My kids were 17 months old when 9/11 happened.
The duality of living with smiley, innocent, beautiful young children on such a terrible day was surreal.
Their presence, their mere existence, threw into stark contrast the dark, devastating happenings in the world outside our home.
Their world didn’t stop that day.
They carried on being just who they’d always been.
While the rest of us wondered who we were now.
That day, it was a relief to turn off CNN and switch over to Sesame Street.
It was an effort at times to drag ourselves away from our thoughts and concerns, to attend to their needs.
Needs they demanded be met while we wondered how many others needs would go unmet from this day on.
And it was bewildering and downright scary to think what kind of world now existed in which to bring our children up.
And into what kind of world existence would they turn adults.
I watched the first tower fall, live on TV, hearing the unbelieving tones of the commentator and then his shocked voice proving my eyes hadn’t failed me.
I knew I was watching hundreds of people die.
Stunned, I went downstairs to be greeted at the baby gate by four arms stretched out, wearing their favorite baby blue overalls with elephants on the front, crying ‘Mama! Mama!’ as they waited to see which one I’d pick up and which one would grab hold of my leg, standing on my foot as I limped to the kitchen to get milk.
It was hard to comprehend.
The juxtaposition of learning that people were throwing themselves to their death rather than be crushed or burned alive while these two gorgeous, untainted little boys who knew nothing but love and devotion played with their toys was almost unbearable.
They carried on showing me their belly button, playing kitchen, dropping their food on the floor.
They still needed diaper changes, they still fought me to get dressed, they still needed their naps.
And all the while planes kept disintegrating on the screen as they hit the building.
Over and over and over.
It never seemed to end.
After the second tower fell and it was clear normal life was over, we went for our daily walk.
It was a beautiful, clear day with blue sky. It was utterly silent.
No cars on the road, no-one walking their dogs.
Nobody to be seen.
The boys didn’t notice that the passenger planes we usually watched flying into the airport from our house on the hill were absent.
But they noticed the fighter jets that split the sky, following the bay up to the city.
They didn’t comment on the difference.
A friend in New York emailed me to say she was safe, having grabbed her months-old twins as the wave of dust, smoke and ash rolled its way to her apartment.
It made me think what I would do.
I wouldn’t get far holding the boys by myself.
So I would get the stroller, snap them in, fight them because they hated that.
Just thinking about it made my heart pound and my temperature rise.
But I made myself mentally rehearse it.
Just in case.
In the afternoon, we met with our special needs playgroup.
And in the windowless room where we met, we found sanctuary.
For two hours we shut out the big, bad world.
We got down on the floor, made eye-contact with these little people and held it.
Oh, how we held it.
In those eyes, we could do something. We were something. We could help, we could delight, we could make safe.
Except we knew we couldn’t, not really. We felt unsafe ourselves but we put on a good act.
And we forgot for a few moments.
The boys and I returned home to my husband who, like most of the world that owned TV sets, had been glued to the screen all day.
But the clashing of the two worlds finally undid me.
By now they were transmitting the voicemail messages.
The last words of those who knew they were about to die a horrible death.
Who were now, in fact, dead.
I couldn’t stand it any longer.
And I screamed.
I remember the boy’s bedtime.
I sat in their room as they fell asleep, unwilling to leave such a peaceful, calm scene to return to the world outside their bedroom.
A world full of sadness, smoke, shock, and shattered lives.
I wondered the best thing to do.
How we would all go on.
And to what.
A year later, on the anniversary of 9/11, we were back at our playgroup.
By this time, our developmental challenges had disappeared.
The boys were in regular preschool and we were seeing out our time in the group, enjoying the friends we’d made and appreciating the support we’d received.
I bought 9/11 themed cookies for the moms’ morning coffee when therapists took the kids to play while we got forty minutes break.
I expected the discussion that morning to be about 9/11 a year ago.
What we’d done that day, what we’d thought, how we felt now.
This is what was going through my mind. I assumed others would feel the same.
But I was wrong. It never even came up.
The discussions were about their children’s challenges, their upcoming assessments, their short and long-term futures, their disabilities.
I sat in silence.
I had no similar worries, no experience to share.
I realized that to these mothers, their fight wasn’t terrorism.
They weren’t interested in global affairs.
These things were irrelevant to them.
To their day-to-day lives.
Their battles were much closer to home.
They were fighting for their children, their families, their quality of life.
They were fighting systems, authority figures, their child’s disability.
It was relentless and exhausting and worrisome and depressing.
And it shocked me.
And made me realize how privileged I was.
I came home from that playgroup changed.
I understood more clearly than ever that when our children are vulnerable, the power of a mother’s love displaces everything and anything else.
But most are not vulnerable for ever.
A mother has to step aside.
It bring tears when I think of the mother whose big, strong, adult sons both jumped from the World Trade Center.
And those mothers whose boys came home from their job on a plane.
In a coffin.
With a flag.
That will later get folded up in that special military way and handed to her.
For her to take home instead of her boy.
Because these sons were grown, they could protect them no longer, these mothers.
And yet that is our job.
To let our children go so they can grow.
But the truth is that for some mothers that will never happen.
Their children will never grow to independence, they will always be fighting.
For services, for quality of life, for some semblance of normality.
For their disabled child.
Until they die.
And there are mothers whose daily battle is to simply keep their children alive.
Who face the regular threat of disease, devastation and crisis.
Who live in fear.
Whose stress levels we, in our solid houses, safe neighborhoods and comfy cars, can barely begin to imagine.
After 9/11 I would lie in bed thinking about these women.
In the moments before sleep, I would imagine what life must be like for them.
Such thoughts are not conducive to sleep.
And after a while I trained myself not to go there.
But spare a thought for them now.
Think of those women whose daily battles are so much harder, longer and more intractable than your own.
Reach out to them if you are able.
They are seasoned, battle-scarred warriors.
They deserve our respect.
And also, see the gift in your child’s innocence.
Value their feistiness, praise their determination.
Because they are doing their job.
They are growing up. They will leave you.
And appreciate your good fortune.
How old were your children on 9/11? How was the day for you? And what lessons did you take away from the experience? Let me know in the comments.
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