:::Each year, I post our experiences from September 11. This is the day, as I remember it, seventeen years ago today. Please come back tomorrow as we think through practical ways we can support our children during difficult times.:::
Noah was four. Benjamin was almost three. I had MOMs Group that morning and was trying desperately to get ready for the opening meeting of our season. The boys were watching Blue’s Clues and I was trying to run a brush through my tangled tresses while answering the phone that rang with requests from freshman college students for keys and ideas and notes about classes. We were living at Trinity Christian College then, our family of four, as residence directors of South Hall.
I was later than I should have been and needed to get to church. I almost didn’t answer the phone but thinking better of ignoring a call, I grabbed it and ran to the back to find shoes for my day. It was Mark.
“Is the TV on?” he asked.
“The boys are watching Blue’s Clues…”
He said, “Nadia, we have been attacked. You have to turn on the news. Something bad is happening.”
I don’t remember hanging up but I remember changing the channel and looking at my boys… those little blond heads… those bright, wide eyes. I saw it then. So did they. The look on Diane Sawyer’s face. The tone of Peter Jennings voice. The buildings. The airplanes. We stood still, the three of us and I suddenly thought that I needed to protect my boys.
I took them by the hands and led them to their toys. I turned off the sound on the TV and read through the captions instead. I tried to process it all, tried to think, tried to figure out what you do when this happens. I had no idea.
Working on a college campus is a complicated thing. I had a responsibility that morning to my babies playing with blocks in our apartment, and to the 250 freshmen students who lived in my building. South Hall, at that time, did not have cable or satellite TV and the students were in class. Somehow they would have to be told what had happened to their country. Without knowing exactly what to say, I typed a sign that we would hang in the building to help them to know that something had changed… that something had happened… that what we thought we were, where we thought we lived, how safe we felt, had all become something incredibly different. I did not save that document on my computer. I wish I would have. I know that I typed something about a terrorist attack in New York. I know that I tried to be calm and clear and follow Peter Jennings lead of giving only the information we actually knew. It suddenly felt like we knew nothing at all.
After posting the signs on every door in South Hall, I left quickly for church and the MOMs Group I helped to run. It was our opening morning. The boys were uncharacteristically quiet on the drive and I put the radio on, switching the speakers to play only in the front of our truck. As I drove, a building fell in New York City. A building I had been in, stood on. Gone. On the radio, they announced that several other airplanes were still “missing” and that they had no idea what to expect. I called Mark from the truck. He worked downtown Chicago in a building that is part of our skyline.
“Come home.” I said.
He told me that he was not sure he would be allowed to leave and I pleaded with him explaining that he really might not be safe. He talked about job security. He could not see the TV. He had NO idea what it looked like. The video, which I could see, was very motivating. (In 2001, we did not have access to online videos and news reports. His flip phone provided no internet access. Mark sat in his office, listening to a radio station report about what little they knew.)
“If they fire you for leaving on a day like today, so be it. COME HOME.”
He agreed and made plans to leave the city.
By the time I got to MOMs Group, the second building had fallen. Into church came moms, at least three with multiples, juggling their children and questioning the day. We had quads, triplets and twins in the nursery, tired mommas drinking coffee and a ministry to run.
I went into auto-pilot. Two and a half hours of auto-pilot. Welcome. Pray. Wonder. Chat. Wonder. Worry. Chat. Pray.
My cell phone rang as the moms were leaving. Mark was out of the city. We live 30 minutes from downtown and the commute had taken him nearly three hours. By the time he had gotten to the train to come home there were thousands of people downtown, crammed into underground train stations, fleeing Chicago in hopes of getting safely home to their families. He said it was scary seeing so many people in one place… knowing we could be attacked and thinking how they sat, waiting for trains, like sitting ducks.
We met at a restaurant and I don’t know if I have ever been so happy to see him. Our city was never hit… but thinking that it might be was overwhelming to me. I could not begin to imagine the loss and heartbreak New York was experiencing… they were people just like me… but I had my husband home. I had him in front of me having a burger and thinking through this experience in discussion and exchanged glances and deep silences filled with words we would never be able to say.
By the time I got back to campus, the students were absorbing the news and they were overflowing with questions and worries and feelings none of us knew how to process. The other residence directors and I met together quickly while Mark kept the boys away from any media sources. We had to do something but what do you do? No RD training that we had ever gotten had prepared us for helping the students to understand a terrorist attack on our country. We thought through the possible needs and planned to offer a live feed of the president’s address that evening available in the college chapel. We called therapists, pastors and history professors to be on hand that night to meet the students where they were. These professionals would lead discussions with our students after the address, processing as the students needed.
