Like everyone else on September 11, 2001, where we were and what we were doing is now locked into our memories. Perhaps strangely, my family’s experience that day served to remind me that a mother’s intuition can be more powerful than the electronic devices we normally use to stay in touch.
My husband’s brother enjoyed taking our kids on short educational vacations. It was his way of contributing to their homeschool experiences while also indulging in his own geeky history obsession. For a few days that week in September he took two of our sons, then ages eight and eleven, on a learning-intensive trip from our Ohio home to Washington, D.C. He enjoyed fully documenting these trips. He took lots of photos and videos, bought commemorative items, collected every possible brochure, and had the kids call home several times each day to report on all they were doing. He always left a left a clear itinerary for us to follow.
On September 11th their agenda included the Pentagon and the White House.
At home with our other two children, I noticed that September 11th was an extraordinarily beautiful day weather-wise. Typical for me I rhapsodized that it was a “perfect day.” No intuition there. I wasn’t aware of the terrorist attacks until a friend called, telling me to turn on the television. I had no idea what he was talking about and asked what channel. “It doesn’t matter. It’s on every channel,” he replied.
The moment I saw the video of the first plane hitting the Twin Towers I felt sure that there would be more devastation in more places. I phoned my brother-in-law. I wanted to tell him two things. First, drive home immediately but do so away from major population centers (I felt sure other cities would be under attack). And second, listen to the radio infrequently as possible so my boys wouldn’t be alarmed by the media coverage.
As I dialed, reports flooded in that a second plane had hit the towers. My call didn’t go through. I reached my husband at work but still couldn’t get through to my brother-in-law. My mother-in-law, who also had a copy of their itinerary, was frantic. She became even more frantic when the Pentagon was attacked. My husband spent the day with her, trying to calm her fears and, like me, trying to reach his brother.
By now Flight 93 had turned over our area of Ohio, heading for the White House until passengers seized control of the plane and it went down in a remote area of Pennsylvania. Three places hit. The media kept speculating about other cities under potential attack and our phone kept ringing.
Every time a friend or family member called to discuss the unfolding horrors, I told them I needed to get off the phone in hopes my brother-in-law might get through. And each time they reacted with a great deal more alarm than I felt. Suddenly they knew two little boys who very well might have been at the Pentagon when it was attacked and who were still unaccounted for on this tragic day. Their reactions, which should have increased my anxiety, didn’t. Although I was as overwhelmed as anyone by what felt like a day out of time, I was completely sure that my sons and their uncle were fine. This wasn’t in keeping with my worry-prone personality but something, maybe a mother’s intuition, told me they were safe and would be home. Each time I talked to my husband I assured him that our family would be fine. I tried to talk to my mother-in-law but she could only cry on the phone. Even before I heard from my missing family members, I began to fear that my country might retaliate and more lives would be lost.
Cell communication remained impossible for hours. Late that afternoon we finally heard from my brother-in-law. The connection wasn’t good but it was clear they were safe, on the road, and would be driving until they made it home.
When they got home we heard their experience of 9/11. The boy’s first choice of the day had been the White House. They emerged from the metro as a full evacuation seemed to be underway. People in business clothes were running full tilt from office buildings. Officers with squawking radios were everywhere. So they turned around, got back on the now jammed metro, and made their way very slowly back to the car parked at the hotel before setting off for the long trip home. The boys tried unsuccessfully to talk their uncle into letting them swim first.
It wasn’t until they were much older that my boys understood the tragic magnitude of 9/11. Their memories have more to do with a trip cut short, a crowded metro, and grown-ups more serious than usual. Their uncle never gave them videos or pictures from that trip either. If only we could unmake a day that easily.