What I Remember

I was teaching Language Arts to a classroom full of seventh graders.  It was my first class of the day; a two-hour block, with a 5 minute break halfway through.  The first block ended around 9:00, and I took my place in the hallway to supervise students during the break. 

The chatter began.  A knot of teachers, clustered together, speaking in low voices about strange snatches of news.   Students went in and out of the bathrooms, got water from the fountain, traded their own stories.

-A plane- a Cessna- crashed into one of the Twin Towers.

-A plane?  Crashed into the…?  How does that even happen?

-Probably had their navigation systems fail.

-Maybe.  But shoot- that’s a big building!  Couldn’t you, you know, swerve around it?

The arrival of another teacher brought more news, but no answers.

-Another plane crashed into the building.

-Another?  What?

-Not a Cessna.  A passenger plane.

-A…?  How many people?

-How does this happen?  Who’s directing those planes?  How do you accidentally crash into a building?

And then one of the teachers said what we weren’t able to.

-Two planes full of people don’t crash into buildings on accident.

Break was over.  I returned to my classroom, simultaneously buzzing and numb.  I can’t remember what happened during the second half of the class.  I can’t remember if staff members knocked at my door to give me updates as they came in over the news.  I can’t remember if I said anything to my students, some of whom had overheard snatches of conversation and were asking questions.  I don’t remember anything until class was over, the students went off to other places, and my planning period began.

I met with the other teachers and watched CNN.  New York.  The Towers falling.  All those people running down the street while clouds of dust and rubble, as tall as some of those buildings, rose up behind them.

Then news from D.C.  At the time, my cousin lived in an apartment within sight of the Pentagon, and she commuted into the city every morning.

I called my parents to see if they’d heard anything from her.  They hadn’t.  Her parents, my aunt and uncle, had been unable to reach her.

I started crying now.  That kind of crying where you can’t stop it, not even if your life depended on it.  The kind of crying that’s all exhale, no inhale; your lungs are pressed so tightly by your ribcage that you can’t draw even a gasp of air.  I can’t breathe.  I can’t talk.  I can only grip the phone in my left hand and listen as my mom, realizing that I’m out of control, puts my dad on the line.

“Cari.  Calm down.  Cari?  Can you hear me?  This is your father.  Listen.  You have to get yourself together for your students.”  Eleven years later, and I can still hear my dad say, “This is your father,” like it’s playing on a recording.

My body stops trying to collapse on itself just enough for me to draw a breath, nod dumbly, and whisper, “Ok.  I’m ok.  I’ll call between classes to see if you’ve heard from Erinn.”  This was before cellphones being everywhere like they are now.  If I even had one at the time, it was some giant plastic dinosaur that barely kept a call without dropping, so forget about texting or internet access.

There’s talk about sending the kids home early.  It’s decided against.  The school is put on lockdown, though against what exactly no one knows.  This is Michigan, not New York.  This is a affluent suburb of Detroit, not Washington D.C.

I didn’t live where I taught.  I couldn’t afford it.  I lived twenty minutes south, in a part of town with a large Arab community.  People were already speculating on who was responsible for the deaths, and fearful, angry fingers were pointing at large swaths of a general population.  I didn’t know about any of that.  All I knew was that if there was ever a day that called for several after-work beers, it was that day.

I pulled into a party store close to my house, and got a six pack.  I set it on the counter, and the clerk, a dark eyed man of Arab decent, looked at me, and I looked at him.

“Hell of a day, huh?”  I said, tearing up.

He nodded, teared up.  “Hell of a day,”  he agreed.

I got home before Ken.  Drank some beer.  Got the call that my cousin was fine, and would try calling me later.  An hour or so, and Ken got home.  Later, he would tell me he knew how upset I was when he discovered the door was locked.  “You never lock the door,”  he told me.

We lived near Detroit Metro, and the sound of airplanes coming and going were part of the soundtrack of our life.  As I sat on our back porch later that day, talking on the phone with my cousin, I kept being startled by how silent the skies were, due to the ban on air travel.  The weather that day had been gorgeous- clear blue skies (a rarity in Michigan), 70 degrees, leaves starting to turn.  Conscious that cell towers were probably being overloaded with people trying to call loved ones, I hung up with my cousin, and sat there for a minute.

It took me a minute to realize I was hearing it.  High, high above me, I heard an airplane.  Ken came and sat next to me on the stoop.

“The air travel ban.  Why do I hear a plane?”  I stared up into that sky, trying to put an image to the sound.  Ken shook his head.

“It’s a military plane.  It’s too far up for us to see.”

“A military plane…?  Why?”  I went back inside before I got an answer, turned off the TV, and went to bed.

The next morning, and the next several mornings after that, I cried off and on during the commute to work.  All those people.  All those people, going out in spasms of fear and pain.

When names started being attached to the abstract concept of “victim”, and their stories were told to fill in the vacuum of loss, I couldn’t listen to them without crying.  Not a single story.  All of them were physically painful to hear.

I remember one of the few times I’ve ever read Post Secret, this postcard was featured:

That website always makes me feel so sad to begin with (which is why I’m not linking to it here.  If you don’t know what it is, you can find it yourself.  I don’t want to do it for you), but that postcard did me in.

I think about it all the time.

I hope it’s a lie.  A troll.  Or a deliberate misunderstanding.

It’s odd, because I rarely think about it when I’m actually in New York.  I don’t look at the skyline from my cousin’s  apartment and tear up at the absence of the Towers.  I don’t feel ghosts in Battery Park.  I don’t think about the running and screaming when I’m walking down streets that were covered with ashes and rubble.  In fact, when I was there this last weekend, I didn’t even realize the 11th anniversary was coming in two days until I saw one of the black-and-yellow “If you see something, say something” signs splashed across a staircase leading out of the subway.

I don’t know why I’m writing this today.  Why this anniversary.  Why I think it’s appropriate.  Why I think my reactions and memories should be committed to writing.  I didn’t lose anyone in the attacks. What I lost was intangible: loss of innocence, loss of a belief that bad things of this scale and nature don’t happen in America.  Things like that.  Small things compared to a husband, or a child, or a brother.

Small things.  We’re all such small things.  And I’ll offer my small prayers to a God without size, who is eternity combined with perfection.

Cari Donaldson


Cari Donaldson lives on a New England farm with her high school sweetheart, their six kids, and a menagerie of animals of varying usefulness. She is the author of Pope Awesome and Other Stories, and has a weekly podcast about homesteading at ghostfawnpodcast.com

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