I’m remembering a lot these days. This week is a big week for remembering around here. I wrote about it last year. The anniversary of our first date, my birthday. I might have more to say about that another day, but today I’m going to remember September 11th, 2001 and the days following.
First, my heart and thoughts go out to those who lost loved ones on this day eight years ago. My heart aches for the pain that will never go away. My heart aches for those who were present and a part of the events of that day. For their pain, for their scars–physical and emotional–that will never fully heal, that continue to be poked and prodded on a national scale once every year.
Today, I’m remembering how we experienced 9/11 and how the events of that day were made extra surreal for us, I think, because of the circumstances under which we witnessed the event and the immediate aftermath. I think, too, that this experience of it has had lasting repercussions.
On the morning of 9/11, Ry and I were far, far out of town, visiting good friends of ours from Ry’s college days. I can still remember hearing, over the sound of my hair-dryer, Ry and Matt coming in from a run. I could hear just enough to hear some sort of urgency to their voices and as I turned off the dryer I heard them saying a neighbor had come up to them while they were doing pull-ups in the garage and told them that a plane had just crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. I reached the living room as they were turning on the TV. There was still speculation that it was a Cessna, or some kind of small plane. Speculation about what had happened to make the pilot screw up like that. I went back to finish up my hair–must be pretty, don’t you know–and when I came back it seemed clear that it was a large plane. I arrived back to the TV in time to watch the second plane hit. Then we knew. The four of us. We knew something terrible was happening. And we all sat down and began to watch.
I can picture the dirty breakfast dishes, with various bits of leftover waffles and strawberries on them, lining the counter. At some point, I think, Ellen gave up on cooking up the rest of the batter. Matt was off from work that day because we were there to visit. So we had nowhere to go and nothing to do but sit. And watch it all unfold before our eyes. The first tower crumbling. Anticipating the second. What’s that? Something about the Pentagon, too? What’s going to happen next? What’s going on?
I can so vividly picture Ellen sitting and rocking her 3 month old baby. I remember looking at her and wondering what she was thinking. Wondering how afraid she was that the whole world was changing before our eyes and she had just brought a new person into it. Wondering if she was fearing for her new baby. Wondering if Ry and I should continue in our attempts to bring into this new crazy world a new baby of our own. We spent the day glued to the TV. We cleaned up the waffles eventually, but I honestly have no recollection of lunch or dinner that day. I simply remember their couch. And the TV set.
At the time, I was about to begin my senior year in seminary, Ry was in his second year of ministry in a nearby church. Our home at the time was in Princeton, NJ. A 60 minute train-ride from Manhattan, and a hop, skip, and a jump to DC. Being fans of Central PA made Shanksville feel all the closer. And there our home sat, in the middle of all that mess. While we sat far, far away from home. In Kentucky. I was at the same time lonely for home and grateful not to be there.
Meanwhile, we had friends there. We had one dear friend who we knew took the train right into the WTC every morning for work. We had great hope that she was in and out of there and in her own building by the time the first plane hit, but we also knew sometimes things happen, trains get delayed, people have appointments. And even beyond worrying about her physical well-being, we were worried about this sensitive woman, who was in a vulnerable emotional state at the time, witnessing up close and personal all that we were witnessing from what felt so very far away. We prayed for her. My, how we prayed for her.
We also have a surgeon friend who was serving at a hospital in Brooklyn. We knew he was close. We knew he’d be on alert. We weren’t sure what he would have to face. But we thought of him. And we prayed for him.
And then we had yet another friend. This one lived outside of DC and we knew his job took him straight to the Pentagon often. There was no telling whether or not this day would be one of those occasions. We thought of him. And we worried for him. And we prayed for him.
It was all so strange. After having lived on the highway from Philly to NYC for nearly five years by then, the entire area felt like our home. Our local news was NYC’s local news. Our church community was full of people who worked in the city. This was our home.
Yet we were so far away. So far removed. It was somehow harder to wrap our heads around. And we had a feeling of hopelessness as we knew we had members of our congregation in need, members whose personal lives would be rocked by this, knowing that with all the members of our church working in Manhattan or with neighbors who did, there were bound to be some who were personally affected, not just affected in the way that all Americans were. But we couldn’t be there. We were on vacation. Supposed to be enjoying ourselves.
The next day, September 12th, we packed up our bags and continued on our journey. We listened to NPR continually. Through hours of travel. We toured Mammoth Cave as planned. Hidden deep in the dark cave, below the ground, we still wondered what was going on up there. Far above us. Above the ground. In the skies. Would we emerge from the dark and dank, perpetually comfortably cool cave to find that something else had gone horribly wrong? A few minutes of NPR as we drove to our campsite reassured us that nothing had changed, save everything that was already changed.
We spent that night in a tent. No TV to replay the images, just our words, just our joint processing of all we had witnessed.
The following day brought more hours in the car as we drove to Asheville. More NPR. We wondered who this Bin Laden character was. What was this Al Qaeda thing? Afghanistan? War? Did I mention that after 6 years of working toward it, Ry had finally been commissioned as an Army Chaplain and attached to a Reserve unit just weeks before? War.
