What 9/11 Can Teach Us About The Power Of Innocence

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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.

Here were children, some with lifelong developmental challenges ahead of them whose families battled daily for some semblance of normality.

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.

To independence.

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.

And then please share, like or tweet. There are buttons to the side, and on top. Don’t forget. Please. 🙂

{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Allie
Twitter:
September 6, 2011 at 9:43 am

Alison,

I was in the middle of planning my son’s 2nd birthday, which is on September 16th. I remember having the TV on in the background on something like local news or whatever, it was just noise. And they cut away to the video of the planes crashing into the buildings. I watched, like you, in horror as people jumped from the buildings and people running from the wreckage. (Last year I watched an anniversary special on TV about 911. I remember watching footage of fireman going UP into the towers and I thought “Stop! You are running to your death!” But it had already happen.)

So my son was turning 2. I debated on cancelling his birthday party with all his playgroup friends. My friend convinced me not to. I was worried it would be overshadowed by talk of the tragedy. It was not. Us mom gathered at the park and gabbed about who is being potty trained and what their kids are eating now. I felt bad for not talking about the tragedy going on across the country but thankful my friends recognized a 2nd birthday is not the platform for that.

My kids won’t know the horror of watching it live and thinking what monster could do this. Just like my generation won’t know the tragedy or Vietnam or Pearl Harbor first hand. But I let them know of the heroes and the monsters and never forget that life can be good if you choose. And life goes on.

People magazine has a feature of the children growing up without dads because of 911. Not sure if I need that cry. (Especially since all my friends are reading about Duggard right now. And sharing w/ me the horrors that poor girl went through. Which happen a couple of miles from where I live. )

I’m glad you wrote this piece. Sometimes reality sucks but we go on because love makes us.

~Allie
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Alison Golden September 6, 2011 at 10:11 am

Hi Allie:

Thank you so much for your comment. We are lucky that our kids can’t remember that day. I have always been grateful for that. We have a couple of picture books and we talk about it so they are aware but they were spared the awfulness of hearing and seeing it as it unfolded. Thank goodness.

I’m glad you have friends who didn’t put a downer on your birthday party. Kids are so precious at such a young age and those early parties very important to us moms. 😉 Your friends were probably glad to take a break from it too. I had friends borrowing English comedy DVDs from me to watch in the evening for a break from it all.

I cannot read the Dugard story. Maybe I’m oversensitive but I just can’t bring myself to. Thank you for sharing.

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Mary E. Ulrich
Twitter:
September 6, 2011 at 1:56 pm

Alison, what a powerful piece on your transformation on 9-11 and its anniversary a year later. We are all different yet, the lessons are the same and different.

I also liked Allie’s comments about how moms just go on because they have to.

I remember how the weekend after 9-11, our family drove a couple hours to Tommy’s college just so I could hug him. I needed the physical contact and seeing him in person. I still can’t listen to the interviews about the families who lost loved ones–I can’t imagine the families of soldiers who come home in black boxes. There was an 18 year old soldier who died from our city on the news last night.

I think you are right about the need for action. I have created service learning projects for my classes, we bought a collection of memorabilia for the public library when the first books and newspapers came out. We also sent children in New York care packages of school supplies and books. We did a Flat Stanley pen pal project with a second grade in New York. We also created a memorial flag with the university student’s wishes which we sent to the soldiers. Gee, I forgot about a lot of these. We sent boxes of colored markers, pens, crayons to the soldiers to pass out to the children of Iraq. When there is a group, we just followed the lead of the students. If they had relatives serving, we let them give the direction of what could help.

10 years later, you are right, we lost our innocence and found ourselves in a new reality. This reality never will end, but we will learn to be resilent (bounce back).
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Alison Golden September 6, 2011 at 3:24 pm

Mary, it is always so interesting to get your perspective. I hadn’t thought of how a mother with a grown child away from home must have felt but I can totally see how you needed to visit Tommy like that. And wow, you got busy. You are one true warrior, Mary.

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Dawn September 6, 2011 at 7:03 pm

On Sept 11th, 2001 I was barely 12. I remember turning on my shower radio and stopping midshower as I heard the news. I dressed listening to it and then ran out to tell my parents, who had it on the tv. I was shocked but pretty disconnected. Until I went to school that morning only to find out that one of my peers’s mom was in the National Gaurd and was in the towers. I still don’t know if she is okay.

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Alison Golden September 7, 2011 at 6:52 am

I think 12 must have been a very difficult age to experience this, Dawn. Man, it’s hard enough in normal times.

