Monday, September 11, 2006

September 11th

I've read a lot of 9/11 posts in the past few days, as well as newspaper articles, and last night I watched a 9/11 TV documentary while babysitting for our friends. Even my alma mater is seeking bits about where people were on 9/11. So here's my story...

September 11th, 2001 was my first day of graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work in Philadelphia. After a few years of working in children's grief, I knew I wanted and needed a graduate degree to do what I wanted most--provide support and hope for grieving children and families. As I rode the train into the city, I looked forward to the day when I would have my degree and be able to fulfill my calling.

As I walked into my second class of the day in our small, old building, the TV showed a scene of a tall building smoking. I turned to another student and asked what was happening, to the extent of "is this for real?" He didn't know much, other than a plane had flown into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York. (Not being from the East coast, I had no idea what I was seeing--how my perspective changed that day) We watched, mouths agape, as other students filed in and immediately turned toward the TV.

My professor arrived, watched TV for a few minutes, and then turned it off and suggested we start class. The discomfort in the room was palable--were we really going to try and focus on learning when a major disaster was occuring in our backyard? It wasn't 15 minutes before someone popped their head in the door to say classes had been cancelled and it was recommended that all students and staff vacate the school.

My friend and I walked hurriedly and quietly, unsure of what to say in such a time. Upon arriving at the train station, we were informed that all trains in and out of Philly had been cancelled due to the terrorist attacks. I phoned my husband on my cell phone and asked that he and my friend's husband come to get us right away. I remember that my cell phone kept saying "All circuits are busy." So when I called my parents I used my calling card and a payphone. As my parents lived on the West coast, and we were far away in the East, I called to let them know that the attacks had happened close to where we were, but that we were all safe. My mom was grateful for the call, but didn't seem alarmed. (She told me later, upon watching a news report on TV, she burst into tears when they announced Philadelphia as a possible target for the attacks. My family simply had no idea how close things are out East.)

After reaching our husbands and making a plan for pickup, we ducked into a nearby bar to watch TV and find out more information. The bar was silent except for the TV and a few people trying half-heartedly to crack jokes and lighten the mood. All of us stood, transfixed, eyes toward the few TVs in the place. Tears rolled down cheeks of those around me. I just couldn't believe this was happening. My safe, secure world became suddenly so strange and surreal. I remember wanting so desperately to be home in Sandy, Oregon, where terrorists had no targets or interests.

Our husbands arrived in a short 45 minutes, much to our surprise. We expected that the roads would be packed with traffic given the movement en masse from the cities. That afternoon, we hooked up our TV (for the majority of our married life--6 plus years--we've not had TV, a conscious choice that started to improve the quality of our studying and eventually became a commitment to spending quality time together). For days, weeks even, we were hooked on the news reports. They showed the same scenes over and over: planes crashing, towers falling, people running away from ground zero crying, screaming, and covered in white ash.

In the weeks to come we realized just how great the impact of 9/11 was on our community. People in my class lost loved ones in the attacks. Families in our church lost fathers. The couple I baby-sat for regularly had multiple funerals in a few short weeks because so many of their friends and colleagues died.

This couple wanted so badly to protect their children (ages 3 and 6 months) from the horrible reality of the terrorist attacks. They didn't turn on their TV except at night while the children slept. They spoke to me in code about funeral arrangements and the extent of their grief. And they tried their hardest to keep their toddler safe from the confusion, sadness, and terror gripping his small Jewish school and community where so many lives had been lost. But I remember so distinctly that one afternoon as I sat on the floor with this little guy, he was acting out the very events of that day. He would use large red cardboard blocks to build a "tall tower" and then fly his small grey plane into the side, sending the blocks tumbling to the ground. I sat silently beside him as he repeated this action over and over and over.

In that moment, I knew that life had changed dramatically not only for me, but for everyone whose life would be touched or shattered by this tragic day. And it renewed my commitment to my calling, to the anticipation I felt that first day of school on 9/11. Death will always be a part of life; grief will forever be a reality. Counseling will always be one way to provide hope. And healing will always be possible.

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