15 years later

I almost forgot the date. But then I stepped outside into a bright sunny day and in a flash, my mind rewound to another blue-skied morning. Why do we universally remember the remarkable sky on that dark day?

I took a moment to reflect and went on with my to do list. Helped shuttle kids for my older son’s 15th birthday outing. Watched Wallace and Gromit with my younger. Edited my latest manuscript. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Plans to show (for the first time)  9-11 footage to the boy born four days after tragedy struck were postponed due to his homework load. “Hmmm. I’m not going to cry today,” I thought.

But it only takes one story of loss to unleash the tears. And now they flow unimpeded. And I’m reminded—

I was scared out of my mind on September 11, 2001. Scared for my safety. Scared for the unborn Jack. Scared for my city, my family, my friends, and my country. But I was also grateful. For a secure place with loved ones and strangers alike to watch horror and sadness unfold. For those who provided comfort, not just to me but all around. And mostly, for the heroes of the day, some whose courageous acts we didn’t yet comprehend.

As a heavy layer of dust settled over us literally and figuratively, I wondered how the world my child grew up in would differ from the world I experienced in my youth. And suddenly the answer is clear. Today, the threats may be different, but our humanity remains intact.

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with gratitude

Fourteen years ago, I awoke to a bright blue sky and the hint of crisp fall temperatures. And contractions. Ten-to-twelve minutes apart.

“What do you want to do?” my husband asked when he saw me with the stopwatch.

“D’uh, go to work. If I sit around all day timing contractions, this baby will never be born.” (After all, this was years before the Red Sox would win their first World Series of my lifetime, which I know only makes sense to New Englanders.)

We got into the car for the commute to Capitol Hill. Our drive took us by the Pentagon. Not that I noticed. I usually took a pregnancy-induced early morning power nap as we sat in bumper-to-bumper. On September 11th, I woke up from my car slumber, per usual, just as we exited the Third Street Tunnel. I got door-to-door service, dropped off directly in front of the Senate office building where I worked.

By the time I reached my desk, an infamous day was in the making.

I don’t know why my unborn baby, his father and I were chosen to live on 9-11 when so many others perished. But I do know I’m grateful. Grateful to those who prevented the fourth plane from flying into the Capitol. Grateful for the heroes who emerged in our nation’s time of need. Grateful my son waited four days to enter this unpredictable world.

This morning, the sky is bright and the air cool. The world is crazy but heroes still exist. And that baby is on the cusp of his fourteenth birthday.

remembering 9-11

The anniversary of 9-11 snuck up on me this year. (“What? It’s September?”) For once, I did not spend the days leading up to today obsessively re-watching documentaries and/or raw footage taken from that day.

But the tears flow just the same.

They say time heals all wounds but nothing will ever lessen the imprint 9-11 left on me. I mean, I wrote a novel that ends in its aftermath as a way to channel the emotion I feel about this tragic day in our nation’s history.

Sadly, threats still loom, larger and scarier than ever. Infamous terrorist leaders fall, but each dethroning, capture or murder seems to multiple the number of ground troops hell bent on inflicting harm on our country and its people. I’m glad I don’t have any level of security clearance because honestly, I don’t want to know the extent to which I should be scared. All I know is, as I hugged my son in the kitchen this morning, muttering something about how he was with me that day, 9-11, four days before his birth, I remembered how thirteen years ago, amid the fear and confusion, he gave me hope. Just as he does today.

9-11

I tested myself the other day. Can I think about 9-11 without my eyes tearing up?

The answer is no.

My personal story is not especially tragic. I didn’t lose a loved one. I didn’t spend many tension-filled hours anguishing over the fate of friends, family or colleagues. I wasn’t trapped in the rubble, waiting for rescue workers and did not give birth waiting to get into the ER. I even had the assurance that my loved ones outside of Washington, DC knew I was safe thanks to a hastily cobbled together phone tree.

I don’t need a never forget bumper sticker to remind me of 9-11. How could I ever forget the sense of fear, confusion, and panic, normal emotions on any given day for a 9-month pregnant woman about to have her first baby, suddenly on steroids that crisp blue-skied day when our world irrevocably changed.

Memories of 9-11 and my impending foray into motherhood are forever linked. I remember the lilac maternity shirt I was wearing as we evacuated the Senate. I remember the pressure of the contractions as I waddled to Brigid’s apartment and how I (successfully) willed them to stop. And as I watched with horror the footage from the day, I remember the impromptu speech Congressman Steny Hoyer made to an apartment full of young House and Senate staffers from different offices, different parties. I remember how I held my pregnant belly and took his words to heart.

