Monday, September 04, 2006

September's Winds Of Change

I wrote this piece in September of 2004, as we neared the third anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001.

I’ve always loved this time of year. The blazing heat of August is left behind, giving way to the cooler, fresher air that signals autumn’s imminent return. Windows are thrown open, the clean breeze softly swirling the curtains and breathing life into a summer-stuffy homestead. There is a subtle change that wafts in on the gentle September wind, a sense of newness and spirited vigor. These days are glorious in their simple beauty, days for tossing a cardigan over a tank top and trading shorts for a pair of jeans and soft fuzzy house shoes. Days when the streets are littered with children going back to school, when the sun seems golden and friendly instead of fiery and angry, when the mountains are in crisp relief against the cerulean blue of the sky.

September holds promise, all the hopefulness and joy of a new start, the school year like a blank page awaiting the script of those who would write it. There shines in September a simplicity and innocence, as if we are stepping in unison onto uncracked sidewalks in sturdy, unscuffed new school shoes. It brings with it the tangy scent of fireplace smoke, the snuggly warmth of a flannel-lined corduroy jacket, and the enthusiastic whoops over the sound of the marching band at the high school football game. The plain green trees of waning summer will parlay themselves into vivid works of art in golds and reds and oranges and browns, the brilliant palette of their branches in perpendicular display to the regal strength of their trunks.

Maybe it’s just nostalgia, a wistful fondness for the weightless, soft-focus memories of childhood: the first delight of piling up the falling leaves and crunching them under the heels of hard-soled shoes; the comforting smell of chocolate chip cookies baking on an afternoon early in the school year; the excitement of swinging on the metal jungle gym on the playground on a chilly day, the breeze turning cheeks to salmon pink and putting into young minds the idea of hot chocolate with marshmallows.

Whatever the reason, the turn of the calendar page to September has always brought with it that new-school, fresh-start feeling and washed away the oppressive sticky heat of a summer gone on too long.

Three Septembers ago, the sunny façade whitewashed by nostalgia and sweet memories cracked. No. No, it’s not right to say that it cracked.

It shattered.

Three years ago, the winds of September shifted, blowing in a dark and sinister cloud, blackening the once brilliant blue of a postcard-perfect autumn morning. The comforting safety we enjoyed, the cozy hominess of routine, the golden promise of September, all proved then to be a veneer, nothing more than a happy-faced curtain over our collective body, stripped away in a few horrifying minutes, all of our fears laid open and bare, raw and bloody.

I live in the west, in the mountain time zone, two hours behind New York City. Three years ago, most days would find me awake at six in the morning, puttering around making coffee and breakfast while my husband and daughters slept. I was five months pregnant, half the way to a new baby, and already sleep was coming less easily to me. On this particular morning, I slept on and on while my husband quietly got ready for his day and saw our fourteen-year-old to the school bus. By the time I awoke, the sun was playfully poking around the corners of my bedroom drapes, an action that drew patterns of light and shadow on the sleeping face of my younger daughter, just twenty-one months old.

I arose quietly to find the house empty. I remember feeling hopeful that morning. The hope that was developing and swelling in my heart was the first real hope I’d had in the nearly three weeks since my husband had morosely told me his division at work was being eliminated. This was the day he was attending a career fair downtown, and I knew that he would be seen and noticed by someone important, someone who would make the difference for him. I felt the promise of sunny September that morning even as I felt my unborn child kicking himself awake while I silently padded down the stairs to the kitchen.

I poured myself a cup of the coffee my husband had prepared, hearing my young daughter awaken. Grabbing a cup of milk for her, I returned upstairs and ushered my little towhead into the playroom. It was my habit to watch the morning news, but I decided to put PBS on for her while I caught up with my friends on the computer. The playroom television was always set to PBS.

Except that morning.

As I clicked the button on the remote, the picture that sprang into view was at once puzzling and mildly disturbing: the image was that of a tall tower against a blue sky, black and gray smoke billowing above it. It was just after 8:30am; 10:30am in New York. I was watching NBC’s replay of the footage of the moments directly following the impact of the first airplane, a fact I did not immediately know or understand. The image stopped me in my tracks, my outstretched arms balancing coffee in one hand and milk in the other. In my puzzlement I spoke out loud.

