Terror sealed in

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. 

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13 thoughts on “Terror sealed in”

  1. Just now catching up on reading. Sorry for late response.

    I was a freshman in HS and was really worried about a social issue at the time. I said a fifteen decade rosary on the bus bc I was worried about being in the middle of a social mess at the start of HS when I was trying to make friends and I had a long bus ride. While I was praying I noticed a statue of Mary I’d never noticed before in front of a house I often passed. I suddenly felt a peaceful sense that everything would be okay.

    Of course the social issue was forgotten by everyone that day and I forgot about the statue. I didn’t remember the statue and that feeling of peace until weeks later when I was sitting in a car hearing on the radio about anthrax and worrying. I remembered the encounter with that statue and that Mary was patroness of the US. I didn’t take it as a sign that God was on our side, but felt reassured that in the chaos Mary was watching over and praying for us, including me and my family.

  2. I was a college freshman just back from a June visit to my aunt in the NYC area. We went to the top of those towers the last week of June, one of many times I’d been there as a kid on visits.

    I went to my organic chem lecture only to find it empty (where were the 350 other kids?). One kid on campus told me classes were cancelled because a plane hit the WTC. It seemed so odd to me, but campus was deserted and the prof wasn’t there anyway, so I went back to my dorm. I got there, turned on the TV and was watching with my roommate as the 2nd plane hit.

    My cousin worked in the clean up effort. He still has trouble talking about it.
    My uncle’s secretary lost her husband who worked in Windows of the World.
    It still angers and shakes me when I think of all the people murdered that day.

  3. I was in college – Mount St Marys – which is close to camp david. I remember the helicopters. So many helicopters every few minutes there was another one buzzing around. There was a rumor that the Flight 93 was after camp david. We were very far from any real danger that day, but we were all terrified.

    I also remember the Mass we had at noon. It was moved from a small chapel to the large campus chapel and it was filled. Lots of crying. Lots of hugging. Lost of hand holding. Our community was both terrified and brought together.

  4. The terror on that day permanently changed the world. As a Sydneysider, I was a uni student and woke up that morning to see these images on the TV. Couldn’t believe my eyes. Couldn’t quite fathom whether I was watching a movie or if it was real life. It was the same image over and over again.

    I remember travelling to Canada via Honolulu a year later in 2002 and the level of airport security was unimaginable but completely understandable- checkpoint security telling us to take our shoes off as they were checked with metal detectors and interrogating the reason for travel etc…it was intimidating as a young single traveller on my way to visit my aunt in Montreal. But you look back and feel reassured.

    Then in 2008 visiting NYC and the east coast with my husband and our 3 year old daughter. The security became worse- parents of newborns were made to remove shoes at airport security checkpoints and the absent-minded mishap of leaving water inside my daughters bottle before we boarded a flight, was met with great hostility by the airport security officers.

    Walking past the location of the twin towers after a visit of the beautiful Statue of Liberty, was surreal after seeing so many images of helpless suffering and at the same time tremendous human courage from Americans on the news. I can only begin to imagine the hearts of the American people during and after this tragic day. My greatest fear is saying goodbye to my loved one in the morning but being met with news of the tragedy that they wouldn’t return home in the evening. May the Souls of those victims Rest In Peace and May their families be continually strengthened.

  5. My kids were 14, 11, 8, 5, and 1. My husband was on the Golden Gate Bridge going toward the airport to get on a plane. When I called him, he didn’t know what was going on. My ex-BIL, the CEO of the company we worked for had just turned down an offer from Cantor Fitzgerald to buy us out. Cantor Fitzgerald was on the top floor of one of the towers.

  6. I had a six-year-old, a three-year-old, a four-month-old, and a marriage that was falling apart. My husband didn’t come home that night, and I spent the whole night holding the baby and watching the footage over and over and over. Everything felt traumatic and bewildering.

    In the years since I collected a divorce, a new marriage, a baby girl, and eventually the capacity to forgive my ex husband.

    He died last Saturday. I’m so grateful that we made our peace in the past few years. Life is traumatic and bewildering, but the best response is to love more, not less.

  7. I had a two-year old and was seven months pregnant. My husband worked at a military base that I kept telling myself over and over was NOT a likely target at all. Not at all! We didn’t turn on the TV until the toddler was down for the night. The next morning my husband got up early and looked at the newspaper, removing some photos of people jumping from the towers that he thought would upset me in my enhanced hormonal state. I thought that was sweet but a little overprotective, until years later when the paper ran them again on an anniversary, and I could barely look at them.

  8. I was working in Dallas. A colleague called in and told me that a plane hit the World Trade Center. I thought he meant the one in Dallas just a few miles down the road. I, too, thought it was an accident. The next day on my way to work there was an eerie silence, one I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Then I realized that there were no planes in the sky. I commuted most of the way under one of the flight patterns of the Dallas/Fort Worth airport. I watched/listened to the least amount of coverage I could which wasn’t easy as it was 24/7. I could not look at any of the pictures/footage especially of the towers in flames. To this day I still can’t. I look away.

    1. I was a junior in high school and found out just before AP American History class via a PA system announcement. We spent all of AP American and then some watching the news coverage. I was sitting on the floor (I think we’d been joined by another class) next to a close friend when the second tower fell before all our eyes. God bless my young AP American teacher – probably not much older than Simcha had been then, if at all – for not trying to get us to do anything else that day, and for trusting us to be able to handle it. The next time we had class, she said that she used to wish she could be part of a big historical event, but now she wasn’t so sure.

  9. I was seven years old. We were on a family road trip from Texas to Montana. We heard the news somewhere in Wyoming. We all pulled over at a rest stop, and dad told me.

    I didn’t realize what had actually happened, how scary it was, until we got home from that trip and I saw every night on the news was “they found another body today”.

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