13 Years of Lessons Since 9/11

4 years ago

In 2001, I lived in New Jersey. I was married with two children who were not yet on their own, one in middle school and one at Rutgers University. My only sibling, a brother seven years younger than I, lived not too far from me in Staten Island. He worked in New York as a loss prevention manager at Macy's. Every work morning, he took the subway that traveled under the Twin Towers. Our parents remained in New Orleans, where we grew up. And then there was that day we all remember: Tuesday, September 11.

On that epic morning, world history seemed to pause, freezing America in a nightmarish moment, taking a snapshot of us devastated. We had never seen such a terrifying spectacle—huge jets crashing into buildings, our own people bruised, burned, bleeding, throwing their bodies like bombs from a tower, and the collapse of two magnificent skyscrapers. We had never seen our most famous city crippled, had never been attacked by foreign terrorists on our own soil.

Inside the September 11th Memorial in New York City, Image Credit: Anthony Quintano, via Flickr

This post marks the third time I find myself writing about that catastrophic day when a new generation of Americans lost their innocence, comprehending for the first time that neither they nor the nation was untouchable. (The Oklahoma City Bombing did not compare.) It took me three years to process what I'd witnessed and experienced that day and night in New Jersey, so the first time I wrote an essay about 9/11 was Saturday, September 11, 2004 and then only because a man I knew had written a poem for the day, stirring up memory. After my essay, I, too, wrote a poem, one that possibly reveals both my sense of loss and my conflicting emotions about our military response.

The next time I wrote about 9/11 was Sunday, September 11, 2011, when America marked the 10th anniversary, but again it took more than that benchmark anniversary to prompt my memorial post. The swell of documentaries and specials leading up to the day and an email from my friend, poet Diann Blakely, needled me. Diann wondered whether we, the public, were being manipulated by the media to engage in "an orgy of national mourning" and though not from New Orleans herself, she noted that Hurricane Katrina, which also had a high "body count" and also shocked the nation, did not garner the same level of national mourning. As a result, without identifying her as the sender of the email, I wrote a response that contemplated why we humans commemorate tragedies at all.

This year, ten years after my first essay and thirteen after the attacks, I look back and see how much my intimate world has changed since I turned on my television and saw first one plane then another ram into the World Trade Center towers, since I heard that American Airlines Flight 77 had slammed into the Pentagon, and since I learned the harrowing and heroic tale of passengers on United Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania. So much has happened in these 13 years that I could only think to convey events through a list that moves from very personal experiences that have changed my life to what's happened to us all as citizens of the United States of America.

1. Today, I am divorced from the man I thought would love me forever and I him, the father of my children. On 9/11 the cell phones went out in New Jersey. He worked only minutes from our home and was in a meeting when he and his co-workers got the news. Our children were at school. He picked them up, looked at TV a little, and said, "We should kill 'em all," referring to either the terrorists or all Muslims or every Arab? I don't know. His outburst shook me, but I chalked it up to just the way males respond to attacks. Then he went right back to work even though his company did not require him to do so. And I remember thinking, How can he leave like that? How can he leave me right now? I doubt he knows how much that decision, added to other issues, convinced me that our marriage was dying.

2. On that day, I had just dropped one of my children off at school when I returned home and found messages on the answering machine. The first was from my mother: “Nordette, turn on the news. They say the people have flown a plane into those World Towers in New York. I can’t reach Ben.” As I wrote in my first essay, "I frowned at the phone." My mother had already begun to show signs of being easily confused, so I thought she was confused then until I answered the next call from Ben himself. From my first essay:

“Nordette, call Mom. I can’t get through. Tell her I didn’t go to work today. Remember the damned Macy people pissed me off yesterday and I called in. Tell her I’m okay. I wasn’t at The Towers.” That was my brother. He’d told me the night before he wasn’t going in. He’d been working lots of overtime and had been asked to check up on a security issue that a staff person could handle. Something must be going on. My brother didn’t mix up the news.

Talking to him later that day, I was astonished to hear that if he had he gone to work, he would have been under the towers on the subway when the planes struck. It's possible that he would have died then. I was grateful that he'd skipped work. In that same conversation, he said, "I can't believe this. I could see the towers from my apartment window and now they're gone. They're gone." Many times after that I also would glimpse New York's skyline and have the same thought, Gone. I talked to my mother, my brother, and my father that day. Shocked, shocked, shocked was the common word.

3. Two months after my divorce was finalized, Hurricane Katrina  hit, and the levees broke, wiping out New Orleans. My children and I still lived in New Jersey, but my mother, father, and brother (and his wife) along with all my mother's siblings and their children had evacuated the New Orleans metropolitan area and fled to an aunt's house in Memphis. My parents' home, my maternal grandparents' home where an aunt then lived, and my cousins' homes were under water. Only my brother's and uncle's homes survived. Today, I live in my parents' home, and my aunt's repaired her home and returned. My uncle, his wife, and their only son have returned, and my brother returned to his home in Slidell, Louisiana. The rest of my family on my mother's side, including those who went to Texas during the storm, however, no longer live in the city. Also, most of my friends left and have not returned. So, while I'm happy to be in New Orleans, few things for me are the same. I've felt as though I've been learning the current city's people and few people know me.

