A not-that-close bystander to 9/11


I know there are plenty of people who have much more relevant stories to share about 9/11, but somehow this year has me reflecting about it in a new way. Usually I’m a little disappointed that I can’t put Wendy Williams on in the background as I tidy up the kitchen on September 11, and then chastened into a respectful viewing of what has pre-empted her: people connected to the victims reading their names aloud.

This year we’re cord cutters, so I don’t even have access to live morning tv really. And that’s just such a small difference in our lives in the past 18 years. Looking back . . .

I was a new mom balancing my 12 month old daughter and my erstwhile career as a writer. I had a phone conference scheduled with my editor. I had realized that a newly minted 1-year-old was just too unpredictable while on speakerphone, and my father-in-law was thrilled to get the chance to babysit. When he arrived, I had just gotten off the phone with my husband, who was on the train into the city. He had called to say one of the Twin Towers were on fire.

I assumed it was some sort of daredevil stunt gone wrong — there had been someone trying to climb one of the towers a few weeks before as I recall, or maybe base jump off of it. But our connection was lost, and a tiny drop of dread was growing inside me. I turned on the TV in time to see the second plane hit the second tower, and my dread grew as I tried to reach my husband again.

Cell service was out for several days. He called from the office land line once he arrived and decided to turn around and come home, because no one was sure what was happening next. Hours later, he arrived, having ridden on an overcrowded ferry (the only public transit option to cross the Hudson River), walking from Weehawken, where the boat landed, to Hoboken, where he could get a train. Even though I had talked to him and knew he was fine. I didn’t believe it until I saw him with my own two eyes.

We were very lucky that day, and there are thousands of families who were not. It still gives me chills to think about it, and I know I’m not alone. Because Madison is close to New York City and home to lots of bankers, there are too many stories that are not as lucky as mine. I think of the mom who was in my breast feeding support group, asking about how to handle her impending return to work a month before the attacks, and the baby and family she left behind when the towers fell.

I got a call from my friend and neighbor from my childhood in Washington DC — who also relocated to the New York area — when the plane hit the Pentagon. “It feels personal now.” They say the plane was trying to hit the White House or the US Capitol building, the latter being where my father was heading to work as a reporter that day.

This is how things played out from my perspective, a not that close but not that far bystander. My phone conference was cancelled and the publisher’s offices, located below 14th street, were closed for several weeks. My editor ultimately departed, in part because she was so affected by the attack (she also lived in lower manhattan and couldn’t get back to her home for awhile).

I don’t know if I will ever find that balance between being a mother and being a writer, and I’m still giving it a go. I can’t blame my distracting baby, who is now 19 and away at college.

That day changed the world for all of us, and it meant that my daughter, and the three siblings who came later, grew up in a world where you wouldn’t assume a fire is an accident and even a truck’s engine backfiring causes a panic in Times Square.

I saw a post on Facebook today that I hadn’t seen before. It said “I miss September 12” and the idea was that even though September 11 was horrible and we wish it hadn’t happened, what mattered the next day was what united us, not what divided us. Maybe the kids who lost the seemingly safe world on September 11 can inherit that sentiment as they become the ones running this place?

Beth McConnellComment