Another surreal day in Asheville as we toured one of America’s Castles. The Biltmore Estate was the inspiration for this whole trip, after a Saturday morning watching A&E. So, once again, cut off from all outside communication, we traveled back in time to days of wealth and obscene spending. What planet were we on? Having fun, yet always in the backs of our minds: How’s Leslie doing? What about John? We had no number for him in DC, we mainly talked via email. What did Shawn have to deal with at the hospital? My this house is really big!
A few minutes of NPR told us more of the same. Another night in a tent. Cut off from civilization. Hidden away in a dark tent, under moist trees. More quiet chatter in the night. More processing. Is this the kind of world we should bring a baby into?
Onward and Eastward we traveled. Depending only on our ears to tell us what the rest of the world looked like. Hearing stories of the devastation, hearing pleas of people looking for loved ones, hearing speeches by Mr. Powell, Mr. Bush. Where was Mr. Chaney? Our ears were overwhelmed, but our minds struggled to put together pictures beyond the real-time ones we saw. The ones we saw when no one knew what was going on right before our eyes.
Yet another two nights without a TV in my in-law’s in NC. They had no TV at the time. We all talked about what it all could mean.
By the time we returned to our home, back to civilization, back to our TV’s, life had begun moving forward. Nearly a week had passed. Hope for finding living lost had dwindled. The attention of the TV was turned toward War. Toward retribution. Toward reacting, responding, rebuilding.
Our eyes never saw what other eyes saw. Our brains were not overwhelmed by images. Somehow I think this makes a difference for how we’ve processed it all. It’s not that we didn’t experience it. We did. We saw it as it happened. But I think we came out of it less scarred than those around us who spent the week looking at the images over and over and over and over. I’m grateful for that time. But it also leaves me feeling disconnected from the fullness of it. We were aliens returning from outer space. We could only hear about the special service that took place at church on my birthday, the 16th. We returned after the worst and most intense of the aftermath. I don’t know what that means for us. It just makes it different. It makes it once-removed or something. We don’t share the collective experience of the days that followed. We have only the images of the events as they happened, and the images our own minds were left to make up in response to the things we were hearing. It was simply different.
After thinking about this some more today, I had some further thoughts about our once-removed experience of 9/11. We’ve noticed that we didn’t experience things quite as intensely as those around us. I think I’ve always attributed it to our trip. But I’m also now wondering if it is because we were quite literally once-removed from the whole thing. We shared the local news with NYC, but we lived far enough from the city to not be that part of Jersey that is suburban New York. In our ten years of living in that general vicinity I had only two trips to the city, Ry had none, and one of my trips happened during the 18 months we took a break from living there. But my best friend grew up closer to the city, she’d been there a bunch, her nephew worked there. Members of our church worked there. It was part of our everyday, but once-removed. And then this tragedy hits, and we had a pile of people we knew who knew someone who’d died. Once-removed. The granddaughter of Ry’s great aunt lost her husband. Once-removed. But just once-removed. Close enough to feel the relief of those who’d had close calls, to see the anguish of those who’d lost someone. Close enough to touch and see and feel the agony. But it was not our own. We were once-removed.
Our position that close, but once-removed, was, I think, different from the experience of those further away. I think those further away could experience the national impact of the ordeal. Being another step further away took the whole thing away from the intensely personal, and put it into the national-identity personal. I think our being surrounded by people who had lost so much, seeing in our local paper the lists of names of lost people, made it difficult to claim the loss as our own, to feel that sense of nationhood, of national tragedy. The personal tragedy was too close to us, yet was not our own. We were in the no-man’s land of a second circle. There is the inner circle of those directly, personally affected by the event: they were there, or they lost a loved one, or their loved one was there. And there is the outer circle, a grieving nation. A nation who looked at this devastating blow to their country and were rightly outraged. And then there we were, in no-man’s land. Once-removed. But only once. We were part of the tragedy, but we weren’t.
I’m not sure that makes as much sense in words on the screen as it does in my head. Anyway . . .
Along the way of our travels, we had learned that our friend Leslie was unharmed in the attack, that she was part of the mass exodus-by-foot out of the city that day. She emerged from the rubble miraculously stronger, healthier. When we came home we learned that John, thankfully, was not at the Pentagon that day, but I often wonder about the lasting impact of that close call. And Shawn and his hospital colleagues were left with empty gurneys. The anticipated rush of injured survivors never came. Because there was no rush. There were so few. And all of those people so ready to save lives had to recover from the reality of having no lives to save.
Horrific. The whole thing was horrific. It haunts me still. And certainly our lives have changed in its wake. Ry spent 18 months mobilized and serving soldiers on their way to and from Iraq and Afghanistan. And he may be about to go back to serving soldiers again, as a National Guard chaplain.
And in the midst of all that. . . . in the midst of the world as we knew it crumbling down around us . . . we decided Yes. A world such as that was a world worth bringing a baby into. First, because we know the One who holds the future in his hands and rest in his sovereignty. And second, because we figured there was no better time to bring into the world yet another servant of the one and only true King as a witness to his mercy, his love, his sovereignty, and his grace. We continued on our journey toward parenthood undeterred. Isaac was born June 2002. You do the math. 🙂
And we continue to rest in the arms of that same King. Resting assured, without fear. Eagerly anticipating the day when there will be no more pain, no more suffering, no more weeping. When all is as it should be. Come, Lord Jesus!