September 11, 2003
On September 11, 2001, I met a friend for breakfast. I suppose in retrospect that we might have been nearing the end-stages of friendship; our children are the same ages and were good friends in school, we had known each other since shortly after I moved back to the area from Chicago when a mutual acquaintance invited me to join their baby group and the first time I went was at this woman's house. She and I had a lot in common on the surface -- kids, Judaism, relatively similar liberal values -- but we never got to the really deep level of friendship, the secret-sharing level, despite knowing each other for several years and going through several child-related crises together. Now our children are in different schools and we rarely see one another.
Yet when I am 80, I am still going to remember her, and the breakfast we had that morning. We had both heard on the drive over that a plane had hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center; no one was certain yet whether it was pilot error or a deliberate act, but we both had our cell phones and assumed that someone would call us if a major crisis was unfolding. We thought at least that someone would come out of the kitchen to tell people what was going on if it was huge. Ironically, our first topic of discussion was the commuting job her husband had lost just a month earlier...working in the World Trade Center. He was very sorry to have been laid off, and his last week there, they had taken the kids to the rooftop restaurant and the observation windows.
Our next topic of discussion was Israel. And we argued. Really argued, she very cynically, me very insistently that pessimism like hers, a belief that the Palestinians as a whole wanted all the Jews dead, was a recipe for further terror and a guarantee that there would in fact always be bloodshed in the region. She got very annoyed and said I was yelling at her, which surprised me because she kept interrupting me every time I opened my mouth, saying "I lived there, I know this..." It didn't seem like a very fair argument. In retrospect I wonder whether we both had a feeling that what was going on outside the quiet restaurant was utter chaos. But our phones did not ring, and the conversation moved on to kids and schools, ending up an hour later with talking about which relatives we wanted to raise our children if anything happened to us and our husbands. It was, in the end, I thought, a really nice breakfast...I thought we had sort of made communication breakthroughts.
Then I got to my car, and turned the radio on, and the first thing I heard was, "...once again, all Montgomery County schools have closed for the day. Please pick your children up immediately."
It took me four tries to get my husband on the phone; as it turned out, he and my mother had both been trying to call me all morning but the cellular network was highly erratic. He said, "Didn't you hear? They hit the Pentagon." I went tearing out of the parking lot, dialing my mother's number on the way; she had already picked my children up from school and had them at her house. When I got there, they were all sitting in front of the TV -- my five-year-old, my eight-year-old, and my parents -- watching the towers fall, over and over. I never had a choice about how much to say to my kids. They'd witnessed the whole thing. I tried frantically to call my college roommate, who worked three blocks from the WTC, and my best friend from college, who had at one point worked IN the WTC though her office had moved, but couldn't get through. Nor could any of us get through to my sister and her husband who worked in Manhattan.
My husband, who had had a bomb scare in his building the week before totally unrelated to anything, was sent home from work and joined us. My in-laws were that very day having a moving sale in Hartford; we got them on the phone, found out they were fine though everyone was watching their television instead of buying furniture. Ultimately it took me two days to get ahold of my friends in New York; my college roommate walked home over the Brooklyn Bridge with her S.O., having been dismissed from her building after watching the first tower fall and feeling the earthquake that smashed objects all over her office, and my good friend had been on the subway headed toward the WTC when everyone was told to get out several stations before and walked up to feel the earth move.
I only knew two people personally who died in the WTC and had not seen either in years. My sister's husband lost his best friend and dozens of people he had worked with; my neighbor who worked for the government knew several people who died in the Pentagon, and had lost his parents a year earlier in an airline hijacking, so obviously I knew people who suffered much greater losses. Had I driven to work in Manassas that day it might have taken me six hours to get home, but even that would have been a minor inconvenience. The electronic signs on the highways all said, "AVOID DC." It felt like the prelude to the end of the world.
But back to my friend. We ran into each other many times since that morning at synagogue and shopping and various other places, and said "Oh, we have to get together," yet we have socialized only once since then and she invited another friend along. I'm not sure whether it's superstition, or not wanting to revisit all the feelings of that day, or just the fact that we'd been drifting beforehand, but we have never even tried to recapture our friendship. It's my biggest personal casualty of 9/11. And yet obviously we are never going to forget one another. For the rest of our lives, every September 11th and every time we remember that morning, we are going to think of each other. It's a very strange sort of bond to have.
My older son could read the newspaper and we routinely forgot to take it off the kitchen table in the morning, so he quickly got a very sophisticated understanding of what had happened and what was being done about it. (I remember distinctly when the Vietnam War ended, being shocked to discover that there had been a war -- something no one in my young life had bothered to explain to me, and I thought wars were things of the past.) My younger son's kindergarten teacher called a little later in the year to tell me that he had said a neat thing in class. They had been talking about diversity and how all people are the same no matter what they look like, and she had brought in a white egg and a brown egg to demonstrate the point that no matter what color skin you have, you're the same on the inside. My five-year-old said, "Not Osama Bin Laden. He has no heart." This was something he had apparently worked out on his own, because it's certainly not something I ever said in front of him.
Hell of a lesson for a kindergartener to understand. We're trying to figure out how to explain the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to them now, because what they're learning in Hebrew school is uncomfortably close to what I was told in Hebrew school, which was that the Israeli government is a perfect democracy and all the Arabs want to get rid of all the Jews. (It would be easier if there were not so many days when it seems like the latter might be true.) We are vocally anti-Bush administration in this household and my older son apparently made a snide comment about the big picture of Bush in his public school classroom; I suppose I should be encouraging respect for the office of the presidency, but I was rather more pleased to inform him that it's his First Amendment right to do so. I began to understand politics during Watergate so it's not as if I grew up innocent in that arena.
I'm rambling, putting off phone calls to people I know are having hard days today, trying to figure out what blend of Always Remember and But Here We Are to use. I understand the contempt for the media rehashing, complete with barely-veiled agendas attached, but at the same time I don't see how the media could ignore this anniversary -- it's only two damn years. I think I will not watch the ceremony from Ground Zero, but neither will I watch whatever standard junk is on the tube tonight. I wish there was a candlelighting service someplace nearby.