My kids were three, two, and almost one, and I was newly pregnant on September 11, 2001. My husband was a software trainer, and he spent three days out of most weeks traveling. I spent as much time as I could out of the house in those days, because I was so afraid of feeling trapped. We had a double stroller and a back carrier, and we walked and walked and walked.
It was a bright, windy day, still warm for September. I had made up some errand to the library on the morning of the 11th. We were still about a mile away from home when a familiar homeless man approached us. He was “the clapping guy,” the one who stalked back and forth all day long, clapping and shouting, warning and declaiming. He stopped, blocking my path, and said several times in weirdly chastened tones something like, “May your family be safe during all the [gesturing wildly] happenings that are going on in these days.” I had enough nonsense in my own life and didn’t need any of his, so I growled, “Yeah, thanks,” stepped around him, and kept walking.
I got home and got on with my day, holding the storm door open with my body as I hoisted the stroller up the steps and onto the porch. Unload the baby, unload the library books, change diapers, say “yes” to ice pops, start some water boiling for macaroni. Do the things you need to do.
I have to look up the timeline for 9/11 to piece together the rest. I remember standing at the white kitchen sink, rinsing out bottles and half-listening to public radio as I always did, gradually realizing they were repeating themselves a lot. That meant something strange was happening. I thought, like so many others, that the first plane crash was an accident, and I only slowly came to understand with a suffocating feeling that it was something else.
What happened the rest of the day? I don’t remember. My husband was away and I wanted him home so desperately. All planes were grounded, so it took him something like four days to get back by bus. All I remember from that time is breathing shallowly, and seeing nothing but chaos when I closed my eyes.
We did have a TV, but I don’t remember watching coverage. One child had a fear of owls, and two of them had night terrors, so I zealously shielded them from anything that could be remotely frightening. Or at least I tried. I followed the news by radio, so I don’t have those images of smoke and fire burned into my memory like so many Americans do; but that just meant the terror and confusion was formless.
What I remember more vividly is trying to work out how to survive an anthrax attack, because that was what came next. We were so poor, I made some brutal budgeting decisions and bought a big roll of duct tape and three dust masks, thinking the five of us could take turns holding our breath if someone decided to wage a chemical attack against quiet little Norton Street. I kept a blanket rolled up in case I needed to seal up the threshold against invisible spoors, and lay awake at night fretting over how to make the tape stick to the hinges. It sounds so foolish now, but nobody knew. Nobody knew what was happening or what might happen next or how to act. We breathed shallowly and believed we would need to seal ourselves up tightly if we wanted our children to survive.
Everyone talks about 9/12, how united we all were. I don’t remember that, possibly because I was so isolated. I didn’t know what else to do, other than draw my family in and try to seal us off. I do remember the first time the airplanes went into the air again. I was crossing the parking lot at Walmart, pushing a cart full of groceries and kids, because you do what you have to do. Two planes went overhead, one rather low and loud, and everyone stopped. Everyone looked up. Everyone held their breath to see how it would play out.
I remember thinking, in the darkest, innermost room of my heart, that it would be right and just to pack off any captured terrorists to countries who had practice with this kind of thing, so their torturers could get the goods. Just seal it off, do it behind closed doors, and do what you have to do.
We all breathed shallowly at that time; we all saw chaos when we closed our eyes. We had to protect our families, and seal them in.
But eighteen years have passed; enough time to turn into an adult. I was so young and so afraid in 2001. In the eighteen years since then, I’ve learned even more about the things that threaten my family, and I’ve learned even more about how helpless we really are. But the most terrible of all is to see the threats that come from the inside; to see clearly how vulnerable our hearts are, how easily they are deranged with fear.
I don’t have any grand opinions about national security or public policy. It feels strange and unpleasant to talk about myself and my family, our stroller, our apartment, our bedroom door on a momentous anniversary for the country, when other people remember explosions, death, and going off to war. But the small and personal is all I have. Really, the small and personal is all any of us has. All of us, every one of us must guard very closely what happens in our hearts, what we allow to happen to our hearts. When you seal up your hearts, that doesn’t keep terror out. It seals it in.