Sunday, September 11, 2011

That Day

We all remembered 9/11 today, in our own way. No avoiding it. On that clear, blue-skied, uncannily perfect morning, I walked a few blocks to the gym without a care in the world, and walked home again within the hour, after the world changed forever. I called my husband and begged him to come home.

We didn't think we knew anyone on those planes or in the tower — until we remembered that our friend and upstairs neighbor, an American Airlines flight attendant, regularly flew that LA route. We couldn't get in touch with her for two days, or get any news about her from the airline. She finally called us; she had switched routes a few months earlier. "I have 11 memorial services to go to," she said when we finally saw her and had a chance to hug her and talk.

After a long day watching the news, we sat on our stoop in the late afternoon, worrying about our neighbor and wishing she'd come walking up the street. Our next-door neighbors came out of their house, and without even saying hello, they lit into us about how our yard was neglected and our hedge needed trimming. "It's a disgrace!" they said. We just looked at them. We couldn't believe that was what was bothering them on the evening of 9/11. Looking back — we all became friends later on — I can see that some people might cling to such trivial concerns as the world fell apart around them.

I lost a charming college classmate in one of the towers. I discovered that I worked with his sister-in-law; they have a common last name and I never made the connection. My own sister-in-law worked across the street from the World Trade Center. We didn't know that, either, until afterward. She eventually walked home to her family in Brooklyn. A friend of ours flew to LA that morning and had decided — at Logan, at the last minute — to change her direct flight to one that stopped in Chicago. She would have been on one of the planes. Her son worked at the Pentagon. He was running late that morning, and was in the parking lot when that plane hit. His office was destroyed. We heard all this much later.

We were in a state of shock for quite a while, now that I think about it. We were glued to the news, both on our laptops and the TV. I had never paid much attention to international news; I rarely watched TV and didn't bother much with online international news, either. My husband followed events in the Middle East but I had only vague ideas about potentially explosive situations between the US and different countries. It seemed to have no relationship to my life. Since that day, I've been an online news junkie. I need to know what's going on in the world; I never want to be caught by surprise again.

Logan was closed for days, but planes still flew over our neighborhood. They were military planes, but we couldn't tell that from the sound of their engines. We just assumed they were planes that were forbidden to be in our air space. Every time we heard one we'd scan the skies, flinching, scared. There were small moments of terror every day. Looking back, I see we were all nervous wrecks, always staring upward, staring at the Hancock Tower.

We were supposed to travel to a conference in Prague on September 20. All of the other American participants cancelled; people were afraid to fly. Airlines allowed people to cancel or reschedule flights for a couple of weeks after 9/11. After about a week of chaos, most airlines were back on some sort of schedule and most people who'd been stranded because of 9/11 had gotten home. After some soul-searching, we decided to go. We were afraid to fly, but we were also deeply exhausted from being in Boston; we loved the idea of being anywhere else. On the plane, however, all we did was read and talk obsessively about 9/11. We'd brought that Sunday's New York Times, Newsweek, and The New Yorker — the one with the memorable black cover showing the WTC in shadow. It was a strange way to distract ourselves from being on a plane, and I still don't understand why we did it.

In Prague, we stayed in a small hotel in the old part of town, We had a huge suite with painted ceiling beams from the Renaissance. When people discovered we were Americans, they instantly offered sympathy and were very kind. But whoever cleaned our room stole my birth-control pills, which were sitting on the bathroom sink; they weren't very common there. The pack was nearly empty, so I'd brought an extra one. But I knew I had to be responsible and report the theft to the young woman at the front desk, who expressed disbelief at my story. I told her I didn't care that the pills were gone, but that she should tell anyone who might be interested that birth-control pills don't work unless they're taken on schedule for at least 28 days. I told her that if someone wasn't careful, there'd soon be another Frantisêk or Anna in the world. I still wonder about that.

Prague was glorious and consoling, as I explored it alone that week, often feeling stunned and sad. I walked the streets, ate the Eastern European food of my childhood, visited Museums, sat in gardens and churches, mourned. We both paid close attention to the news, so we knew when our airline went bankrupt and all flights were canceled. It was complicated, but we got home.

And then we resumed our tense new lives, learned more details about everyone and everything we'd lost, and watched the economy go down the drain.

My exercise route takes me on Garden Street, where Sara Low, a young flight attendant on American Airlines flight 11, had an apartment. There are always flowers and candles on her stoop on 9/11. I always think of her when I'm on Garden Street, whether the roses are there or not.

Our cats had a catnip toy in the shape of a frowning male veterinarian in a white coat, known as The Victim Vet. Snalbert looked like a huge beige lion as he'd drag this little doll around by one leg. In the days after 9/11, someone pushed the Victim Vet partway under a tall bookcase; only his legs were sticking out. When my husband saw this, he burst into tears. I didn't figure out what was upsetting him until I looked down and saw those poor legs peeking out, like the Wicked Witch of the East under Dorothy's house. I got it. He didn't remember it when I reminded him today. He didn't remember the candlelight vigil we attended in Copley Square.

But, yeah. That's how it was. We all remember in our own way, and we all know, deep down, that nothing can ever be the same.


  1. PB: Thanks for such a heartfelt and beautifully written refection. My husband and I had begun "that day" burying our cat with cancer who'd been euthanized the night before in a grueling late night vet session. It was the third cat we'd lost in as many years, so we began the day sad and exhausted, even before the horror and shock that unfolded.

  2. As I read your post, I had that lump in my throat, and thought of you and the stewardess and running late and fate and the cat toy...all etched in our collective memories in so many ways.

    Thank you for sharing your personal experience and reflections...


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