Everybody remembers where they were on September 11. Even to the point that 9/11 has become an infamous phrase. Now that a little time has passed, I find myself wondering what people will think of “9/11” in a thousand years. Will the term be adopted into a slang language to mean something good or something bad? Or…as with so many other phrases that remind us of human tragedies, will it simply fade into oblivion, waiting for some writer somewhere to pick up the right book at the right moment in their life and resurrect it. Like 300? I suppose, as with everything, only time will tell. I must admit, for this I am glad we are mortal. I do not want to live to see my personal tragedies fade into triviality… or worse, just fade away entirely.
Everyone has their 9/11 horror story. How can they not? It was a hell of a horrific day. And if you want to hear stories of collapsing buildings, rubble filled streets and skies so full of dust and debris that one would think the sky itself had fallen, you wouldn’t have to look far. I’ve tried to read them, watch them, listen to them. I simply can’t. Each one brings me further from my own experience of the day and closer to the myth it will become.
That day began as days like that must. I woke early and slowly made my way through the normalities of preparing myself for the hard day ahead of me. I heard my mother preparing a breakfast I knew I would have to eat in-spite of the complete lack of hunger in my stomach. I heard the familiar sounds of biscuit making. I knew the bacon and gravy would soon follow. I admired her ability to make his favorite meal this morning. It would have been the meal that would have comforted him. Perhaps it was the making of the meal that also comforted her.
The funeral was scheduled for 10:30 a.m. He had been dead for less than 48 hours.
I passed by a mirror as I made my way towards the kitchen. I couldn’t help thinking of my teenaged years. I don’t think I owned a single item of clothing with any color to it. He always tried to get me to wear red.
I went back to my room and took a red blouse from my suitcase. He’d given it to me for my birthday. A special gift for his little girl. I thought it would be good for him to see me with a little color today. To let him know that I had worked out those color issues with his help.
When I got to the kitchen, I found my mother surrounded by dirty dishes and burned biscuits. Her eyes were distant and puffy. I asked her if she had slept. “You look beautiful today. He has always loved that color on you.” I hugged her. One of her curlers got stuck on my sweater. We had to take it out of her hair to finally get it free. She laughed when she saw this white spiked tube hanging from my left breast. “It looks like a creative pasty.”
I told her to go finish getting ready. I could take care of breakfast. She said she wasn’t hungry anyway. She just hadn’t known what else to do. She’d made him breakfast everyday for so long that not making breakfast left her too much time to think. She went upstairs and I heard the familiar noises of a mother getting ready for church. It surprised me that the noises weren’t different.
I opened a window to give the burnt smell a place to go. Then I made quick work of cleaning up the kitchen. It felt good to do something productive. When I put the last of the baking sheets away, I looked at the clock. It read 8:40. I could hear my mother walking back and forth upstairs. “Do you need help mama?” She said no.
We had plenty of time to make it to the church. We were to start receiving people at 10 and the service would begin at 10:30. The church was only 10 minutes away, just across from town hall. My father was a well loved man. We’d realized after the first night of the viewing that we were going to have to have the service itself at a bigger place.
I turned on the television with the volume muted. No need to disturb my mother. I watched a small white plane against a beautiful blue sky fly directly into a building. The smoke that trailed from the building billowed. I remember thinking I hadn’t seen this movie. I wondered what it was.
My mother came down the stairs. I looked at the clock again. 9:11. One of those details you only remember because it’s weird. She told me she couldn’t find a pair of black stockings without a hole. She wanted to know if I had an extra pair. I told her no, but that we had plenty of time to stop and get a pair.
She asked if I could go and bring back a pair. She didn’t want to leave the house without hose. I took her keys. “I’ll be back in 10 minutes.”
When I got back to the house I found my mother sitting in front of the TV, her face blank. It was the same expression I’d seen on her face the day the space shuttle had blown up, killing those astronauts and that teacher. I remember trying to look past the grief of a daughter to understand that of a wife. “It was a ghost town at the store. I guess there are some blessings in life.”
She looked up at me. “How can this be happening?” I didn’t know what to say. How do you comfort a woman who will never hold her lover again?. She turned back to the TV. The anchorman’s voice finally made its way through my thoughts. I looked to the TV as well. I slowly sat down beside my mother and placed my hand on her knee.
We watched the image together. It seems the movie I’d not recognized earlier was not a movie at all. It was that moment that we all remember. That moment that changed the mentality of a free country. That moment that opened the pandora’s box of fear that led to so many paranoid choices. That moment that defined September 11th for the world.
Grief fell on top of grief. We sat and watched as the images repeated over and over, mesmerized. Unable to process what was happening.
We both jumped when the phone rang. I stood and walked to the other room to answer the phone. My heart raced as I went through the list of people coming from out of town for the funeral. I couldn’t remember if anyone would have been in the air that morning. I fought back the panic. The nearest airport was 100 miles away. Anyone coming to the service would have to have arrived the night before. That made sense… didn’t it?
I picked up the phone. It was the pastor calling to tell us not to come to the church. It seems that someone had abandoned a U-haul in front of town hall. They had shut down the entire downtown area. I asked, “What about my father?” before I could think. In retrospect it was a silly thing to be worried about. What more harm could have come to him. The pastor reminded me that my father was to arrive at 10. He wasn’t there yet.
“What is it?” The panic was undeniable in my mother’s voice. I regained my senses. “It’s OK mama. I’ll explain in a minute.” I returned to the phone
The pastor explained that there was nothing that could be done right now. We would have to reschedule the services for a later time. We would talk later in the day after everything was sorted out. He expressed his intense sympathy for my mother and I. He wanted to know if it would be OK to pay us a visit. I told him I thought it would be better if I could spend the time alone with my mother. He seemed to understand, though the disappointment in his voice was powerful.
I returned to the room with my mother. All the color was gone from her face. “What is it? Have they attacked here too? I didn’t feel a blast.”
I explained to her that the funeral was to be postponed and why. We looked at each other for a moment, unsure of what to do. Nothing made sense. If my father had been present, he would have told us what to do. “You’re right.” My mother seemed to know what I was thinking. “Life will never be the same again.”
We fell into each other’s arms and cried. The news reports softly repeated the few details they knew over and over in the background. The news anchor’s voice betrayed his emotion.
We cried together until there was nothing left inside. I picked up the remote and turned the TV off. It was too much. I looked at the clock. 12:15. I remember thinking my father should have been in the ground. I tried not to think of him in the freezer. I’d seen too many crime scene shows. I hoped the image wasn’t real.
The phone rang again. It was the pastor. They’d found the information on the U-haul. It seems it was just a kid who’d taken it out for a ride. It didn’t seem to be related to New York, but to be safe, downtown would be blocked off for the rest of the day. He wanted to meet with us the following day to decide the details again. He expressed again how sorry he was.
We buried my father the next day. Just my mother, myself and a few close friends. We had the service without a body the 28. The pastor seemed to think it would be good for us to feel the love that surrounded my father in his life. People had needed time to comfort their own families. I think the turnout was bigger than it might have been in different circumstances. I think the experience was good for my mother.