On September 11, 2001, my family consisted of Jason, me, and 10.5-month Morrigan. This photo of us was taken in September that year, though I couldn’t tell you if it was before or after the 9/11 attacks. At that time, Jason and I were struggling with extreme financial hardship after seven months living in Madison, WI, and we’d briefly moved in with his parents in southwestern WI near the end of August. Morrigan was just starting to take his first steps. Jason was looking for a new job. I wasn’t yet pregnant with Ambrose.
Jason’s father was a PA, and at the time, worked one overnight per week in the ER. Normally, he got home pretty early on his overnight shifts, and we would be quiet in the morning to make sure he could sleep. On this particular morning, he didn’t return home like normal, and we were all worried because Jason’s mom couldn’t get a hold of him. Eventually, he called the house. It turned out that in an entirely unrelated turn of events, there had been some kind of incident (maybe a multi-car pileup, or something? I don’t remember) near the end of his shift and so he’d been busy with patients past his normal hours. When he called, though, he told us to turn on the TV. Jason’s mom relayed this info, and I asked what channel. His response? “It doesn’t matter.”
By the time we turned on the TV and got the news, the second plane had already hit. I remember dropping to the floor. It wasn’t just the horror of what was happening. My sister lived in NYC at the time. I had no idea how close she lived to the attack, or if she was okay. Phone lines were down, of course. In 2001, cell phones were around but not as common, and most of those communication lines were scrambled, too. A lot of phone tag started happening back and forth to various family members, all of us trying to get ahold of Becky. I think it was my dad who finally got through to her, but there was so much confusion and my brain recorded all of this in a weird kind of slow-motion free-fall, so certain details get hazy.
Others remained fixed. We watched when the buildings collapsed. We watched people jumping from windows. We watched as smoke engulfed cameras. And we were so far removed from the situation, nothing compared to those who witnessed it first hand, with every sense alert, the smells and sounds and feel of the air.
My sister watched the second plane hit in real time. It turned out that she had been at her ballet studio only half a mile from the towers. When the first plane hit, they thought it was an accident. There weren’t smart phones or ready access to the internet everywhere in 2001. As she and fellow dancers stood at the windows of their studio discussing the horror, they saw the second plane hit. At that point, their instructors chivvied them into the basement to shelter in place. Some time later, they sent all the dancers away and told them to head away from the buildings. I’m honestly not sure how Becky got home, if she lived in walking distance or if she had to find some other way in a city that had shut down. Eventually, she got a signal on her cell phone and called to let us know she was okay. She told me once, a long time later, that her boyfriend had come to visit her the previous week, and they’d gone up in one of the towers together. That’s how close to possibility she got.
I also remember the way things turned. How at first, everyone tried to unite and rally together, and how that unification turned its head toward Muslims, because all that fear and horror needed an outlet of anger and hate. I watched Muslim friends being turned on. My father-in-law, who is white but had jet black hair, was stopped multiple time and asked if he was “one of them Arabs.” Hate crimes escalated, and we saw a rise in violent speech, and what became “acceptable” to say. There was all this sentiment about how these colors won’t run, how America will come out of this better and stronger, but in the end, this horrific event caused a cataclysmic change in our culture. We continue to get more divided than ever, and our country continues to collapse. It’s not what they planned when they hit those towers, but in a way, they did what they intended to do: they weakened us, they made fissures, they planted seeds that continue to break us.
It’s a monstrous set of memories.