I have been a part of more tragedies than I care to count—some small, some large—and the days on which they occurred all started out the same way: normal and somewhat benign.
Eighteen years ago, I went to the dentist to get x-rays, a couple of fillings, and my teeth cleaned. I hate all dentists and they don’t like me. They hurt. I scream. They tell me to open wide and not act like such a baby, and I frantically look for a sharp dental instrument to stab them in the face. Which is why I always go to the dentist the first thing in the morning. I try to make the visit as routine as possible in an effort to experience the situation as less of a personal tragedy and more of an ordinary event.
Ordinary may have birthed the sunrise of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, but a tragedy would eclipse it almost immediately. By the time the dentist took x-rays and cleaned my teeth, the radio in the office, which usually played Smooth Jazz, would interrupt its programming to let us know that an airplane had hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center killing all 92 people on board and countless others in the building. The North Tower would stand another 102 minutes and then collapse in on itself killing scores of other precious souls. At first, we all thought it was an accident. No one in the dentist office could fathom that a national tragedy was unfolding on an ordinary day of fillings and teeth cleanings.
I left the dentist office and arrived home in time enough to turn on CNN and see the second plane (United Flight #175) crash into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Within another thirty minutes American Airlines Flight #77 would crash into the western facade of the Pentagon in the region where I lived and in the city where my husband worked.
On ordinary days, landlines and cell phones usually work just fine. But not on September 11, 2001 when you live near Washington, DC—neither cell nor landlines worked. I don’t know if they were purposely jammed by the Feds (by that time, we all suspected these were terrorist attacks) or if the circuits were simply overloaded as loved ones tried to find each other. I couldn’t locate my husband who worked in the city, and I could only locate one of my children. By the time the hijackers purposely crashed United Flight #93 into a field in Stoneycreek Township near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, nobody I knew would ever think of September 11th as just an ordinary day. I, along with the rest of the world, would later learn of the heroic men who tried to take out the terrorists on Flight 93 right before Vice President Dick Cheney planned to order our Air Force to shoot down the civilian plane since it was estimated that the plane was headed toward the White House or the Capital building. Four coordinated terrorist attacks carried out by al-Qaeda would kill more than 3,000 people, injure over 6,000 and additionally cause cancer and respiratory diseases to the survivors and first responders for years to come.
I would finally find my husband, locate my kids, and help executives and co-workers in my company return to their families from various far-flung places in the country via coveted rental cars charging premium prices as people drove nonstop to get home just to hug their loved ones. When the phones finally worked, I called everyone I knew in DC and in NYC to see if they knew of anyone who had perished on that horrendous day. One of my children would carry the shared grief of a child in her class whose father was killed in the Pentagon. Years later a mother I met would tearfully express the heavy relief of finally locating two of her grown daughters who worked in the Towers and commuted together. They were late to work that infamous day because the “ordinary” had happened: one of the sisters was late which delayed their arrival to their jobs. They never entered the Towers, and a mother was spared an unimaginable loss.
But so many things are starting to fade—especially in the age of Donald Trump and the hatred and chaos he has stirred up. One of the things I remember most after 9/11 happened is how one couldn’t find a United States flag to purchase—especially in NYC. As soon as any store got a shipment of flags, they would be gobbled up by Americans who wanted to feel connected to each other under a common umbrella of unity—the American flag. We had suffered a horrendous national tragedy, and we all began to sing a national anthem of loss, unity, courage, and brotherly love.
The leaders of New York City begged Americans to visit its post 9/11 ghost-town of a city to prove to the terrorists that they had not broken NYC. We were encouraged to come back to Broadway and fill the vacant playhouses, eat in their restaurants, and pay our respect at Ground Zero.
And that is what my husband and I did. I didn’t have the courage to visit Ground Zero—not just yet, but I did take in a couple of Broadway shows, stayed in a fancy hotel in Manhattan, went shopping, and ate in several restaurants. To a person, NYC had dropped its hard facade and everyone greeted us with exuberant hugs and thankful handshakes for coming back to the city they loved—everyone from bellboys to waiters to actors to cab drivers. (I lived in NYC thirty years before 9/11, and I don’t think one person ever spoke to me unsolicited during the entire year I resided there, and I certainly never got any hugs.) But during that time period in NYC after 9/11, every man, woman, and child seemed to count each other as kin because the blood of thousands of lost lives formed the tune of a shared mourning. In fact, I’ll never forget walking back to our hotel in my bare feet from a Broadway show because my new shoes were killing me, and a stretch limo driver pulled over to the curb and asked if he could take us to where we needed to go—for free!
However, it’s been 18 years now, and I’ve lost that tangible brotherly love feeling that I had post 9/11.
Recently, when I first noticed that the song of unity learned from 9/11 was beginning to fade from my soul, I went back to NYC to visit—this time to pay my respects at Ground Zero. (No one hugged me this time, no free limo rides, and New York City had returned to its dismissive, pushy, irascible self as was expressed by the rudeness of the cab driver who got lost and didn’t give a shit.) By the time I pushed and plodded my way through the crowds to Ground Zero, I didn’t have a shred of brotherly love left in me. But as I visited the 9/11 museum and the two waterfalls that are the exact dimensions of the towers taking up the same footprint of the original towers, my heart began to break. I barely survived the waterfalls with the names of the dead etched into the marble siding. I did not survive the museum. It’s a good thing they have tissues in most of the exhibit rooms because I needed every single one of them. Hearing the voices of those who left phone messages to their loved ones right before they died, meditating on the exhibit of a mangled fire truck (Big Red, Ladder 3) from a station who lost their captain and ten of their team, listening to the voices of my fellow Americans speak about where they were when we were attacked, walking down seven stories of stairs next to the actual stairs where hundreds fled to safety, seeing the photos of my fellow citizens who jumped from the top floors rather than be burned alive…I remembered our national anthem of unity given to us by 9/11 because not once did I ask about their politics, their race, their ethnicity, their gender—I just held them to my heart as Americans—as humans worthy to be mourned and honored.
ALWAYS REMEMBER—NEVER FORGET!
WANT TO READ MORE ABOUT THE AUTHOR’S LIFE AMONG WHITE CHRISTIAN CONSERVATIVES FOR 45+ YEARS AND THE INSIGHTS GAINED: Check out “Fleeing Oz”—on sale now at Amazon!
WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THE AUTHOR? Check out her website at http://www.eleanortomczyk.com
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