I was fourteen years old the first time I ever thought about my own mortality. On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I wore denim overalls with a lavender t-shirt when Ms. Boykin, my second period Journalism teacher, notified the class of what had just happened in New York City and Washington, DC. “They have crashed two planes in to the World Trade Center and one into The Pentagon.” I didn’t understand what she meant by “they”. Who was “they”? And somehow, my ears glazed over the part about the two planes and the one into The Pentagon. My immediate thought was that there was some type of accident, that some pilot couldn’t see the skyscrapers ahead of him. It wasn’t until I caught a glimpse of the news that I realized exactly what had happened and who “they” were.
My mom, like the flurry of other parents in the Kempner High School lobby that day, picked me up from school. Then we stopped for ice cream. My youngest sister had turned three the day before and hadn’t had her cake and ice cream yet, so we stopped at the Kroger grocery store for half a gallon of Blue Bell vanilla. I remember that as we were in the car, there was no music on the radio. It was the first time that I’d heard news reports on every FM station, the announcers on Sunny 99.1 offering a static-tinged play-by-play of the day’s events for those who hadn’t yet caught of TV glimpse of the dramatic images. It was nice day, but while were miles away from New York City, I remember the sky was a darker shade of blue. People were moving about, driving around as if they were wading through a thick, invisible sludge of fear and tragedy. When I got home, the tragedy wasn’t as invisible anymore. I remember telling my 12-year-old sister that seeing people run through the streets of Manhattan reminded me of a scene from “Independence Day”. It couldn’t have been real, no person on earth could have ever conceived this level of devastation.
And then I watched a man jump. I watched him flail a white business shirt from one of the North Tower’s top floors as an SOS but then I realized that he may have been using it a white flag of surrender, as if he’d decided that he wasn’t going to fight anymore. That he’d decided that he wasn’t going to die in the fiery furnace that was once his office. That he’d make a parachute of the shirt he ironed that morning as he sipped the coffee his wife brewed. That’d he’d float on. That the final sign of his existence would be a part of an intermittent succession of thuds heard throughout the streets of lower Manhattan.
Edwidge Danticat wrote about seeing a woman sail downward against the backdrop of the tower she worked in. This woman had her purse with her. Maybe she hoped that she would need it on the way down. A woman always takes her purse with her right? Maybe it was the last tinge of possibility because although she jumped, she didn’t really want to die. And maybe, just maybe, she wouldn’t. Maybe today, the laws of velocity wouldn’t apply and maybe she’d land on her feet and walk home. So she grabbed her purse.
That is no way to end your life.
In watching the commemorative coverage of September 11th’s tenth anniversary, I’ve wondered about the stories of those who died that day. Those who would never fulfill their wishes of seeing their loved ones again. I’m haunted by the voicemail messages left by those who had been on a hijacked airplane, by those who had been trapped in an inferno that used to be the company conference room. Messages by those who called their wives to say, “I love you,” to tell their husbands to “Live a good life,” to tell their parents “It doesn’t look good.” I’ve wondered about those who were on the airplanes that crashed into the World Trade Center. Wondered if they could see where they were headed. I wonder what they prayed about. If they prayed at all. I wonder about the clothes they’d packed for their trip. Were they business suits? Floppy hats? I learned that one business man traveling to Los Angeles had been accompanied by his wife and young daughter who would use the trip as a vacation. I wondered about the calendars on the desks of those who worked at the Towers and in the Pentagon. What were they looking forward to? What meeting were they planning to skip? Who was on their callback list? Had they decided where they were going to have lunch that day?
I read a story about a woman who nearly got run over by Gwyneth Paltrow’s car on the street. Paltrow was driving her Mercedes when the other woman, who was jaywalking, nearly was hit by Paltrow’s car. The encounter lasted long enough for the woman to miss her train, the one that would take her to her office in the World Trade Center. She was still in the street when an airplane full of dreams, plans, and unsuspecting humanity struck the first tower. I heard about a woman who was having repairs done in her home early that morning. Because the handyman was late, she was late to work and had made it to the World Trade Center’s lobby just in time for searing smoke and flames to travel down the elevator shafts and scar her for life. For life. She lived to tell her story. For life.
I was fourteen when I learned not to grumble when I’m held up, when there’s a delay. When the waiter’s taking forever to bring the check, when I’m sitting in traffic. Sometimes I think it’s God’s way of keeping me safe or holding me until the right time for a blessing. I was fourteen when I realized that those who died that day had once been fourteen as well and likely never thought that Peter Jennings would narrate their deaths.
It’s just as unfair now as it was ten years ago, maybe a little more so. It’s unfair that those fathers who died in New York, DC, and Pennsylvania never got to meet the children that grew up to look just like them. It’s unfair that there a young woman who has to listen to her mother’s final message just so she won’t ever forget the sound of her voice. It’s also unfair that we’ve somehow been wading through the same sludge of fear and tragedy for ten years. A car can’t backfire in New York City without someone saying “Not again.” We used to be free, but we’re still afraid.
I’m weeping right now for those who didn’t see September 12, 2001. Those who never got to iron another business shirt, for those who never got another chance to grab their purses with the expectation that they’d land on their feet and come home again, only to do it the next day.
The pain is still the same, the perspective is not. The hindsight is exacerbated. It hurts more now than it did then. Ten years later, I’m a grown woman in my own queen-sized bed watching Katie Couric and Matt Lauer cover 9/11 just as it happened that day. I don’t wear overalls anymore, but it’s only now that I’m more acutely aware of the magnitude of this tragedy and how life, with all of its business shirts and vacations and airline tickets and Tuesday mornings meetings, is fleeting.
September 11th is my best friend’s birthday. Just as I did yesterday for my 13-year-old sister, I’m going to call her to say “I love you.”
It’s the least I can do.