“The World Trade Center is on fire?” I asked myself.

And then, as I stood transfixed, I saw in agonizing horror the second plane hit the tower. I don’t remember what the news reporter said in that moment. I heard him speak, but could make no sense of the words. My heart pounded, and my arms slowly lowered to place the coffee and the milk on the bookshelf in front of me. I watched, refusing to believe what my own senses were telling me, my brain literally unable to process what I was seeing.

This was not an accident, my brain told me. From there, I was lost.

When my feet unlocked, they carried me on autopilot to the computer desk. I logged onto my message board, desperate to reach out to someone who could tell me what was happening and what I should be thinking. Someone who could tell me that what I saw wasn’t really happening.

I was among the last of my boardmates to have heard the news. I saw the title of the thread there and shivered: “Holy holy holy!” it read, the panic in those typed words palpable and frightening. Inside that thread, the voices of my friends, scattered across the country and indeed the globe, holding hands in virtual space, trying to comfort each other and make sense of the new world into which we’d suddenly and unwillingly been thrust.

I called my husband. He hadn’t heard. He’d been in meetings all morning, excited and positive and hopeful over a discussion he’d had with a particular employer. I told him in broken words news that he didn’t quite understand. I begged him to come home. It would turn out later that the convention center closed shortly after that call and he was sent home anyway. No one dared to go or be anywhere.

Turning back to the television, I sat on my knees and cradled my daughter on my lap, choking back my fears for her and the new baby I carried. In those first moments, I wondered if my baby would even have a chance to be born. What kind of Brave New World would I be raising my children in? Would there be a world for them at all?

“Want Tubby Tubbies,” my little girl said stubbornly, looking up at me intently with serious blue eyes.

“Ssh…just a minute, okay?” I stroked her hair, unable to take my gaze from the television. I watched the footage replay. I saw the painful shock on the formerly impassive faces of the news reporters. I changed the station to ABC and saw Peter Jennings, his composure as close to wavering as I had ever seen it. Switching the channel once more to NBC, I saw the familiar and once calming face of Tom Brokaw, with no comfort to be found. There was no talk of legality or morality or criminality. There was only talk of lives and families and tragedy and the tens of thousands who may have been trapped inside those buildings as they collapsed and fell.

“September 11, 2001.” I can still hear Tom Brokaw’s voice resonating in my head as he solemnly repeated the date, observing somberly that it was a date that would forever be branded into the memories of Americans, inextricably woven with the tragic atrocities that had occurred that day in New York City, Washington, DC, and a field somewhere in Pennsylvania.

“Mommy okay?” I felt my daughter’s hand brush my cheek, her fingers wet from the tears I hadn’t realized I’d shed. I took her hand and kissed it.

“No, honey, I don’t think so.”

Abruptly I changed the channel to PBS for her, leaving her happily surrounded by innocent sweetness, chattering to herself contentedly while she played. She was undeterred by my uncertainty, and for that I was grateful.


I opened the windows early this morning, letting in the cool, dewy morning breeze as the sun rose over the mountains on the horizon beyond my backyard. I slid open the patio door and stood outside in the still freshness, sipping on my coffee, enjoying the fleeting solitude while the rest of my family slept.

When the morning rush descended as the full light of day bloomed overhead, I lost myself in the tasks at hand: my daughter’s first day of preschool, my son’s appointment at the pediatrician, a deposit at the bank’s drive-through window. I baked cookies this afternoon, our annual tradition to celebrate the first day of school. The clean slate offered by the new year that comes in September was receiving its first delighted scribbles and happy memory-makers.

But somewhere, lurking in the shadows that always accompany the bright sunlight, the images of another sunny September day continue to haunt me, the slideshow pictures clicking softly behind the veil of contentment in my head and heart. The vague unease invariably gives way to the demands of the here and now, but the grim and sinister lie in wait, simmering just below the surface.

September will never be quite the same.

1 comment:

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