Sunday, September 11, 2011

Where Were You?

Most of us remember where we were when world events took place: my mom was ironing in front of the TV when JFK was assassinated.  I was at work in Louisiana when the Challenger crashed; I knew my brother-in-law worked at NASA with the Challenger astronauts, so it hit pretty close to home for me.  I can remember watching the early moments of the first Gulf War on TV in Mississippi.  The grainy black and white films of the surgical strikes were compelling and frightening.

We all have our 9-11 stories.  As I watch all the coverage today, I am taken back to a normal day in Charlotte, NC.  The kids had all been dropped at school on that sunny morning.  I was in my car running a mundane errand: I was on the way to the humane society to borrow some cat traps.  We had two feral cats who had taken up residence in our back yard, and being the responsible property owner that I was, I needed to get them checked, spayed &/or neutered (we didn’t know if they were male or female).  So there I was, driving along Gilead Road in Huntersville, on my way to Remount Road, where the animal shelter was.  A friend called and told me about a plane hitting the World Trade Center.  For some reason, when we human beings are confronted with the unbelievable and the unfathomable, we go immediately into denial.  Told that there has been an accident, we immediately go into denial mode: someone is hurt, but they will be okay.  A plane has hit the tower, but I’m sure it was an accident.  I could imagine a private plane taking a wrong turn. 

My friend was equally sure it was not an accident.  I brushed her off.  “There she goes again, overreacting,” I thought.  As I drove down I-77 to Charlotte, I heard about the second plane on the radio.  The truth settled over me like a wet blanket of disbelief and horror.  As if sleepwalking, I fetched the cat traps, telling the people at the shelter what was going on.  They turned on their TV immediately and we all watched, silent, for a few minutes.  I suddenly felt an urgent need to get back in my car and get to the kids’ school, just to be near them.  It was grandparents' day and we all sat in the auditorium that afternoon watching their little performances, smiling stiffly, wondering if their teachers had told them what had happened, wondering how we were going to tell them, hoping that their innocence wouldn't be crushed forever.

The rest of the day is a blur.  I remember standing (who can sit at a time like this?) in my living room, watching the news, switching from channel to channel.  The Pentagon has been hit?  Who is next?  Where is the other plane?  There were some murmurs about Charlotte being next, because it is the second largest financial center next to New York.  My husband’s headquarters were in Boston at the time, and he called to tell me that the John Hancock tower was being evacuated.  One of his co-workers was on the flight that hit the World Trade Center.  The news just got worse and worse. 

We were waiting for our travel dates to go to Kazakhstan to adopt our new daughter, Lisa.  We knew our turn was coming up soon, and I have to admit, selfishly, I was afraid how all of this was going to affect our trip.  We heard from our agency about several families en route from Kazakhstan to the states who had been diverted to Canada with their new children.  A book called “The Day the World Came to Town” by Jim DeFede tells the story about the flights that landed in Gander, Newfoundland and how the city took everyone in.  A couple from our agency was on their way home from Almaty, and ended up in Gander.

Not only that, my mother was scheduled for surgery in Baton Rouge to remove a node from her pancreas.  Every doctor I had consulted told me that there was only a 1% chance that it was not cancerous.  Their faces would grimly tell me that it was likely I was about to lose my mother.  And now the world was in crisis. 

I was supposed to leave on Thursday for Baton Rouge to be with mom for her surgery on Friday.  With the airspace over the US closed, I wasn’t going anywhere.  Her surgeon was supposed to go somewhere mid-week, but unable to travel, he moved her surgery to Wednesday.  Either way I wasn’t going to be there.  When they opened the airspace for flights on Friday, I flew to Baton Rouge on a virtually empty plane.  Only six other brave souls flew with me that day.  I convinced myself that with security so tight, now was probably the safest day to fly.  I had gotten the news that mom’s node was NOT cancerous.  She had beaten the odds … maybe things were looking up?

So here I am yammering about all the things that affected me on and around 9/11.  How can what I went through even compare to the horror, the unfathomable loss of life?  I can’t bear to think about the people who were faced with the decision that a fall from the top of the World Trade Center was a preferable way to die than burning in the inferno.  To imagine the chaos and confusion among those trying to make it down the interminable flights of stairs, only to suddenly have their lives snuffed out when the towers fell?  Execrable. 

And the anger.  Oh, the anger, the fury, the outrage.  How could anyone be so evil?  As the pieces of the story came together, it became more and more unbelievable.  We all walked around in a fog for weeks afterwards.   People asked us if we were still planning to go to Kazakhstan?  Of course we were!  Could we just abandon our little girl, who was already our daughter in our minds?  Most people equated any country with “stan” in the name with Muslim extremists.  We knew that Kazakhstan, while technically Muslim, was more moderate; the Muslims in that country were mostly Islamic in name only.  For some reason we felt at peace.  No fear.  

Perhaps being a Third Culture Kid, I never lost that feeling that there is good in the world.  Not being an ostrich: burying my head in the sand about the fact that there is evil, but not losing hope that good will triumph in the end.  Having gone to high school with Muslims, I knew that they were not inherently bad; that every religion has its extremists, and I never judged a group of people by the bad apples.  I'm sure that few people are able to have this attitude; perhaps we TCKs are unique in this regard.  I hope that some day we will look at this period of history and wonder, not only "How could they?" but also "How could we?"  How can it be that we live in a country where ignorant people murder men wearing turbans in the mistaken belief that they are Muslims when they are really Sikhs?  Where a Muslim taxi driver gets his throat slashed simply because he is Muslim?  Looking to history, how could we have interned hundreds of Japanese-Americans simply because of their race?  Japan committed brutal, inhuman acts against its enemies in World War II.  Now they are one of our allies; a strong people with an admirable philosophy of industry and progress.  Good won out.

We did travel to Kazakhstan.  The people we met were most sympathetic.  Our trip is forever tied to the events of that day in September … a bittersweet journey to get our sweet girl, when world events were coming together in a convergence of fear and anxiety.  Our world was changed forever, both on a global scale, and in our little family.  Our daughter was a ray of light in a dark time.  I look at her now, and I see hope for the future.  We will never forget.  

My beautiful daughter Lisa.

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