The former World Trade Center twin towers. The...

The former World Trade Center twin towers. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If we don’t do it any other time, every year when September 11th rolls around, those of us who were around in 2001 reflect on where we were and what we were doing when we heard the news. My calendar calls it “Patriot Day.” Others refer to it as “Remembrance Day.” And it is good, therapeutic even, to remember.

I was a college sophomore, eighteen years old, carpooling with Thomas to our Tuesday morning class. He liked to listen to a morning radio show that grated on my nerves. The hosts were crass jerks, so when we heard one of them say that a plane had flown into one of the World Trade Towers, we figured it was some kind of sick joke. It was soon apparent, however, from the hosts’ shocked-sounding voices that they were merely giving a play-by-play of what they must have been watching on live TV. And as we searched for a parking spot, we heard that the second tower was hit. One of the hosts said one plane could be a terrible tragedy, but two was terrorism.

I was numb. Terrorism? In New York City? Thomas and I walked to our class, where everyone whispered or sat in shocked silence. Our professor, when she arrived, had no idea what had happened, and we were all too shell-shocked to say anything. She apologized profusely for it the next time our class convened. I don’t know if anyone remembered what happened in class that day.

Thomas and I went our separate ways for our next classes; we felt we had to because what if the other professors hadn’t turned on the news? We still didn’t understand the ramifications of what had happened. I walked into my classroom, and the TVs, which were usually off, showed more smoking wreckage – but not of the Twin Towers. One of my classmates was a military wife, and she was in tears. That’s how I found out about the attack at the Pentagon.

The rest of the day, week, and month were surreal. I didn’t know any of the victims, but I live in a military town and have family in the military. Everyone was glued to the TV or theorizing about what would happen next. We clung to our families for comfort.

I remember, as days passed and the likelihood of finding survivors lessened, watching people on TV as they showed pictures of loved ones. One man had a photo of his wife, who was pregnant with their first child. Too many days had passed, I knew, but I still prayed for her to be found safe. She wasn’t. There are too many stories like that.

Then someone created a slideshow, and it became a horrifying Internet sensation. Every picture was of a person jumping out of one of the Towers, choosing to end their lives rather than wait for the buildings to collapse. I didn’t know whether to be offended or savagely proud that someone had captured the last moments of those people’s lives. It seemed like exploitation. I can’t imagine the despair of the jumpers – or family members who saw that slide show. I prayed for them, too.

If remembering is what we do today, it’s so easy to get caught up in the negativity. Why didn’t we prevent it? Why did it happen to begin with? How can we stop such atrocities from ever happening again? It’s easy to point fingers, not only at leaders back then but at more current leaders. While an attack of that magnitude hasn’t happened again, there are other terrible acts that have happened. Too many. And no matter what we do, we will never be able to eradicate evil. Was that too strong a word? I’ll say it again: evil. I didn’t say the devil or blame it on something mystical. Maybe people aren’t evil to the core – I don’t know. But they certainly commit evil acts, and when they are bent on those acts, all the second-guessing in the world can’t stop them.

I won’t apologize for getting overly emotional or being so direct. But I also can’t end it there. Almost three thousand lives were lost September 11th, 2001. But not all of those people were the victims in the buildings that were hit or the planes that hit them. First responders sacrificed their lives to save as many as they could. They will say that they simply did their jobs, and that’s true; they had excellent training that carried them into dangers that many of us wouldn’t be able to face. They are the good in this equation. Does that mean they never made a bad decision, that they maybe didn’t say something they regretted before leaving the house that morning? Of course not. They’re human, too. But in the moments that mattered, they chose to face horrible odds, some dying in the process. Thanks to them, the death toll didn’t reach three thousand.

On this day when I can (and do) remember the terrible things, instead of dwelling on them, I remember that there are people who will do the right thing, when it comes right down to it. They won’t sit by and video the event, won’t run the other way, thinking it’s someone else’s problem, but instead they’ll give of themselves – even unto death – to help someone else. And for all of you who did that then and do that on a daily basis, I cannot thank you enough.

Communication Is More Than Maintenance Talk


Communication (Photo credit: P Shanks)

Talking to my husband has always been easy. As his side of the story goes, he “fell” for me on a high school chorus trip to New York City. On the bus ride home to Florida, we sat together and talked almost all night. It had never been so natural for him to talk to a girl before. I certainly didn’t think at the time that I was making waves, but I guess my conversational charms won him over. I have my parents to thank, who work together and communicate very well, and who also have always treated me like I deserve respect for what I say. Even when I was a child, they conversed with me like I was a human being, not a sweet little darling who says cute stuff. That means that they’ve listened to a lot of dreams and ideas that they knew were naive or unrealistic. It also means they’ve had to set me straight a time or two. Although I didn’t particularly appreciate my dad telling me, when I was an adolescent, that pursuing a career in acting was not the way to go, I’m glad for the candor and that we shared the kind of trust that allowed me to lay out my dreams.