That evening after the president spoke, we let the students ask questions and I remember trying to answer them… knowing almost nothing myself. Everything about that day was outside my comfort zone. After the gathering, Mark and I sat in our South Hall apartment while students met with someone who could help them more than we could. Some were in prayer groups. Some were with therapists. Some were with pastors. Some were pondering the historical pieces with professors who could shed light on what this all might mean. I sat stunned in my apartment. Then, there was a student at the door… she was weeping. I invited her to come in.
I knew this young woman well and loved her positive outlook and example to students. It was so early in the year that there were more students we DID NOT know than those we did. But this one, I knew. She rushed into my apartment and sat on the couch. She cried and Mark and I waited for feelings to flow to thoughts to flow to words. I cried too.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me… ” she began, “but I just keep thinking about how sad I am for THEM… for the terrorists who were SO LOST that they would participate in such total evil.”
Tears again. Hers and mine.
We talked for a while about how she felt bad about feeling bad for them… about how her friends did not understand… about how there is no way to know how we will feel about something like this because we never saw it coming and have no way yet to process it at all.
We cried and prayed and then, with fewer tears, she left the calm of our apartment for the chaos of the residence hall. Mark and I talked about how hard it was for them… for the students who had just graduated from high school, just left for college, just been handed their world, only to find it laying in pieces at their flip-flopped feet.
Over time, the words ran out. The campus quieted. Around midnight, we closed our apartment door. And that was it… the end of the day.
For weeks after that day, I begged Mark to stay home again. I did not know how I would ever trust him to be safe in the city. If they got New York, they could get Chicago, too. For months I could not go to the city I love so well…. and when I did, I got teary just thinking about the what ifs…
Most people have memories of that time in their lives. We have something more concrete. Because Mark shot video of all campus happenings throughout each school year, we have video taken on campus on September 10. That night we ran a program for roommates to get to know on another better. “Something to Chew On” was a laugh-out-loud list of questions intended to spark conversation between women who were just getting to know each other as friends. The students came in pajamas and giggled like school girls and ate cookies with hot chocolate just 12 hours before the whole world changed. It is strange to watch it now… knowing what the morning would bring, knowing what would follow on Mark’s videotape next. A presidential address. Prayer groups. Professors discussing. Students embracing. September 11, 2001 in the lower right corner of the shot.
It has been seventeen years. My boys, now 21 and almost 20 remember that morning. They called it “the day the airplanes knocked over the buildings” for years, though they obviously understand it better now. Our lives are different than they were then and I cannot claim they are not. For months following September 11 people said that if we changed anything about our day-to-day lives, the terrorists won. Such a strange request… to NOT change after having been through such a significant experience. I am changed. Maybe this is their victory but maybe, just maybe, it is mine.
Since September 11:
-I never take my skyline for granted. I love my city deeper and better than ever before and pray for those who lost loved ones in New York every time I drive into Chicago. I am raising my kids to know that we are exceedingly blessed to live where we live and love the city we call home.
-I value my family in a way I never knew to value them before. Finding out that the world can change first thing in the morning on a clear September day gave me a perspective that makes me hug them tighter and hold them longer than I might have otherwise.
-I understand bravery and sacrifice in a way that I never did before. How does a firefighter rush into a building that will surely fall? How do you help when you know it may cost you everything? Sacrifice no longer means writing a check to help feed the hungry. It means giving it all. Offering it all. And I still stand AMAZED at those who did just that on the morning of 9/11.
-I know now that I cannot shelter my kids in the way I may have thought necessary before. Instead, I have to teach them… to see, to think, to feel, to learn and to build bridges… and yes, to be careful. Sheltering is nice but preparing is essential. I am careful in how this happens but I am also careful to be sure that it does.
Since September 11, truth be told, I am sometimes fearful, sometimes worried, sometimes unsure about what is happening in this world. But, hope is built as I see life go forward, as I watch my children grow up, as I enjoy a clear day in Chicago. We, as a country, were not destroyed. We did not become something dark and sad and broken. We, as a country, as a family, moved on to what was new for us. A new way to live and to love and to trust and to grow. There is hope in that. Can you see it, too?
Seventeen years have gone by. It is hard to believe. The names are being read. We all promise to remember and in doing so, honor the lives of those who were lost on that dark day. And as I sit here now, the faces of so many beloved students flash through my mind… those who walked with us as we found a path we never knew we would need… All of us, the students, MOMs Group, my two blond babies now grown taller, we all are connected in a way that is deeper and more profound than we otherwise would have been. I am grateful for that because, in my confusion and sadness and loss and anger, I did not walk alone. We did not walk alone. God granted us community. He spoke to us in human voices. He reached out through hands that were cloaked in flesh and blood. Through friends and family and acquaintances and community, God granted comfort to us in our grief. No, we were not then and are not now alone.
On that terrible day, we learned all this. Through that painful experience, we found connection. Experiencing September 11 side-by-side brought this country together in a way that was brand new to me.
I am not unchanged. And I choose to remember today.