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Charise
Twitter:
September 7, 2011 at 10:28 am

Very powerful, Alison!

I’m a native New Yorker, lost a friend that day, and was impacted by that day in many ways. I can’t believe it’s been 10 years.
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Alison Golden September 7, 2011 at 12:34 pm

Wow, Charise. I went to New York in 2006 and visited Ground Zero and the little church there that had been turned into a shrine. It was very moving. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to actually be there or come from New York. I’m sorry about your friend.

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Shelley September 7, 2011 at 4:04 pm

My son was 7, so old enough for there to be discussions in school & to take in what was being shown on tv. I heard of the first tower being hit on the morning news, when they still did not know what was going on. I heard of the second strike while driving to work. It was shocking to watch & hear of events, mostly second hand, a they unfolded. It truly didn’t seem like it would ever end.
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Alison Golden September 7, 2011 at 9:57 pm

I remember reading all the articles about what to tell school-age children and being incredibly grateful I didn’t have to deal with that, Shelley. Must have been very difficult not to pass on your fear if it was even possible.

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Beth
Twitter:
September 7, 2011 at 5:16 pm

Well said. From one warrior mom to another.
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Alison Golden September 7, 2011 at 9:54 pm

Hey, Beth, thanks for stopping by fellow soldier 😉

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Mimi September 7, 2011 at 6:54 pm

This is such an intense post! Makes the rest of the trivial things of this world seem so inconsequential! My kids were 9, 7, and 2. My youngest wasn’t born yet. I was still sleeping when it happened. My mom was by the Pentagon that day and they left. My grandma had been at the World Trade Centers the day before. I remember being outside and not hearing a single plane in the air. It was eerie.
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Alison Golden September 7, 2011 at 9:53 pm

It was eerie, wasn’t it? We felt the same, we watch planes flying all day into the airport and that day there were none. We had got so used to seeing them in the air, that not seeing them was just bizarre.

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Tamra paperhope.com
Twitter:
September 8, 2011 at 8:14 am

Thank you for writing this. Also a mother with a young child ten years ago – I grabbed a hold of her and hunkered down and waited to see if things would stop falling from the sky. Living in Arizona near a nuclear power plant, I felt we could all be in eminent danger. And then the aftermath. Our community like so many others stood closely together and held tightly to one another.

Thank you for your courage in writing your post. Its been hard leading up to this month with all the attention on the anniversary. I have had a lot of trepidation about it – so much fear that the sadness would over take me. Your post put some things in perspective and I am less weary and more aware of where my energy need to be focused. Thank you for that!

Much love and respect! xoxox

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Alison Golden September 8, 2011 at 9:28 am

Thank you, Tamra. We considered moving back home (to the UK) after 9/11. I remember discussing it with my mother. She told me to stay here in the US. But I did evaluate where in the world I would feel safest and who would let me stay. In the end we stayed where we were because it fulfilled our criteria but I think no-one felt safe anywhere.

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Bibi September 8, 2011 at 8:52 am

At that time I had only one child and he was 4….I woke up and he was watching the news with his daddy….my first instinct was getting upset at my husband for letting him watch a terrible movie….then I realized it was a real life….then I watched and I cried.

That day I was in a middle of selling my restaurant to people from Toronto and we had to wait and wait for hours till our final papers came through fax machine.While I was waiting I was watching the news and I made myself a promise not to take my life for granted and not to waste it working long hours and missing my child anymore.

9/11 was the day I became SAHM and I never looked back.

Thank you for writing this post, Alison!
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Alison Golden September 8, 2011 at 9:25 am

Wow, a big day for you, Bibi. Congratulations on having the guts to reprioritize your life and reorganize it the way you wanted. 🙂

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Cathy Presland
Twitter:
September 8, 2011 at 9:39 am

Very moving Alison. I remember exactly where I was – in Dublin on a work trip! It took a while for us to really get news about what was happening but by the time I got home we were just transfixed to the tv.

And I remember the bravery of the passengers in the third plane – no idea what I would have done in those circumstances – I guess we never know until challenged.

Cathy
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Alison Golden September 8, 2011 at 10:02 am

I read an interview with one of the mothers of the ‘lets roll’ posse of three who overwhelmed the terrorists in the third plane yesterday. They were all big, strong athletes who played competitive sports through high school and as adults. That made me think about the psychology of sports and the impact it has on our self-image. Fueling aggression in a positive, selfless, team-oriented way. But what nerve and what a sacrifice. Unbelievable.