I remember the moment when I realized the passengers of United Flight 93 saved my life and the life of my unborn baby.

It sounds trite to say that I feared what kind of world awaited my baby. Every mother worries about that. Just because my kid was born four days after September 11 doesn’t set me apart. Mothers about to give birth today have equally real and present dangers to fear, just as mothers have from the beginning of time.

But with the benefit of 12 years behind me, I can see that this is the kind of world my child was born into: a world where friends help each other, where a few kind words can sustain you for the day, where opportunity abounds and freedom reigns. We might not always agree with our government and the decisions it makes, but we can express our frustrations at the ballot box. We are more tuned in to unattended packages on the metro, suspicious looking envelopes and what we pack in our carry-on bags. The world is markedly different than it was on September 10, 2001. But it’s the only world my son knows and as he grows, hopefully he will continue to make it a better place, as he has done for me every day since September 11, 2001, when really what he filled me with was not fear but hope.

9-11 eve

Eleven years ago today, the only way I thought my life was about to change forever was by the imminent birth of my child. I didn’t even know “it” was going to be a boy, so my bedroom had a bunch of neat little stacks of yellow, green and white onesies and blankets that I had folded as meticulously as I’ve ever folded anything. (Why can’t the nesting urge stay with us beyond childbirth?) On September 10th, 2001, I went to work and probably left my Senate ID in my desk all day since we didn’t need it to get anywhere but “on the floor.” Back in the day, anyone could walk underneath the Capitol, from the Senate to the House. Unsupervised. Security guards never made you take off your shoes. We made fun of people who wore their IDs around their neck or clipped to their belt. For the record, we didn’t have blackberries back in these dark ages either, though we did have these little pagers. The only time I consistently used mine was to go take a 45-minute nap at lunch in the nurse’s station during my last trimester of pregnancy. Emma, who sat at the desk in front of my office, was the only person who knew where I was, and if someone was looking for me, she could page me. Though she never did.

Then everything changed. Now we live in a society that grinds to a halt when someone accidentally leaves their knapsack on the metro. We look askance at people who might be different from us. We can’t get bottled water through security at the airport. Many families have emergency plans that don’t just include where to meet if there is a house fire, but what to do if there is another terrorist attack. The world is a different place than it was when we were growing up (isn’t that what people always say?) but yet, my kids walk to their bus stop every morning, they want to listen to “their” music, and they crack up at the mention of the word “fart.” (True, it happened today.)

Things change, yet in some very fundamental – and comforting – ways, they stay the same.

9-11

It seemed that as the ten-year anniversary of 9-11 grew nearer, my writer’s block worsened. I started and restarted this post a dozen times, but everything I put down felt trite and inadequate. Then tonight I realized that I struggled with exactly what to write because I’m not sure what can I say that hasn’t been said already.

Then I decided that it doesn’t matter if it’s been said. 9-11 is a day that changed America. It’s a day that changed me.

On Friday night I wept uncontrollably as I allowed myself the emotional indulgence of watching a 9-11 retrospective. For the first time, I let my children see for themselves the footage from that horrific day. They know the basic history of 9-11. They’ve heard the story of how their very pregnant mommy was working in the Senate that morning. They know about the 18-wheeler FEMA truck that shared the road with us as their dad and I drove to Sibley the night I went into labor. I can’t really tell the story of Jack’s birth on September 15, 2001 without including the details of the 4 days that preceded it.

I knew if I was going to let them watch 9-11 footage, I would have to keep my emotions in check. More than once, I covered my eyes and Colin’s too. Jack squeezed my leg. I cringed at the footage of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center. I had forgotten how fast the plane was flying, how low to the ground it was, and how very much like a weapon a commercial airline could appear. In that moment of the second hit we knew unconditionally that our country was under attack. The other night, seeing the footage was like feeling it for the first time.

Tears streamed silently down my face. Silently, that is, until Tom Brokaw moved to the story of United Flight 93. Emotion check failure.

Jack: “Mommy, why do you watch this show if it makes you cry?”

