Where Were You? Where Are You Now?

It was a Tuesday morning. I was eighteen, a college sophomore. My boyfriend (now husband) and I were in my crappy minivan, which only had a radio for entertainment. We’d tuned into a talk show, and we thought we were hearing some kind of sick joke. As I parked, we realized with complete disbelief—as one talk show host said a second plane had flown into the Twin Towers—that it was absolutely real. 

We were dumbfounded, numb. And since we were already at school, we headed toward our first class, hoping for some sort of clarity from our professor. Unfortunately, she had not been listening to the radio, and since she was running late, she rushed straight into class, never seeing another person before plowing right into the day’s lesson. Maybe she was a little miffed that her class of freshman and sophomores was a bit more subdued than usual, that we stared at her with incomprehension. That we dared to hope that, because the adult with the most authority in the room was proceeding like all was normal, maybe it actually was. The next time our class met, she apologized profusely and said that if she had known, she would have sent us all home.

Instead, we endured that class in a kind of limbo while the rest of the country sat glued to TVs, gathered in small groups, trying to process what was happening. When Thomas and I split up and headed to our next classes, we re-entered the flow of reality. In my class, all the TVs were on the news. Although I don’t remember any other students from that class, I remember the young military wife, tears streaming down her face as she looked at images of the Pentagon under attack, likely terrified for what this meant for her husband. The professor stood to the side, allowing us access to the TVs, explaining that classes were cancelled, but we were welcome to stay if we needed.

The rest of that week passed in a haze. I felt helpless as I watched people in New York searching fruitlessly for loved ones days after the last survivor was found. The one that stands out and still haunts me was a man with a picture of his wife. She was pregnant. That baby would have been an adult now. All that hope stolen from him and his family in a moment.

It’s not every year that I feel moved to share my thoughts and feelings about September 11, 2001, but this year is different. Not a particularly important anniversary year—nineteen—not like next year will be. But still, this is a year in which so much has changed for so many, and not just in our country. Around the world, people’s lives are drastically different than they were a mere six months ago. This is the year when, if something negative happens, you blame it on 2020.

So how does September 11th look this year? Bleaker because we’re already more somber? Or can we eek some glimmer of hope from the day? I am fortunate to know a girl who was born on this date, and while I’ve always felt a bit bad for her, my mindset is starting to shift. What a miracle, to welcome new life on the anniversary of such tragedy!

Recently, my pastor spoke of the human condition, specifically that propensity for humans to never be satisfied with what we have, even (and sometimes especially) when we have more than enough—and he’s right. On the anniversary of a day when so much was taken from us, what do we have left? And particularly on that anniversary in a year when many of us have lost [fill in the blank]—jobs, loved ones, milestones, time with family, normalcy—are we still supposed to be satisfied with what’s left? In my opinion, yes.

I am blessed to have my family, and so far, our health. My husband and I have our jobs, and our children are fortunate to be in schools that are looking after their well-being and their education. We have friends that care about us, even if we can’t see them. We have time together—more time this year than we’ve ever had. There are times when I’ve been bitter, dwelling on those other things that we don’t have, but I am choosing not to focus on those disappointments and lost opportunities.

I also have the capacity to remember, to spend a few moments honoring those who lost so much, to vow again to live with intent and purpose because I am blessed with life. It’s 2020. Anything can happen. Truly, anything can happen no matter what year it is. But this year—today—when I’m so much more cognizant of my mortality, I choose to celebrate being alive one more day in tribute of those who were not given that choice.


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.