You never forget the moment you hear about a tragedy. 9/11 is as clear and sharp as cut crystal in my mind. I was in my backyard on that cloudless September day, the sky almost shockingly azure. As I pushed my two little boys on the swings beneath the canopy of still lush green leaves, my phone rang. It was my husband, Jeff, on his way to New Jersey. “Turn on the news,” he said urgently. ”You’ll never believe what happened – a plane hit the World Trade Center. I can see the smoke rising in my rearview mirror.”
“I told you it could happen!” I answered. I had had a fear of low flying planes for as long as I could remember. Planes nose diving into the ground and bursting into flames haunted my dreams – I wasn’t afraid of flying, just being on the ground when a plane plummeted to Earth. I think the seeds of my fear took root either as a baby living near Kennedy Airport or when as a child I saw a news account of a plane crashing into a bridge and decapitating a woman just driving along minding her own business. Whatever the cause of my fear, my husband’s phone call didn’t surprise me. It only seemed a matter of time before some reckless pilot smacked into a skyscraper.
What happened next shocked me though – my husband said, “Oh my God, it has to be a terrorist attack. Another plane just hit the second tower. Go turn on the news.”
I turned it on and I didn’t turn it off. Not for a while at least. I was glued to the images of devastation, to the sheer destruction. Living on Long Island, it was all too close. Jeff was stuck in New Jersey and I was alone with my babies – a newly minted three year old and a nine month old – trying to make sense of everything. My parents came over for a while to help me, but in the end I was alone with my thoughts trying to sort everything out. When I woke up the next morning it was a punch in the gut to realize that it wasn’t all some crazy nightmare – that the planes bursting into flames were, in fact, quite real this time.
I felt much the same way when I woke up this morning, when I remembered everything that happened yesterday. Boston was my adopted hometown for nine years – from the tender age of twenty-three years old until I moved back to New York when I was thirty-two and pregnant with my second child. I evolved from a kid to a grown-up with a family when I lived there. We still have tons of friends and family there and it still holds a special place in my heart. In fact, twenty years ago, on a night when Spring turned into the anticipation of Summer, I ran into my future husband on the same street where yesterday’s bombs caused such carnage – Boylston Street.
I don’t think I will forget the moment I was driving – shuttling kids here and there – and my phone rang. I pressed answer on my steering wheel and my sister’s voice came through the Bluetooth, “Did you hear the news?” I could tell it was not anything good. As soon as I heard the word, ”bomb,” my first thought, heart in my throat, was that it had gone off in Penn Station – right below my husband’s office. It took me a moment to realize that she said the Boston Marathon. And then, it took another moment for me to register that one of my closest friends was there – very likely cheering from the finish line. I knew another close friend was watching, but she was miles away at the start.
“I have to call Scott,” I said and rushed off the phone. A second later, my friend answered and assured me he was ok. Scott has been there for me, no matter what, for over a quarter of a century, for over half my life – I know I can call him when the worst possible things happen. He talked to me as I raced to be by my dying father’s side before he slipped away. He talked to me for half an hour while I wandered around the Christmas Tree Shops awaiting a phone call informing me of the results of a biopsy I had done. He also seems to have ESP and somehow knows to call me when I am having a particularly trying day – like that day at the Christmas Tree Shops or the day that I had gotten a devastating rejection from a literary agent and he called minutes after to tell me that I’m a much better writer than the author of a best seller he was reading. It was a scary few moments, worrying if he and his family were in the path of destruction.
Everyone personalizes even the most public of tragedies – everyone thinks about it in terms of how it affects them or could have affected them. It’s just human nature. Whether you’re simply thinking about how quickly you can lose someone important to you or whether you’re putting yourself in the shoes of a mom who lost a child the same age as your own child. It’s the reason that after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre we all hugged our kids a little tighter. We all made sure to say, “I love you,” before sending them off to school. It’s the reason I can’t stop thinking about eight year old Martin Richard who was killed in the blast. One moment he was cheering friends and family across the finish line, the next he was gone. I’m the mom of an eight year old boy. It is an amazing age – still sweet, but independent, often passionate about anything that catches their fancy. For my oldest it was dinosaurs – at eight years old his nickname was Mr. Paleontologist. For my middle son it was cars – he could tell you the make and model of every car, not only on the road – but, from the inception of the auto industry. And, for my youngest, now eight years old, it’s meteorology. He’s the class weatherman and he can rattle off the fourteen day forecast and what various storm patterns mean, as well as hurricane and tornado categories with ease.
So, this is what I ponder when I think about the devastation in Boston, when I think about the unimaginable becoming real, about the act of a cowardly terrorist filling a day of joy with fear and blood – I think not only about the possibility of having lost a friend, but about little Martin Richard’s interests. Was it baseball? Was it dinosaurs like my son? Was it hockey? I saw an adorable photograph of him wearing a Bruins jersey and hat. I think about his injured mother – was she conscious? Did she know what happened to her son? I know there are so many other stories to come out of this horror – stories of heroes, of human resiliency, of kindness amidst the chaos – but these are the stories that are stuck in my head – how I could have lost a friend and how a mother lost her eight year old boy. A boy who probably wrapped his arms around her in a hug goodnight less than twenty four hours before and whose arms she’ll never feel again – all because of some blackened soul intent on stealing our joyous moments and filling them with fear and pain.
But, guess what? The terrorists don’t win. Whether the terrorist is a domestic one, a lone wolf operating out of hatred for the government (making a statement on Patriots Day, on Tax Day) or a foreigner, here to bring death and bloodshed to our soil – they don’t win. They don’t win, because there are those stories of people running towards the blast, not away from it – risking their lives to help those who had fallen. There are stories of people listing a room for free for runners stuck with nowhere to go. There was one person who listed not only a space on his couch for those in need, but two Chihuahuas to cuddle with. People came together as they always will. So, I guess there is one more thing I’m thinking about today and that’s the human spirit and how incredibly resilient it is in the face of tragedy and how incredibly supportive, giving and loving our world can be, even when all the evidence points to the contrary.