A Letter to My Son 17 Years After September 11th

Dear Son;

Today marks 17 years since the world tilted on its axis and life as we knew it slid off into space. A few years ago, when you were 9 or 10, you asked me where I was when I heard about 9/11. It was then that I tried to explain to you that I  didn’t “hear” about it—it wasn’t like in 2009 when I “heard” Michael Jackson died or in 1999 when I “heard” Columbine happened. I, like everyone who was alive and over the age of 10, LIVED 9/11 through a series of fearful events, glued to my TV and radio, trembling with trepidation and wondering how the world fell apart and if it would ever be put back together again. I couldn’t explain it to you then—I didn’t have the words, so you skipped off to play Playstation. I didn’t want to tell you about 9/11. I didn’t want you to really understand…it was too painful, too fresh. But now, I think it’s something you should understand.

You were exactly 6 weeks old 9/11/01. It was the first time you had slept through the night. I remember vividly waking up in a cold sweat at 5:30 in the morning, wondering why you hadn’t cried during the night. I tiptoed over to you bassinet, still set up in our bedroom because I was a neurotic nut whose irrational fear of SIDS would later have me putting you to sleep in your car seat so you couldn’t roll over on your stomach (hence your flat head…sorry). My heart thudded loudly in my ears—I was certain this would be the worst day of my life and I would find you smothered by an nonexistent blanket or pillow in your bassinet.

Imagine my relief when I saw your little chest rising and falling, your fists balled tight, your face in perfect baby contentment. I sighed with relief—this would not be a bad day. In fact, it would be a wonderful day…the first full night sleep I had experienced since before you were born. Instead of wandering around in fog all day, I would be relaxed and well rested for once.

You must have sensed me staring at you then—you began to whimper and stir, fussing for the bottle you usually got three hours earlier at 2:30 am. I didn’t care, though, as I scooped you up before you could wake your father who needed to be up in a half hour’s time. I took you downstairs and gave you a bottle while watching the news. It was a Primary election day in New York City. All the local news stations were set up outside polls. I can’t remember who was running. Even now I wonder what they did about the election. It had to be redone in light of what happened, right?

You fell back asleep and when your father went to work an hour later, I crawled back into bed, too, with you in the crook of my arm, even though I swore I would never let you sleep in our bed (my how that changed quickly…). Nearly two months of sleep deprivation could never be made up for in one night of sleep. When I fell asleep, I think that was the last moment our lives were “normal”. I had never anticipated how scary our world was about to become.

The ringing of the phone on the night stand jolted me awake about two hours later, 8:50 to be exact. It was your father who was working as a mailman in Bayonne at the time, across the river from The World Trade Center.

“Hello?” I had groggily answered the phone. Cell phones, although not new at the time, were generally still reserved for emergency calls—text messaging would not even come into popularity until a little while later (at least not for your technophobe parents). If he was calling from his cell phone less than a few hours after leaving the house, something was wrong.

“Hey,” he said. “Can you go turn on the news? I think they bombed the World Trade Center again. There’s smoking coming from that direction.” By again, he was referring to the attacks in February of 1993 when we were only juniors in high school—this particular attack hadn’t had too much effect on us—6 people were killed and the building was hardly ruined.

“Um, sure,” I had replied, picking you up. You were sleeping soundly, but I wasn’t going to leave you lying on an unattended bed while I went all the way downstairs to turn the TV on. You could have rolled off the bed! Little did I know that would be the least of my fears shortly.

I hung up the phone, promising to call your father back, not realizing that would be the last time I spoke to him for a good 12 hours. I turned on the TV and was immediately assaulted with the results of the attack. A reporter stood in front of the North Tower, the camera angled up so we at home could see the burning hole where, as the reporter soon informed us, a plane had gone into the side of the building.

“Well, that’s terrible,” I said, placing you down in your pack and play. At the time, I was still sleepy, and in my mind, it was just horrible bad luck, pilot error…really BAD error. I said a quick prayer for the people in the building and headed into the kitchen to turn the coffee machine on for my morning coffee. Before you were born I never drank coffee, by the way. Now I couldn’t even function without it. A few minutes later, I had returned to the TV, waiting patiently for my drip brew. It was a little after 9:00 am and I grabbed the cordless phone to call your father back and explain what I knew. As I dialed, I heard shouting from the TV and looked up. What I initially thought was a replay of the plane hitting the North Tower was actually another plane hitting the South Tower.

That’s when time stopped. At least for me. That’s the moment that I realized “holy crap, someone did this on purpose”. It took me a few minutes to process this—I watched in disbelief as the scene of terror in New York City began to unfold before my very eyes, live and unedited for the world.

The phone was still in my hand and I tried to call your father back—no luck. All I got was a busy signal, the same busy signal I would get for the next 10 hours…everyone and their cousin trying to get a hold of loved one.

Suddenly terrified on this deceivingly gorgeous day (seriously, I couldn’t have been a more perfect fall day—every time we have weather like that now, I get chills), I felt compelled not only to watch TV and soak up everything I could about what was going on, I turned on the radio, too. My favorite radio, WPLJ was on—morning hosts Scott and Todd. It took me a second, but I realized they were talking to someone trapped in the elevator in one of the towers. The guy had managed to get through on his cell phone before everyone in the world tried to make a phone call.

I listened intently as this man calmly explained what was going on in the elevator. In his head, in my head, in the radio hosts heads, this was a terrible situation, but the guy was nowhere near the burning floors and it would only be a matter of time before firefighters would be able to get the elevator open and rescue him. He would be okay.

