down saying, "They celebrated in the streets when they heard about this. How could they do that? Why would anyone rejoice over the death of so many people?" It was the most vulnerable I'd ever seen my mother. She was like a child asking me, her own child, about something I still don't have an answer to.

When she finally went back to work, she looked at the empty seats on the train, looking for familiar faces and recognizing that some were missing. Despite this, we were lucky. Very few people we knew died that day. No one in New York was untouched, but we were still far enough removed that we considered ourselves lucky. We had no one we needed to search for amongst the lists of the missing posted online. No pictures to post all over downtown. We didn't have to attend memorial services. We had no empty seats at the dinner table. The biggest change in our lives wasn't even one we could claim as a family. Because from that day on my mom always had sneakers in her office. She just wanted to be prepared in case she had miles to run before she got home.

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