11 years ago today, I was driving to work in Washington D.C . on a sunny Tuesday morning and running late as usual. It was one of those impossibly gorgeous days, where things are so crisp they don’t look real.
My husband called my cell, but I was talking to a girlfriend and I didn’t pick up. I remember pulling up to a stoplight as he called back for the second time, and I told my friend I’d better take it – it wasn’t like Nick to be so insistent.
“Two planes flew into the World Trade Center Towers,” he said. No hello, just the news. He was curt. Also not like him.
We talked for the rest of my drive, speculating, wondering if I should come home or continue my commute, because I worked in a building right next to the FBI, and I remember the next 20 minutes as the breath we held between before and after. There was the commercial plane that flew directly over my car, in restricted air space near Bolling Air Force Base, before banking away over the Potomac. There was the woman who ran – sobbing – out of the elevator as I got into it at the parking garage, her laptop and papers and purse piled helter skelter into her arms. There was the stricken look on the face of my office-mate as I walked in, and she said, “They hit the Pentagon.”
I corrected her. It was the Twin Towers, in New York.
“They hit the Pentagon, just now.”
And we exhaled. There was a “they.” This was no coincidence or accident. We were at war. I thought about the plane that had flown over my car, wondered briefly if it was the one.
Absurdly, the next thing that came to mind was, “I survived a volcanic eruption in the Philippines. This is not going to be the way I go out.” I may even have said that out loud – I don’t remember. I went to my boss’s office, and said, “I’m here, but I’m leaving.” And he said, “Yes.” Just… yes.
I hugged my office-mate. I went back down to my car. I hadn’t even put down my things.
My recollection of the drive in and the drive home is that the roads were deserted and I had them all to myself. I know that isn’t true, but that’s how it felt. I got out of D.C. ahead of the mass exodus – some people I knew didn’t get home for six hours or more; some of them walked home because public transportation was so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people trying to get out of the city. A drive that normally took me at least 45 minutes – and often more than an hour – took me 20 minutes. I was speeding, and I didn’t care. I wanted my daughter, and my husband, and my home. I wanted to be someplace familiar and safe. The world – the real world, in all its ugliness and brokenness – was suddenly far too close.
I went straight to my daughter’s school. I waited by the front doors while the office secretary sent for her from her classroom, near where the school principal was standing. Other parents were surely on their way to pick up their children, and he just stood there, silent, looking straight out the glass doors, gently tapping a walkie talkie against his thigh, his face fixed and serious. There was nothing for us to say – neither of us could think of a single word. As I saw my daughter coming down the hall, I hugged him and he hugged me back, a formal man undone a bit by the moment.
And of course that, more than anything else, frightened my daughter. “Daddy is OK, we’re all fine,” I said by way of greeting, reading in her eyes her immediate fear and the only possible reason she could come up with in her frame of reference that would have me hugging the school principal. “We’ve been attacked,” I told her as we walked out to the car. “People flew planes into buildings here and in New York.”
My daughter looked at me. “Does this mean I have to wear a poodle skirt?” she asked suspiciously. And I realized that until this moment, in her young view of the world, her only concept of war came from old movies we watched together.
“No, honey,” I answered. And we drove home while she talked about her day and I listened. I didn’t know what to tell her, how to make it real or if I should even try. Nick got home and we sat together and watched the news. Even though the anchors kept saying over and over again that cell towers and land-lines were jammed and no calls were getting through, I called my dad, who lived north of Manhattan and I got through on the first try. He was ok, had been on his way into the city to have lunch with a friend, heard the news and turned for home. We speculated, shared the things we’d heard, wondered aloud what might be next.
And then the Towers fell, and I didn’t need to think anymore about how to make it real for my daughter.
There will undoubtedly be a lot written about the anniversary we mark today. As has been done in years past, people will offer up opinions, translate the emotions of the day into some political point, and names will be read at services held in New York, in Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon. I have often wondered what peace or comfort there is in those moments for the family members left behind. I watched the first anniversary service and haven’t watched one since; I found no peace or comfort in it. On the anniversary each year, I am as angry and outraged as I was that day, as aware of the world and its sharp, dangerous edges drawing close. And I am more certain than ever that we have an Enemy who wants us dead, who wants us fighting, who wants us focused on the rising smoke, the carnage, the fear, who wants us undone and impotent and unthinking in our rage and grief.
And I refuse.
Oh, I am still angry. But on this anniversary, as I have tried to do on anniversaries past, I affirm that we have a great, good God whose Son was sent to redeem us from the evil we do to ourselves and to one another. I affirm that he was great and good on the day the Towers fell; he was great and good as men and women escaped the flames by leaping to their deaths; he was great and good as men and women said good-bye to their loved ones as their planes went down; he was great and good as first responders answered the call and climbed the stairs, and were selfless in their sacrifice; and he was great and good as men and women aboard Flight 93 fought against the darkness. I affirm that although there are many, many things I do not understand, he is great and good still.
On this anniversary, I remember the lives lost, the lives changed, the families and children left behind. I remember that life is fragile and fleeting, that we do not ever know the time of our departure, and that time is precious. I remember that the greatest tragedy of that day are those who passed into eternity without knowing or hearing about how deeply and passionately and personally God loves them, and I remember that my life is not my own, that there is work to do, and we had better be about it. And I remember that this world – the one that’s sharp and ugly and filled with darkness – can be changed by love and compassion and mercy if we will carry them out into the streets, if we will just be more passionate and committed about sharing them. We’ve been given a great gift, and on this anniversary – in spite of my enduring rage and grief – I must remember that it’s our job, our duty, our calling to give it away to as many people as we can convince to accept it.
Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture: They kill us in cold blood because they hate you. We’re sitting ducks; they pick us off one by one. None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I’m absolutely convinced that nothing – nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable – absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.
— Romans 8:35-39 (The Message)