About a month and a half before the terrible events of September 11, 2001, my mother died unexpectedly. Still consumed with grief, I was having an extremely difficult time coping with life, work, and people who didn’t understand my pain. I was certain that nobody else in the world felt the way I did.
And then the world changed.
Just like that, thousands of people joined me in grief. Suddenly, we were all comrades in shock: we were all missing someone, we were all in pain. It was overwhelming, but on some level it was also comforting.
It sounds twisted now, but seven years ago it all made sense.
At the time, I was divorced, living alone, and working as a 1st grade teacher at an elementary school in Lancaster. As I’d done on so many other mornings, I poured a cup of coffee and sat down on the couch to watch the morning’s news.
It was about 6:00 a.m. on the west coast. Half-listening, I heard Charlie Gibson talk of an airplane hitting one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York.
It took a few moments for my brain to register what had happened. “What a terrible accident,” I thought. I was under the impression that some small plane had veered horribly off course and met with a tragic end.
As I tried to process the bizarre images on TV, the unthinkable occurred: the camera panned away from the burning tower to show a large aircraft headed straight for the World Trade Center. Charlie Gibson was stunned… we were all stunned, and we watched in helpless horror as the plane continued on its course and slammed into the second tower.
Twice in one morning? This could not possibly have been an accident.
I remember holding my coffee cup as if to take a sip, but I couldn’t move. I just stared in disbelief.
Checking the time, I hazily remembered that I had to get myself together for work, a task that I dreaded each day. Today, that task seemed insurmountable.
I turned the TV on in the bedroom to try to follow the events as I went about my morning routine. When I got out of the shower, another plane was off course and apparently heading straight for the Pentagon.
What the hell was happening? Had the world gone mad while I was asleep?
The Pentagon was hit. Panic started to set in. My father took periodic business trips to the Pentagon, and I hadn’t heard from him in a while. Was it possible that he was there? No… he couldn’t be. I would have heard something. But that nagging thought remained in my head.
I continued to watch the horrific events unfold as I went through the motions of getting ready for work. A fourth plane, thought to be headed for the U.S. Capitol Building, crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. Both towers of the World Trade Center collapsed. Thousands were thought to be dead.
How did this happen? How do commercial jets get hijacked in 2001?
As I drove to work, I frantically called my father’s cell phone. Was I going to lose both of my parents within 2 months of each other? No answer. No answer at work, either. I finally called his house and reached my stepmother. No, he wasn’t on a business trip. He’d gone to work, just like any other day. His employer was sending everyone home, so he was on his way back to the house. They were all in shock.
Arriving at work, I was stunned to find everybody going about their business as usual. Didn’t they know what had happened? Didn’t they know we were under attack? Shouldn’t we send the students home to their parents?
Apparently the school’s philosophy was that unless we were directly under attack, classes would proceed as if all was right with the world.
In retrospect, it was probably for the best. Best for the students, I mean. They were allowed to be children – kept away from adult worries and fears – for one more day. The teachers smiled and pretended everything was fine. We laughed and played games, but our hearts were heavy.
The world as we knew it had changed. This was not just like any other day.
For the months that followed, I have almost no recollection of my days at work. What I do remember is coming home, turning on the TV, and feeling the strange, surreal camaraderie of a nation in mourning. Night after night, I wrapped myself in it like a warm, comfy blanket.
I was no longer grieving alone.
It wasn’t healthy; I know that now. That warm, comfy blanket was suffocating me. But grief is so hard to let go. As long as we hold on to our grief, it’s almost as if we can still hold on to our lost loved one.
Even today, watching the events of September 11th unfold once again on TV, I was transported back to 2001. The familiar pain washed over me like a tidal wave. I wanted to hold on just a little bit longer.
If only it had been just like any other day. I wonder what today would have been like.