My husband and I were talking last night about impact events. An impact event is a moment never lost in the stream of daily minutia. That is why we celebrate and mourn them; weddings, births, deaths, national tragedies…we feel compelled as humans to venerate the day so we never forget.
My parents still remember where they were November 22, 1963, sitting in their school classrooms wondering why their teachers were to choked up to talk. On January 28, 1986 I was home sick from 6th grade, watching television at the neighbor’s house when cartoons were interrupted to watch the live Challenger launch and then explosion. I remember driving to work on April 19, 1995 sobbing in my car when the Oklahoma City bombing was reported on the radio. These days are etched on my memory as vividly as my wedding day and birth of my children.
September 11, 2001 was an impact event felt the world over. My husband and I were in a small outback town in Australia. He was there on deployment, and I had flown to meet him. Our one year old daughter was in Chicago with her grandparents, and we had called in to check on her before going to bed. His mother answered the phone and said turn on CNN, which we did…just in time to see the second plane angle to the building and plow through. I was numb. My mother-in-law was sobbing, clinging she said to our daughter. At the time she had an office in the Chicago Sears Tower. She did not go into work for days after the tragedy, because our world had gone mad and no one knew what might happen next.
My husband and I started to pack. Within 30 minutes a car was sent to get us from our hotel, and sped to the safety of base. I spent the next two days in an underground bunker with 300 Marines preparing for…for who knew what at the time. These incredibly brave men and women were mobilized, horrified, sad, even devastated perhaps…but ready and resolved. I envied them. I couldn’t stop crying and worrying. I envied them because they could do something about it, and all I could do was kneel at the base chapel alter and pray.
They began to mobilize and I had to leave. That was a surreal drive through the outback…by myself…going 120 mph (no speed limits), dodging road trains…trying to get back to Darwin to get a plane into Sydney and then perhaps home. I barely made it to Sydney. I landed at midnight, and Ansett Airlines went out of business minutes after I landed. I was fortunate to get a hotel room in Sydney, there were very few left.
The atmosphere in Sydney was so different from the week we had been there prior. It was somber, reflective and a little frightened. I will forever be indebted, as an American, to the Australian people. They were supportive and loving to what felt like an instant community of refugees. They held memorial services for us in their churches. Everywhere I went there were hugs, tears, offers of support and prayers from complete strangers.
For me, and the many Americans I met there…waiting like me to go home…getting on an airplane felt as frightening as climbing Mt. Everest. I got one of the last tickets on the first plane to leave Australia. All I wanted to do was get to Chicago and hug my daughter tight. The only ticket I could get was into Los Angeles, and then it was unknown when I could get a flight from there…but at least I would be on home soil. I guarantee you, America never felt as much like home to me as at that moment.
It took almost eight hours to get through Sydney airport security…and no one in that line cared. We wanted them to search everything. I was flying United, and the pilot and flight attendants gave instructions through tears. Strangers hugged each other and put down their books to talk with their seat mates. People shared stories, prayed together and even held hands during take off. When we finally landed at LAX, a cheer strangled through tears and sobs, went up through the plane. On man knelt on the terminal ground and kissed it when we got off the plane. We were Americans, in that small microcosm of our country, we were united.
Landing in LAX was like stepping into a war zone. National guard soliders with M-16s and police officers geared like SWAT almost outnumbered the passengers. I literally had left one country a month earlier and returned to a completely different one. Eventually I made it home to hug my baby. I didn’t let go for a long time. I was grateful though…there were a lot of mothers who would never hug their babies again.
Although we will never forget 9/11, the farther away we have moved from it, the more its lessons fade in our minds. That is why we need to venerate the day – listen to the reading of the names, remember to hug your family, pray with a complete stranger, and hold the hands of our fellow Americans in gratitude for the wonderful country we live in.
Always Remember…Where were you on 9/11? Share your story in the comments below.