4. A year after the towers fell, 2002, it became clear that my mother had more than occasional confusion. She had Alzheimers. Six years later, she was gone, dying on November 12, 2008. My father passed away in April 2012. Six months after my father, my brother, Ben, died on my father's birthday, November 9, 2012.

A flower at the September 11 Memorial in New York City on January 26, 2012. Image by Jens Schott Knudsen via Flickr Creative Commons License.
5. Deserving its own number on this list—Hurricane Katrina—not just the storm hitting and the levees breaking and how Katrina smashed the Gulf Coast, but also how images from the New Orleans Superdome (now the Mercedes Benz Superdome) and the city's poor people abandoned in the streets shattered America's illusion of prosperity for all. For many, it was the first time they had ever not trusted government (local, state, and federal) to tell the truth and protect the people. For others, little shocked them.

6. America elected its first Black president and called itself "post-racial." What have we learned about this nation since then?

7. I went back to school and am near completion of an MFA in poetry and MA in English, goals I had while married but was discouraged from pursuit. Both my children have finished their degrees. Now that they have full-time professional jobs, they've moved into their own apartments, my son out of state. I recall him, age 10 in 2001, being terrified for a time after 9/11 whenever planes flew overhead. I also recall living with my children after the divorce, stretching dollars in our rented cottage beside the Watchung Mountains, and hearing a giant plane overhead myself, so close that I stiffened. Is it another attack? It was some sort of military exercise, I learned. Today, I have a house to myself for the first time in my entire life, the same house I grew up in. It's possible that I am just now learning who I am and what I will do for myself alone. I try not to think how little my graduate degrees will mean now that I'm in my mid fifties and liberal arts degrees are not highly esteemed.

8. Occasionally the phone line repeatedly clicks when I'm talking to someone. It's nothing, right? I'm not dangerous and I don't know anyone who's a threat, yet I, along with every other American, have had to grudgingly accept that we are all now under surveillance in some form in the name of national safety. Some people in this nation have always been aware that they are scrutinized. For others, the assumption that they were not being watched has been a luxury they didn't know they had until they no longer had it.

9. I along with every other American also learned there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq despite our going to war, and now, despite calling the troops home, we still have a problem called "Iraq." We went to Afghanistan, but remain unsure about what we accomplished there as well.

10. Osama bin Laden is dead. Al Quaeda has weakened. But we are not so naive to think terrorism died with bin Laden.

11. Icons of our childhood and youth have passed away and friends, too. Last month, the poet Diann Blakely died, the poet who sent me the email about the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

12. We have witnessed near collapse of the American economy, the rise of the Tea Party, the bank scandals, the fracturing of broadcast journalism, the death of newspapers as we knew them, the sputter of Occupy Wall Street, the death of MySpace, the emergence of Twitter and Facebook, Hurricane Sandy, the bankrupting of Detroit, the beginnings of national economic recovery, passage of national healthcare, numerous attempts to repeal national healthcare, the growing power of the phone camera and social media, scientific leaps, too many mass shootings, Ferguson, and the ISIS beheadings.

13. Today we look around and see we have reached the 13th anniversary of 9/11, and we are still here, progressing, we hope.

On September 11, 2001, I with nearly everyone else glued myself to my television set. We wept. We sympathized with the families of 9/11 who lost family members. We applauded the first responders and wondered why we haven't done better by those who've suffered long-term. We've rehashed and Monday morning quarterbacked the wars.

You may have tried, as I have tried, to justify the war in your mind and the increased government surveillance. You may have tried, as I have tried, to blur in your vision the tracking of our purchases and web searches. And you may have spoken up against the privatization of government services, the classifying of corporations as human beings, various water shortages, how children at the border have been treated, and perhaps lamented as well as ranted against racism rearing its head both subtly and blatantly. I certainly have.

And now what, ISIS? Boko Haram? The ice caps melting? Another school shooting? Other heinous crimes? Fracking? How the Gulf of Mexico is swallowing part of the country? That it's what, Israel vs. Palestine again? And maybe you're struggling to pay your mortgage or you know too many people who've lost jobs.

There will always be trouble, but as the old gospel song goes, "Trouble don't last always." I know both trouble and relief intimately now.

Probably each of us older than 20 has a 9/11 story and reflections on how our lives have changed since the planes struck the towers. We all have had crises and joys worthy of contemplation, but what do we hope for our future? On this day when we recall as a nation that terrorists attacked us, the most powerful nation on the planet, we also recall the moment we forgot our individual problems and perceived ourselves to be one people. I hope that one day we will think that way again about ourselves, not through tragedy but through maturity. If through our trials and troubles we learn, grow, and find better ways to face terror, hate, and social inequities together, then the lives lost and the freedoms suppressed will not have been lost or suppressed in vain.

As sappy as that sounds, I try to look at my life the same way: what am I learning and am I putting those lessons to practical use? As sad as I am at times and cynical at others, I really do hope that just as individuals take personal tragedies and triumphs and through them grow stronger, we as Americans will use our pain and powers to make our nation and the world a more peaceful and livable space. If we can't, then 9/11 will not be the great tragedy of the era; our failure to create a more perfect union and sustainable peace will have that distinction.

Nordette Adams is a BlogHer CE. Follow on Twitter, @nordette_verite.

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