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DrJulieAnn aka The Modern Retro Woman
Twitter:
September 8, 2011 at 2:05 pm

No children of my own. But I was on my way to teach my Learning and Motivation (ed psych) course to my preservice teachers when I heard the news on the radio. We had only moved from New Jersey the year before and I was filled with despair over the news. The university was only a few miles from my house but it seemed to take HOURS to get there, even though it was the usual 15 minutes. I ran to my office but none of the major news websites would load. The department secretary arrived and was able to get information before I headed off to class.

A quiz was scheduled for that day. I walked into my classroom and looked at my 30-going-to-be-elementary-school-teachers students and lost it as I told them what had happened but quickly regained composure. I was their professor and all of my years of being an educator and their mentor were brought to the fore that day. I am still humbled by sense of classroom community that revealed itself that day.

After the initial shock, they began asking me questions about what they should do when something like this happened when they became teachers. We talked about the importance of letting children share their confusion and to understand that acting out may be the only way children (and adults) know how to communicate their confusion. We talked about the importance of being honest with their students and how to express it without adding to the children’s fear…and how important it is to be sensitive to what the parents have been saying to the children.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my life was about to spin out of control at the hands of a someone I trusted and I would be gone from that university a year and a half later. Terrorists aren’t always people who fly planes into buildings…
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Alison Golden September 9, 2011 at 1:45 pm

Hi Julie-Ann: What a fantastic comment, I think we can all learn from it. Thank you for sharing.

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Kristl Story September 9, 2011 at 1:41 pm

My children were old enough to know it was a terrible, but not old enough to really understand the magnitude of 9/11. Their ages: 8, 6, 3.
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Alison Golden September 9, 2011 at 1:48 pm

Kristl: I would imagine the elder two would have had some memories and maybe at the time questions. I can imagine those ages must have been quite difficult to manage at the time. And they are teenagers now…wow.

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Charlene September 10, 2011 at 9:00 am

This is so eloquently written – thank you so much. Beautiful. I was with my two year old daughter apple picking. I have such beautiful, perfect pictures of that day when we were off in the orchards, completely unaware. Last moments of innocence before the world changed forevever.
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Alison Golden September 11, 2011 at 8:59 am

I can imagine that. Those last, innocent moments were very precious, Charlene.

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Moi September 10, 2011 at 10:31 pm

I was off of work on 9/11, and didn’t go to bed til well after 3 a.m. It was a gorgeous outside, the night before. Very still. I went for a long drive and I remember wondering what lay in store for me in the future. Came home, went to bed. Kept waking up every so often, which I never do as a rule. Once my head hits the pillow, I’m OUT til the alarm rings. Woke at 7:59 a.m. and looked at the clock. Had a strange feeling but rolled over and went to bed. My alarm went off around 11 a.m. and I switched on the radio. The announcer on NPR kept talking about the attacks, the loss of life but wasn’t saying what had happened. Because the Israelis and Palestinians had been fighting all that summer I assumed there’d been a huge suicide bombing in Jerusalem or on the Left Bank. I thought I’d better turn on CNN and find out and that’s when I saw the hours-old footage of the WTC attacks. For a split second I thought, “Oh my God, the world’s coming to an end”. I thought attacks were still going on everywhere. It was so strange to see hell on earth on t.v. but have my neighborhood be quiet and calm, birds chirping, on such a lovely, sunny day.

Later that afternoon, I had to run a few errands and go to the grocery store. I live in a town of nearly 80,000 people and it’s always very busy. At 3 p.m., my city was like a ghost town. I made it all the way down the main street without getting stuck at one single light – I was one of the few people on the road. On my way to the supermarket, a classic rock station played Hendrix’s version of The Star Spangled Banner. I opened all the car windows and just blasted it.

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Alison Golden September 11, 2011 at 7:42 am

‘Hell on earth.’ Yes, exactly. I always thought the picture of the rubble and grills from the structure of the building looked like the gates of hell. Thank you for leaving your memories.

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ML September 13, 2011 at 7:45 am

What a powerful contrast…the peace and safety of having small children at home versus the images you were seeing broadcast on 9/11. Thanks for sharing your experience…and for stopping by My 3 Little Birds.
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Alison Golden September 13, 2011 at 8:41 am

It was a hugely contrasting day. That made it difficult but also provided relief. And hope. 🙂

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Kim November 8, 2011 at 8:59 pm

i have read that lots of people have been traumatized by the horror and devastation as a result of this terrorist attack. The innocence that once existed among children who was exposed from this tragedy is now lost forever, they don’t longer feel safe.
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Shella November 15, 2011 at 6:48 pm

i just hope and pray that this tragedy wont happen ever again.
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