20 Years Ago.

This is not a hiking post.

20 years ago.

I still remember my outfit. Blue jeans from Old Navy. A white tee from The Limited. A navy blue zippered sweatshirt from a basketball tournament at Disney’s Wide World of Sports. And white slip-on Nike sneakers.

20 years ago.

It was a beautiful, perfect September morning; I can still picture the crystal-clear blue sky and feel the slight chill of the fall air on my face. Yes, perfect was the only way to describe it. Days like this still give me the chills.

20 years ago.

I was a freshman in high school, still trying to navigate my way through the maze of RFH. I was in my second period English class when we heard news of a plane crash. A classmate sitting behind me said something about it being a big plane. I knew nothing about planes. We watched live as the second tower was hit. That’s when I first heard the word “terrorist.” I didnt know what it meant, but I would soon learn.

Words started to connect. Plane crash. Terrorist attack (what did that mean?) New York City. The Twin Towers. The World Trade Center…the World Trade Center…the World Trade Center. I let out a laugh when the final puzzle piece clicked. “Ha!” I said to the emptying room, “my dad works there.”

Third period. Art class. A solemn, familiar voice over the loud speaker. “Ladies and gentleman, can I have your attention please.” For the next four years, these words would haunt me. Every time the principal made an announcement I was brought back to this moment and would hold my breath, fearing for what would follow.

I made my way to the guidance counselor’s office. My best friend was there waiting for me. Or was she the one who found me in the hallway and led me to the office? I don’t know how I got there.

20 years ago.

We sat in a room with a large window. “When did it get so cloudy?” we asked. We realized as soon as we said it out loud- that crystal clear blue sky wasn’t suddenly cloudy, it was the smoke; the smoke from the city consumed the sky; that’s what I’ve always said.

I called my mom. No answer. I called again. and again. and again. Eventually my grandma answered the phone. That’s right, my grandparents were living with us at the time. They said my mom wasn’t home. Did my mom know? Did they know? I remember I cursed. Did I say shit? Fuck? I yelled. I wanted to know where my mom was. I wanted to know if she knew. I wanted to know if my dad was coming home.

Eventually I heard from my mom. My dad was okay, she told me. He worked on the 13th floor and he made it out, she said. Weeks later I would learn that my dad’s boss had told my mom that he was “still unaccounted for.” Did she know that when she told me he was coming home? Did she really think he worked on the 13th floor? There was no 13th floor.

I stayed in the guidance counselor’s office while friends and strangers heard from their loved ones. One boy in particular stands out. I think I held his hand while he sat nervously awaiting news. Or maybe I just put my hand on his knee. I made some physical contact, which now seems weird. I didn’t know his name and he didn’t know mine. I still don’t. Weeks, months, or even years later we passed each other in the hallway. He thanked me. He called me an angel for waiting with him. Or was that a dream? Or a made-up memory? Did we even say hi to each other as we passed? Even if no words were spoken we knew who the other was. We would share those endless hours of uncertainty together forever.

20 years ago.

I didn’t leave the guidance counselor’s office until 7th period. I hadn’t eaten all day. I still remember my lunch: a weight watchers vanilla yogurt, an apple cinnamon protein bar, and a Fuji apple. I don’t remember who I sat with while I ate, but I remember the table. It wasn’t my normal lunch table, but it also wasn’t my normal lunch period. My lunch period was 4th.

I still have the note that excused my late arrival to class. We only had 2 periods left.

I took the bus home. My best friends came with me. A stranger on the street stopped to tell me that my dad was okay, that she saw him with my mom. Who was this lady? We live in a small town. Maybe I knew her? She clearly knew me.

20 years ago.

My best friend’s younger brother saw my mom picking my brothers up from school. He asked her what had happened. My mom couldn’t tell him, she couldn’t steal his innocence. She told him to talk to his mom, my best friend’s mom.

20 years ago.

I walked into my house and into the kitchen. My dad was hunched over the tiny TV on the counter, my brothers standing next to him. Wait, that doesn’t seem right. They were too young to be watching that footage. I video edit them out of this memory. This protects their innocence.

My friend remembers my dad in the kitchen, wearing his undershirt and work pants covered in soot. I don’t remember this.

