It starts out just like any other day.
An early alarm clock jolts us awake. My husband disappears, leaving a cold bed behind for a warm shower. He’s dressed and long gone before the kids start to stir. I can’t remember if I said goodbye. I think I probably just rolled over and went back to sleep before the front door even closed.
Soon enough, it’s my turn to leave the colder bed. My reward is a hot steaming shower. Then I nudge the kids awake and before you know it — we’re already late.
Someone whines, while the television yells its obscenities in the background, Breakfast is served, and lunches are prepared. Hair is combed, while an all-out search is started for a pair of matching SHOES! Finally, jackets are on, and the TV is turned off. I take one last look in the mirror before we pour out the front door.
“Get in the car. Get in the car. Get in the car!” I hear myself screaming. There is always a debate or delaying tactic, something to put mom in a bad mood. At long last, I get both wiggling worms belted (bolted?) into their car seats. The first stop is Olivia’s school.
Suddenly, I’m all mush. “I’ll miss you,” I tell my baby girl.
We cling tightly for a second more. I’m still getting used to Olivia being away at full-day Kindergarten. It is only a slight separation, but it sometimes feels like an amputation.
Our second stop is Jared’s preschool. And there is another mushy goodbye. He’s adjusting well to school, better than I am. He’ll only be gone for a mere three hours, but I feel a sudden emptiness as I take one last look before leaving him behind.
As soon as I step outside into the sun, I feel lighter, freer. I practically skip to the car. Is the sky really that blue?
This is just another day, except it’s different for me. It’s only the second week of school, which means that for me, it’s like the third time in five years (or what seems like an eternity), both of my children are in school, under the care and supervision of somebody else.
And I am completely free!
Well, I’m free for the next three hours. And boy do I have huge unencumbered plans. I’m off to the mall (alone!). Olivia turns five tomorrow and I want to pick up some last-minute surprise gifts. I’m looking forward to some leisurely shopping, tired of my usual mommy speed-shopping.
But first, without the kids in the car, I can be a big person again. I can turn on the radio and listen to Howard Stern, a guilty pleasure from my younger, childless days. I’m tired of PG and am ready for rude.
I’m in for a rude awakening.
“There is a fire in the Twin Towers,” somebody says on the radio.
They think some kind of small plane hit the roof. Howard makes the usual off-color jokes about the incident. But a moment later, as Howard’s team watches a news report of the fire, they see what appears to be a second plane hitting the Towers.
Somebody says, “What the hell was that?” I change the station, thinking that this must be some sort of twisted joke.
But it isn’t a joke. All of the other radio stations are talking about the fire at the Twin Towers. I don’t know why, but I immediately pick up my cell phone and call my husband (even though I usually don’t believe in talking on cell phones and driving at the same time). I’m not really worried, not yet. My husband works in midtown, far from Wall Street. I’m not certain how this affects him.
And frustratingly enough, I can’t reach him, all the lines are busy. I figure that everyone else must be like me, just checking in to make sure everything is all right.
I have no idea, at the time, that some people are placing their final calls.
At long last, I get my husband’s voicemail. “It’s me,” I say. “What’s going on in that crazy city? I heard there was a fire or something. Anyway, I’m on my way to the mall, so call me on my cell.”
Minutes later, my phone rings, and I hear my husband’s familiar voice. Of course, he’s fine, far and safe from the fire raging downtown. He actually just got out of his morning meetings and he knows very little about what’s going on. We laugh and try to make light of the situation.
Still, I urge him to come home early. “You know how insane things get in that city when something like this happens,” I say.
My gut reaction, after hanging up the phone, is to turn around and go home to sit by the TV. Yet, I prod myself on to the mall. “Keep busy,” I think to myself, “And don’t blow this out of proportion just because you are anxious about leaving the kids.” Mike is fine. Olivia is fine. Jared is fine.
Everything is fine, on this sunny September morning.
Once I arrive at the mall, it becomes increasingly obvious that things are not fine. I’m trying to relax, browsing in Barnes & Noble, but cellphones are literally ringing in my ears. There are whispers and gasps. Workers are pacing and radios are on.
Stay focused, I remind myself as if I am on a secret shopping mission. How can a fire in NYC possibly concern me?”
“A plane just crashed into the Pentagon,” someone announces loudly for all to hear.
My stomach tightens and my stride quickens.
Suddenly, I know — it’s time to go home.
I jump back into the car and turn back to the radio for answers. I hear that another plane, a fourth plane, has crashed somewhere in rural Pennsylvania.
Now, my heart is beating fast. How can this be happening? How can this be a coincidence?
“A total of eight planes have been hijacked,” one radio personality says. Only four have been accounted for. Where are the other four headed?
“We’re under attack,” another radio guy says.
“We’re at war.”
I want to scream. We cannot be at war, not when my babies seem a million miles away from me. Not on such a typical day. Not without any kind of warning.
I feel trapped in my car; trapped by the radio that is blurting out horrid tales. It is confirmed that the Pentagon is on fire. It is confirmed that four airplanes have crashed. It is believed that New York City is under lockdown. Nobody gets in or out.