Just then, the conversation got cut short—the radio hosts were reporting updated news. A plane had hit the Pentagon!

That’s when the horror really hit me. The Pentagon? In Washington? What the hell was happening? I had no idea where Hubby was or if he was safe. Sure, this was miles from where he was, but all of a sudden, anything seemed possible. What if the area he was in was another target? What if there were bombs dropped on the city, bombs dropped on the whole try state area?

I tried to call Daddy again, still to no avail. I glanced over at you, peacefully slumbering in your pack and play, oblivious to the world falling apart around you. I continued to watch the mayhem unfold in front of me on TV. People running and pointing up, dodging falling debris. Fire coming from these massive buildings… people hanging off those very buildings. And then…people jumping from those buildings. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It couldn’t be real. Someone needed to tell me it wasn’t real, it wasn’t as bad as it looked, this wasn’t happening a mere 25 miles away from where I stood in my pjs. EMS and police and firefighters rushing toward the buildings, everyone else running away. At least people would be getting help soon. This didn’t have to be a worse tragedy than it already was. I was shaking from fear, but seeing those people, those brave people going to help others, convinced me that things would be okay…people would be saved.

The phone rang in my hand, my mother worried about pretty much everything. My father was working in Newark at the time and he had managed to contact her, telling her that he watched the plane go into the North Tower from his job. He was coming home immediately. She wanted to know if Hubby was coming home, but I told her I couldn’t reach him. I had no idea if he was or not. This was becoming all too real. She wanted me to get dressed immediately and come to her house with you. For some reason she was under the impression that we would only be safe if we were all together. Being a frantic new mother who couldn’t get a hold of her husband, I agreed. I put you in your car seat so I could shower and you woke up, smiling as you normally did. For one split second, I forgot about the horror we were all experiencing. For one split second, I realized you were the most important thing in my world and you were here…I could touch your baby cheek, hold your baby hand, and everything would be okay.

I was ready to hang up the phone and dash up to the shower when my mother gasped. I turned to the TV, the only explanation for her distress. The South Tower had fallen, crumbled into a pile of rubble right before our very eyes. I stared, unable to move, unable to hang up to phone, unable to make sense of the scene in front of me. It was like something out of the Twilight Zone, something I could have never even dreamed into reality. Not long after, the North Tower fell, dust coating the city, news cameras only capturing white haze and screams of terror.

I couldn’t watch any more—I hung up the phone on my frantic mother, turned away from the TV. Numbly, I stumbled up into the shower, car seat in tow. The only thing I could think of was All those people are dead. The guy on the radio. The people trying to get out. The firefighters. The cops. Everyone in those buildings…gone. Hundreds of people got up for work this morning, probably when I was getting up to give you a bottle…and now they’re all GONE.

I sobbed in the shower, thankful that although you were awake, you were content to gurgle and coo, unaware that this day would go down in history as the worst terror attack on US soil. You see, you were alive when 9/11 happened, but you will never know how life was before that day, the day that really changed life as we knew it. I don’t think I can ever truly explain how much changed that day because you never knew how it was before. Only those who lived through 9/11 can really understand how our lives have become Before and After.

Before was when the biggest fear you had flying on a plane was a plane crash. When you didn’t have evacuation drills and active shooter drills in school, just plain old fire drills. When you didn’t check out exit plans whenever you went into a building. When you didn’t eye people suspiciously. When you were on constant alert for celebrity sightings in the City, not terrorist sightings. When you didn’t think people were out to harm you for no reason other than their own agenda. When you believed that people were really good deep down.

I hope you will never in your lifetime experience what we did that day. I hope you will never know the eerie sound of a silent sky for days, devoid of any planes overhead. I hope you will never watch a black cloud of smoke hovering across the river, marring the otherwise perfect blue sky. I hope you will never know the uncertainty of not knowing where your spouse is—and not being able to reach them for hours on end. I hope you will never hold your 6 week old newborn to your chest and sob as you witness devastation of epic proportions unfold in front of you and wonder what kind of world you have brought him into.

As terrible as the terrorist attacks were, there’s something else you don’t know about life in those days surrounding 9/11. In the weeks that followed 9/11, we had fear, but we also experienced a glimmer of hope. People came together in ways I had never seen before—neighbors helping neighbors, strangers helping strangers. Flags flying proudly, volunteers at Ground Zero. People reaching out to friends and family they hadn’t spoken to in years, people appreciating their lives. A brief second in time where everything was put into perspective.

The people left behind in the aftermath of this terrorist attack were forever changed. When 9/11 robbed us of our innocence, it also gave us back our humility. I think the one thing I can never explain to you, not if you haven’t lived through something like 9/11, is how precious every moment is, how fragile it is…how it can turn in an instant. Always tell people you love them. Never go to bed angry. Always kiss your loved ones good-bye. And never, ever forget.

Photo by Aaron Schwartz from Pexels

2 Comments

  1. Your beautiful words bring tears to my eyes and make me so thankful for WP. To connect with someone and to learn their stories is a gift. And this gift you have supplied to your son is truly special.
    I remember the word of the day in my circle was ‘surreal’ because we had never contemplated such a thing was possible, and because the entire day was spent in this perpetual state of anger, confusion and overwhelming sadness. All while wondering what was next.

    Your letter really struck a chord, and I’m so thankful I found it.

    Peace, love and never, ever forgetting

    1. I’m so glad that this spoke to you. While it’s unfortunate that so many of us felt like this on that day, I think it’s important that we share those stories.

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