On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was on my way to work. I dropped my daughter off at daycare before the first plane struck. I did not have the radio on in the car, so it was a day like any other as far as I was concerned…sunny and clear and perfect.
I arrived at work in downtown Toledo. Our receptionist looked pale and upset.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
The upset changed to surprise. “You haven’t heard yet? You’d better go to the Fishbowl (our glass enclosed conference room). Everyone’s in there.”
I dropped my belongings at my cubicle on my way down the hall, thoughts racing. I feared something had happened to one of my coworkers. It was a small company and we were all pretty close.
Everyone was packed into the conference room, staring at a small color television. It took a moment for my brain to process what my eyes saw. Smoke billowed from one of the towers of the World Trade Center.
Someone said a plane had struck the tower.
What a horrible accident, I thought.
Minutes later, the second plane slipped along the backdrop of blue sky, and disappeared as smoke and flames shot out the windows of the second tower.
No one breathed for a moment. No one could comprehend.
Then…reports of the Pentagon attack…and another plane hijacked. Things became clearer.
We were under attack.
In our corner of the world, sun shone between the buildings with a clear September day taking hold. A few hundred miles away, the lives of thousands had just ended. The lives of thousands more were turning inside out.
I remember Dave, one of my coworkers, was standing next to me in the hall outside the Fishbowl as we watched in disbelief as the first tower fell, followed by the second.
My first thought was, “Oh, my God – the firefighters.” When reports started coming in about the devastation, the loss of life, and the chaos on the ground, my second thought was…
“What the hell kind of a world am I raising a child in?”
My oldest daughter was four when the Towers collapsed, and Flight 93 plowed into a field, and the Pentagon was attacked. She remembers a bit about that day, and she’s learned more about in the years since. What I remember most is how she responded to the events.
I sat in the living room of our apartment, watching entirely too much CNN, waiting for someone to rationalize the events of the day away or at least convince us it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Except it WAS as bad as it looked and no one was going to be able to rationalize anything.
My daughter asked, “Mama, what happened? Why are you sad?”
I tried to think of a way to explain this that wasn’t going to frighten her too much or plant seeds of distrust.
I said, “Well…some men stole some airplanes and used them to attack other people. A lot of people died.”
“Why did they do that?”
“I’m not really sure, sweetie. Maybe they just didn’t like us because we don’t think like they do, and rather than try to understand, they decided to fight with us. You know how on the playground two kids might not like each other and they’ll start a fight? Sometimes it’s easier to fight than to listen. I’m not saying that’s right…it just is.”
She thought about this for a minute, then said, “But why can’t they just hold hands till the bad feelings go away?”
That’s what hope looks like. That’s why we raise children in this “Post 9/11 World.”
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” – Matthew 5:9
My youngest, who is eight, has been hearing “9/11…9/11…9/11” all week. She was born nearly two years after and has no understanding of the events of that day. But earlier in the week, we did watch Engineering Ground Zero on Nova, about the construction of the new skyscraper and the memorial at One World Trade Center. I thought Michael Arad’s memorial design – two deep fountains in the footprints of the fallen towers – perfectly symbolized the gallons of tears and sweat poured out in the last ten years.
“Mama, what’s nine-eleven?”
Similar to what I’d said ten years ago, I replied, “Terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York before you were born, and the buildings collapsed. Another plane hit the Pentagon in Washington, and the passengers of a fourth plane were very brave and kept the plane they were in from crashing into another building.”
I waited for the “why?” but instead she asked, “Did a lot of people die?”
Forty does sound like a lot.
“No, baby. Almost three-thousand.” My heart hurt to have to say that, to inflict that kind of information on someone so kind-hearted and young. This is the child who can go anywhere and have a friend within minutes. This is the child who will walk up to anyone walking a dog and chat them up about the dog’s name and breed. This is the child who says hello to every baby and toddler in the supermarket.
But that’s what hope looks like.
Or as President William Jefferson Clinton once said, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured with what is right with America.”
What is right are our children. But they need us to teach them to look at the world with both open hearts and open eyes. We cannot allow ourselves to forget the events of 9/11 because it is a teaching tool for resiliency, sacrifice, and the speed at which life passes. It is a teaching tool for being proactive with life and for loving our neighbor.
On 9/11/2011, it’s hard not to remember smoke and flames and debris and fear. But we can also remember support, encouragement, determination, bravery, solidarity, and the fact that we are still here. So much as changed in ten years, and not all of it for the better. It seems, at times, that we were strongest in our weakest moments.
Where will we be in 2021? What does hope look like? How do we teach our children to learn from our mistakes?