Because I have to. I’ll never know what would have happened if United Flight 93 hadn’t crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. I’ll never know whether my life and the life of my beautiful ten-year old son would have been in danger if Flight 93 had crashed into the Capitol – or more likely, been shot down over our city. Amid all I don’t know, I do know that the passengers of Flight 93 were heroes. And when I see their widows and children and loved ones recounting those last minutes on the flight, piecing together the story of their act of bravery, I just hope that I deserve their sacrifice.

I expected the moment of silence at 8:46 this morning to be heart-wrenching. But while somber, the silence allowed me to hear – coming from outside – the jubilant (and loud) voices of the 8 little boys who had slept over last night to celebrate my son’s upcoming tenth birthday. 9-11 robbed us of our innocence, but children still play and tell knock-knock jokes. They still skin knees and fall off their bikes. They even play Capture the Flag. And they laugh. The “post-9-11 world” for me was marked first and foremost by my entry into motherhood. I don’t need to be reminded to never forget.

war and rememberance

https://i0.wp.com/voodoo-publishing.com/games/games/images/pentagon.jpgWhen the news broke last week that Osama bin Laden was dead, it was hard for me not to reflect upon my own generation’s “where were you?” moment.  And the answer is that on September 11, 2001, my nine-month pregnant self was at work in the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

It was a crisp fall day. I remember the sky being a vivid blue when I opened my eyes after the 40-minute nap I routinely took in the car on the commute into the city. (Did you catch that I was nine months pregnant?) I remember driving (well, riding) on D Street, NE, approaching 2nd Street, heading to the Hart Senate Office Building where my now ex-husband used to drop me off because the lines weren’t as long there as they usually were at the doors to my own building. As always, that morning I lamented the end of the nap, and this particular morning, I marveled on the perfection of the weather.

By the time I got to my desk, I was greeted with a chorus of “oh my god, did you hears” as the first WTC tower had just been hit. We all promptly congregated in one office (mine) to follow the live coverage on CNN. We had no idea that we were watching the worst terrorist attack on American soil occur. But then that second plane hit and reality quickly sank in.

We were numb. Our first reaction was “back to business as usual”  but then there were smoke plumes reported at the Pentagon, mysterious reports of car bombs at the State Department, the internal “hotline” announced evacuation of the Senate complex, and my contractions were coming on strong, albeit erratically, every 5-9 minutes. As my colleagues and I were about to leave our suite, my ex bounded in, and we made an executive decision that retrieving our car, three floors under in the parking garage of the Rayburn House Office Building, made us sitting ducks since we didn’t know if there were other planes headed for more DC destinations. With uncharacteristic calm we quickly reached a unanimous decision.

Call Brigid.

Brigid lived on the Hill, but far enough away from the epicenter that we figured if a plane was heading for the Capitol, we would not be in the carnage. Again, in retrospect I marvel at our relatively detached demeanor in such a tense moment.  After 16 or so tries on my cell, walking as we speed dialed, we finally reached Brigid and got the green light to head to her place. As I lumbered from the Senate-side to the House-side, past Eastern Market, I pleaded with my baby to stay put and not be born on this terrible day. I also hoped that at Brig’s there would be space for an enormous pregnant woman to sit down.

We made it to Brigid’s. I was given a seat on the couch. And history unfolded before our eyes. I found out later that the 25 Hill staffers crammed into her tiny apartment secretly took bets on whether I’d go into labor. The contractions stopped (adrenaline suppresses pitocin) but the day perpetually plays in my mind, like the black and white films that run on a loop at Ted’s Bulletin. As we all know now, there was indeed a fourth plane. And to this day, I believe that plane was destined for the U.S. Capitol. The passengers of United Flight 93 saved not only my life, but the life of my unborn son.

Four days later, with a newborn in my arms, I wondered what kind of world awaited him. As I have grown to begrudgingly accept over the years, I can’t protect him from everything, and for this reason, I applauded the President’s decision not to release photos of Osama bin Laden’s dead body. My kid reads the paper. He has an email account. He is observant. Had that photo been released, he would have eventually seen it. The greatest generation didn’t need to see pictures of Hitler’s charred body to believe he was dead, but my child is growing up in a YouTube world that has to see, hear or google everything to believe it. As for me, even though I loved 24 with its crazily unrealistic conspiracies, I’m going to take the Administration’s word for it on this one.

While I can’t say I have closure on 9-11 or feel that the world is a safer place, at least the success of this mission reaffirmed for me that sometimes, the good guys still win. And that’s the kind of world I want for my sons.