Child was 1 year old when towers fell and the pentagon burned and thousands died. The news websites crashed under the weight of people trying to find out what was happening, so when someone managed to connect, we gathered around their desk, horrified as the day unraveled. My boss was a giant C-U-next-Tuesday, and decided that terrorist attack or not, her team would not be leaving early that day. We also wouldn’t be wasting the day and company resources refreshing browsers, desperate for information. No. She booked us in training meetings all day. I remember nothing of those meetings other than looking out my 9th floor window, across the Ottawa River at the hills of Gatineau Park and to the east towards Parliament Hill and feeling like there was somewhere else I should be.
I spent an hour in my car on the way home listening to reporters unable to find the words. I bounced Child on my knee as I watched footage of people jumping from the towers so they could die on their own terms, knowing that death was coming either way. I stayed up too late watching the smoke from the first tower, the billowing of dust when the towers collapsed, the broken Pentagon, the field of fuselage debris…
A few days later, there was a bomb scare in my building. We waited in the parking lot on the edge of the golf course, and the wind was sharp, for early September. There were no planes in the sky on approach to YOW. The whole world was off-kilter.
I went, a few weeks later, to the American Embassy in Ottawa. As I approached the gate, memorial flags and wilted flowers still stuck between the bars, pools of hardened wax from spent candles on the ground, I burst into tears. I’m not even sure why it happened – it caught me by surprise. I don’t often feel American, despite my birthright, but that day, it’s all I felt.
I remember watching a press conference of Dubya saying “if you don’t hand over the people who did this, we’re coming to get them”. And then, he did. I still kinda hear carousel music accompanying Dubya in my mind, but in that moment, for the first time, I saw Dubya as an actual leader. I am the Queen of the WordNerds, and whomever wrote his speech that night does all wordnerds proud.
Before Christmas that year, I bought a few magazines for the cookie recipes and the holiday décor porn. In one of them, there was a collection of tributes. To friends and siblings and neighbours. To the editor of one of the magazines who died on UA flight 93. To the people who held vigil on one of the bridges across the Hudson River, and cheered and thanked the rescue/recovery teams who crossed to start and end their shifts. To the flooring company who, on Nine-Twelve realized that the scent dogs couldn’t do their job if their paws were cut from the shards of glass everywhere, so they started making linoleum boots for them. That magazine is long recycled, but I cut out every one of those tributes and I still have them. I still feel emotional just thinking about them.
Years after that, there was a lovely tribute to the remaining living scent dog that searched for survivors in New York. The dog was sick and was going to be put down, but they gave her an amazing final day of pampering and great treats. She would have been one of the dogs wearing the linoleum boots that many years earlier. She just considered it a day at work.
Five years or so after the towers came down, Child and I were in New York City. We were in a taxi trying to get to South Street Seaport, and we passed the site. I asked the driver if that’s where we were. He didn’t launch into ‘chat up the tourist’ mode, he said quietly, “Yes”, and none of us spoke for the last few minutes of our trip. Even after 5 years, the construction site wasn’t just NYC noise.
A few years after that, we were at Walt Disney World. One of my favourite parts of Disney after dark is the Electrical Water pageant. There are lighted parade floats on pontoon barges that wind their way past the resorts on Seven Seas Lagoon. On Nine Eleven that year, I had, as one sometimes does on vacation, lost track of what day it was. It was by happenstance that we were at the Magic Kingdom that day, and bigger happenstance that we were in a place where we could see the water pageant. But that day, they removed all the alligators and mermaids and sea creature floats, and they had a floating memorial, instead. It was absolutely lovely.
My best friend got married in the Narrows in St. Johns. On the way back home, Connor and I were on a different flight from everyone else, and our plane stopped in Gander to deplane a few travellers. I was so choked up trying to tell him about how this tiny airport played a huge role in the safety of thousands of people, that I couldn’t even tell a coherent story. Words don’t often fail me, but on the tarmac in Gander, they did. There are touchpoints of pride that everyone has in their nationhood, and for me, the very best of Canada showed up at Gander.
A few years ago, Connor and I went to see The Breath of Kings at Stratford. It’s a story, in two halves (Rebellion and Redemption) of the Richard 2, Henry 4(parts 1 and 2) and Henry 5 plays. It was stunning. The program notes had an intro by Graham Abbey, the guy who pulled the 4 plays into the new Breath of Kings plays. I don’t always read the intro notes in the program, but this one spoke about how he was in upstate New York, on a quick getaway from Stratford before he was due back for his call. He realized the magnitude of what was happening and did a mad scramble to get over the border before the they were locked down. He used the uncomfortable feeling of knowing that the world would not be the same in the aftermath to fuel and inspire The Breath of Kings.
Last fall, my wider family went together to see Come from Away. After reading the book The Day The World Came To Town, I was very excited about seeing it, and I’m glad that I went with my extended family. I reflected, as I sat in the theatre, about my experience on 9-11-01, about my feelings on the tarmac in Gander a few years ago. I thought about my family around me, and the people who’ve been immortalized on the stage that day. Periodically, I hear a song from Come from Away on Child’s music mix – a mix that is heavily weighted with Flogging Molly and the Dropkick Murphys. I like that he’s wrapped some meaning around it for himself, too. Maybe it was just a story of the kindness of Canadians on the Rock for him. Maybe he gets the bigger picture, too.
My emotion and hurt and whatever pales absolutely in comparison to many, and that’s not my intention here. Today is a day when I think about all these vignettes of my experience of Nine Eleven, rolled out over all these years years. The pride, and sadness, and fury and hope all wrapped up into… this. While I want to feel like this won’t happen again, there have been attacks all over the world in the time since. So I think about how every day we go out into the world, and sometimes not everyone makes it home again
The world feels like a harsher place these days. Let’s try to make this world a little more safe, more friendly, more of a community. We’ve got work to do, friends. Today we remember, tomorrow, the work continues.