I stared at my dad. This is when I think it happened. Heartache. Fear. Anger. Confusion. Resentment. Relief. Disbelief. I refused to let myself be vulnerable; I refused to cry, again, especially in front of my friends and family. They couldn’t know that I was afraid; that for hours I was lost in a world of uncertainty; that for hours I knew there was an alternate ending to this story so plausible that the one I saw unfolding didn’t seem real. Was it real? I just stood there.

“Aren’t you going to give your dad a hug?” I heard my mom ask. He was real. I walked over and hugged him, but not too tightly. I couldn’t let any emotion show; I couldn’t let him know that I was scared. Yes, this was when it happened, when I first created that impenetrable layer of armor around my heart; to protect it from ever feeling that fear or pain ever again.

20 years ago.

My dad spent the night on the phone- sometimes there was good news, too often there was bad.

My mom spent the evening at the home of her high school friend- her husband didn’t make it home. One of the children asked my mom where their dad would sleep that night. Cots, they must have cots for those who couldn’t get home, right? What do you tell such a young, innocent child?

20 years ago.

The next day at school people stopped me in the hallway, telling me that they saw my dad on TV, that’s how they knew that he got out.

For years I tried to find that footage- I wanted to see my dad walking out of the building. I don’t know why. He came home. We were spared the heartache and pain too many others had to endure. Why did I need to see it on the TV to believe it?

20 years ago.

I used to babysit for two kids. They lost their dad, their aunt, and their aunt’s fiance in the attacks. One day the boy asked if I knew that his dad was in heaven, or if I just thought that his dad was at work. He said it so matter-of-factly. I froze. I couldn’t answer. Sweet boy, I knew the exact day your daddy died, the same day your mom also lost her sister. The day too many people lost their loved ones. The day my dad came home. I am sorry, sweet boy, I am so very sorry that your story ended differently than mine.

20 years ago.

I didn’t ask my dad much about that day, but my best friend did. I listened to him recount that day. He said he left immediately after they felt the impact, the impact that threw him across his office. He said that they were told to wait in the building, but his office didn’t…they left. They escaped to the stairwell and started the descent down 36 (or was it 37? 34? 38?) flights of stairs. On his way down, he passed the firefighters heading up; my dad distinctly remembered the looks on the faces of those brave men and women; most didn’t make it. I wonder if those faces still haunt my dad.

20 years later.

I haven’t visited the memorial. This day isn’t about me, I know that. My story had a happy ending and I am not trying to pretend that I am part of this tragedy shared by too many, but sometimes I think about how pictures of me and my family were among the rubble. If I went to the museum would I see something that looked familiar? The coyote pen holder I got my dad from Arizona just a handful of years before? A picture of me as a young, innocent girl, before I knew that such evil existed; the girl that didn’t know that life was so unpredictable, so fragile, and so unfair.

20 years later.

A year and a half ago, for the first time ever, the entire world shared the same tragedy. Just before our nation shut down for Covid, I was in Arizona visiting my sister’s family and my parents. My mom was staying in Arizona and my dad was heading back to NJ, the US Ground Zero of Covid. We begged him not to go.

My sister and I cried, not knowing if we would see him again. I’ve kept my heart protected, but through the years I have definitely softened. Did this make up for me freezing in the kitchen all those years ago?

20 years later.

There is a new documentary airing on National Geographic called 9/11- One Day in America. In the first episode, around minute 56, my dad is seen leaving the building.

I asked my mom to send me a picture of the screen. They tell me it’s my dad and I guess it kinda looks like him? But where was his tie? The one he used to cover his mouth and nose as he climbed down the smokey stairwell; the tie that he kept in his car for years after that day? And what was he wearing? I don’t recognize the watch on his left wrist. It’s my dad, but I still don’t believe it.

I had tried to find this footage for years, but now that I know where it is I can’t bring myself to watch it. I know our ending- he got out; he survived. We have had 20 more years of memories since the day he walked out of that building, I know this. But I still haven’t watched- why? Am I afraid it will somehow change our story? Or that it will bring me back to that day in our kitchen…

20 years ago.

20 years later.

One thought on “20 Years Ago.

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