I look at my own kids and hope that the lines will be open for us as well. Communication truly starts in the womb, which is why I listened to music that I wanted my babies to hear and talked to my pregnant belly. When I was expecting baby number two, I encouraged Peter to talk to him. He would put his mouth up to my belly and say, “I love you, Baby Ian. I can’t wait to see you. I’m your big brother.” I think that has a lot to do with why Peter is Ian’s absolute favorite person in the world. It’s also sweet to me that Peter often says he can’t wait until Ian can talk (more than the baby talk he is capable of now).

Some people’s idea of “quality time” with their kids is to hover and be overprotective. Others feel guilty for not being able to spend as much time as they would like and create events that are supposed to equal that imagined quality. But do whirlwind trips to amusement parks, occasional weeknight baseball games, or other activities that wear us out and wear us thin make up for the everyday interactions that should be natural and lead to life-long trust and closeness? I’m not saying that doing those things is bad, but they don’t make up for lack of communication. A good friend once observed that every time she saw a marriage deteriorate to the point that maintenance talk was the only communication between husband and wife, divorce was usually around the corner. It happens to parents and children, too, who find they have no reason to talk after the nest is empty.

But maintenance talk is necessary, isn’t it? Thomas and I keep very busy schedules and are often like ships passing in the night. “What time is your meeting?” “Will you be able to watch the kids?” “I need more creamer when you go to the store.” “We need to run by Target to pick up school supplies.” When the necessary becomes the only conversation in a household, however, relationships become fragmented. My favorite parenting book, On Becoming Baby Wise: Giving Your Infant the GIFT of Nighttime Sleep, recommends that parents have “couch time.” (Read more about my Babywise experience here.) If there is no other time in their busy day when parents can talk, at least they’ll have fifteen precious minutes to catch upon more than the grocery list. And the key is to have couch time around the kids, so they can see that their parents are important to each other.

I remember my college days, when I thought my life couldn’t get any busier (ha). I always took five courses at a time, and I attended summer semesters, too. I worked twenty to thirty hours a week, sang in the church choir, sang with a community chorus, helped found and edited the journal Fiction Fix, attended numerous workshops and events for that same journal, and drove almost thirty minutes one-way to Thomas’s house four or five times a week. It was all a part of my plan to get my degree as quickly as possible while continuing to stay active in all the activities that were important in my life. I could have made things much easier on myself if I hadn’t gone to school over the summer, if I’d taken four classes instead of five. What was the big hurry to graduate, anyway? Well, Thomas and I were getting married, and we knew that one of us had to be out of college and working to support the other. Since I started a year before him, the pressure was on me: the sooner I finished, the sooner we could move on to the next stage of our life together. We planned a summer wedding, so he could continue to go to school without interrupting his spring or fall semesters.

Except that things didn’t turn out that way. Although I adored a few professors and enjoy some of my classes, I had no great love of college; it was an obstacle, something I had to conquer. But Thomas absolutely loathed it. College was something he could barely stomach, especially when a professor showed up and told his class to dress professionally – all while she was wearing sweats. I don’t know if that was the last straw, but it was certainly bad timing on that professor’s part. It was during that first week in the fall of 2003 that he met me after an evening class, and he just had that look. I took a deep breath, knowing what was coming. He had spent all evening thinking about what he was going to do and how in the world he was going to break it to me and his parents. I knew he was miserable in his classes, and I also knew that it in no way helped that it was my last semester, and he still had two years to go. I listened and tried to be sympathetic, encouraging. And then we moved on because talking through problems is what we do. And although we were creating a future together, he had to be at peace with his half of the deal. Fortunately, his chosen career wasn’t dependent on a four-year degree, and he did eventually (very eventually) graduate.

But there are couples out there who are sorely disappointed – even surprised – when they find out their relationships can’t survive on date nights and diamond rings alone. There are parents who think they can keep their kids busy with sports and camps and buy them cars, and those same kids will, in return, go to the colleges and pick the careers their parents prefer. And it’s not just parents and children. Everywhere you find relationships, you find people who expect things from others that are unrealistic, unfair even; you’ll find little respect for each other’s time and thoughts; you’ll find misunderstandings that could have been easily fixed. You’ll find broken communication. But when you see people really talking to each other – and listening – you witness a truly beautiful thing.

Sometimes our family has to drive somewhere in separate vehicles, and on those occasions, when Thomas can drive home and have Peter with him, I know he cherishes those rides. With the radio off and phones put away, they just talk. Peter asks questions, and Thomas answers. And Peter tells what he thinks about the world, and those are priceless (and often hilarious) moments. Thomas always seems to glow afterward, as if our five-year-old has just recharged him.

I watch parents who seem to care more about their phones or cars or any number of other distractions than their kids. Perhaps a big reason that young people have an increasing disrespect for their elders has a lot to do with the way we treat them, and often, I am convicted. I have to remember that I was once their age, too, yearning for answers, for information, for attention. And when I spend the time with my kids that they desire and deserve, I not only have hope for surviving the distant teenage years, but turning two men out into the world who will make it a better place.

I hope, if I have the chance to look back over my parenting experience some day in the distant future, I will see much improvement on my part and be proud of myself for hanging in there. And I hope that my kids will still want to talk to me then, to ask questions, to share their joys and concerns. But it won’t happen on its own; I have to work on it today – and always – to create that kind of a future.