What do they mean nobody gets out?
What about my husband?
Why is it taking me so fucking long to get home?
I’m sweating, and cursing, and praying as I drive straight to Jared’s school to retrieve (save?) him. I don’t bother calling ahead, I’m not asking permission to take my son home.
We’re at war, and I dare anyone to stop me.
I’m not alone. Other parents are flocking to the school to find their children. I see the terror in their eyes. Some of the teachers are crying as they desperately try to locate parents to come get their babies. The school is closing and sending everyone home.
Jared is delighted to see me, unaware that I am quivering inside. One safe. Now it’s time to rescue Olivia.
At Olivia’s school, there is much the same scene. Anxious parents are already arriving to get their kids. We look at each other silently, without the courage to speak.
We all know so many people who work in New York City. And we don’t know what to tell our children — about their fathers, about their mothers, about the people who are trapped inside a city under siege — about people who went to work this morning and somehow found themselves in the middle of a warzone.
“Why am I going home early?” my inquisitive daughter wants to know.
She can tell something is going on. Other kids, but not all of them, have also gone home. I want to tell her the truth, but I don’t want to scare her, and so I say, “There is a big fire in New York City, so Daddy is coming home early. But don’t worry it’s nowhere near Daddy’s office, actually, it’s in the Twin Towers.”
Olivia understands. She knows the Twin Towers. We visited the city in August and stopped by her dad’s office. Then we all went to the top of the Empire State Building and took touristy photos and bought overpriced trinkets. Olivia bought a snowglobe with the famous NYC landmarks. Inside there were the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, and the Twin Towers.
As soon as we get home I turn on the TV, just in time to see the second tower collapsing.
I had no idea this would happen.
I had no idea Olivia would see it.
I had just wanted to see for myself what was going on.
The phone rings and I race to it hoping to hear my husband’s voice. It is my brother from California. He is the first of many calling, trying to make sense of it all.
Olivia comes downstairs while I am on the phone. She is wailing inconsolably, “Why did they burn down the Twin Towers?”
She cradles her precious snowglobe in her hands and continues to cry.
Then my cellphone rings. It’s my husband, and he is still safe. He tells me that he is coming home, but he doesn’t know how since the trains and tunnels are closed. A lot of people are walking out of the city. Rumors have it that the ferries are still running. He’s leaving the office, but since he doesn’t have a cellphone, I won’t have any way of contacting him.
The phone calls continue, while Olivia, and now Jared cries as well. He seems scared, although he doesn’t know what is going on. I need to comfort them.
I turn off the TV, light some incense, and breathe deeply. I put on soothing music.
“Let’s make your cupcakes!” I say to Olivia. “Do you want to help me make cupcakes so you can bring them to your school tomorrow?”
It’s too much to think about. My husband is still trapped in New York. How do I hide this from my kids?
How do I hide my fear?
How do I pretend that this is a day like any other?
It’s not even noon, on this Tuesday afternoon, and yet I feel as if I have just lived through three full days of terror.
I take a moment to ponder it all. I wonder how many people were killed today. I wonder about the kind of psychopath responsible for this madness. I wonder why I didn’t get up this morning with my husband and kiss him goodbye instead of stealing a couple more minutes of sleep.
Mike calls again. There is a six-hour wait for the ferries, so he will not be making his escape by water. A friend has offered a place to sleep in the city. But I want him to come home. I want my family around me. Mike says he’ll try the trains again. And just like that, we lose contact again.
I decide to take the kids for a ride. We need to get out of the house, away from the TV, and away from the ringing phone. I am drawn to the bay, where I park the car and am able to see the billowing clouds of smoke from the site of the Twin Towers.
It all seems too close to home.
And yet, my husband seems thousands of miles away.
It doesn’t feel real, and yet the smoke tells me otherwise.
I can see for myself that the Twin Towers are gone. Those towering iconic structures which can be seen so clearly here in New Jersey on a day like today — are no more.
They have been reduced to rubble, ashes, bones, and debris.
I say a silent prayer, get back in my car and drive until the kids fall asleep.
Then I go home to wait.
The cupcakes are done. The phone calls are returned. And then my husband miraculously walks through the front door. He is shaken, but unscathed. And he luckily made it to the train station just as the trains began running again. He is lucky to be home so soon. We are lucky.
Before the day is over, it will all start to sink in.
We know that there are many fathers not coming home tonight.
There are thousands of missing women, men, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, parents.
By the end of one ordinary day, so many ordinary people will be transformed into heroes.
So many heroes will perish.
So many Americans will come face to face with war.
And we will learn some harsh lessons: Our country is not impenetrable. This is what it feels like to be assaulted on your homefront. This is what it feels like to live in fear. This is what it feels like to be despised.
We also discover how lucky we have been.
We have taken our freedom for granted. Yet now we find that we are willing to fight. We are a strong and proud nation, and we rally behind our leaders. We realize how truly amazing this country is, and how resilient and caring Americans can be.
We learn that even while under attack, we can reach out to each other and offer some hope.
We discover what it means to be alive, and free — on a day that has been unlike any other day we have ever known.