On September 11, 2001 I sat in the parlor of our church with my besties from my moms' group. We were so happy to be together after a summer apart. It was my chance to show off newborn Margaret, while 2 year old Jack played happily in the nursery. In the room that day we had a flight attendant, a woman whose husband worked at the Pentagon, another whose sister worked in the World Trade Center, and another for whom the Oklahoma City terrorist attack was not just an abstraction, but a reality. Her husband was the only one who called and said, "Get home now. This is terrorism."
As the news unfolded, we tried to take in what we were hearing, yet for the most part, we continued in our meeting. It didn't seem real. I looked at our agenda items, and crossed them off one by one. Later, as people fled Washington DC, some on foot, Tim chose to stay at work in his office, 3 blocks from the White House. It didn't cross his mind to come home early.
Our passivity seemed stark to me. As we learned more, I became certain that if told that everything was fine and to return to my desk at the Trade Center, I would have done so. It worried me that I didn't seem to have much of a survival instinct. I remembered back to childhood when my brother and sister would chase me and I would just stop. I knew they'd catch me sooner or later, so why not make it sooner?
When we heard of flight attendants and passengers fighting back, of fire fighters trudging up flight after flight of stairs toward the danger, I tried to picture myself in their position of bravery and self-sacrifice and couldn't.
Of course trying to inject myself into these scenarios was futile. It's similar to when I hear someone say, "Well, I would have gone all Mama Bear on them..." when discussing a scenario related to a child. Maybe. Perhaps. Maybe not. How do you know?
I would have liked to have believed I would have plunged into a raging creek after my dying son, not sat quietly in our kitchen waiting for news. I would have imagined Tim would have run to the creek, yet he came quietly to the door, shattered, confused, saying, "What do I do? Should I go down there?"
For all of the heroic acts of that terrible day 18 years ago, surely there were ordinary acts too. People sitting at their desks, trying to make a phone call. Those not processing, wondering if the whole work day would be a waste. Making nervous jokes. Weighing the options of climbing down 60-plus flights of stairs in high heels versus waiting until everything was resolved. It was the final few moments of a world where steel buildings didn't fall. Right before people had to make a terrible choice of staying in a burning skyscraper or leaping out of one.
Or maybe it was really the "during" but not yet the "after."
And when the after came, and we were able to imagine scenarios, so inconceivable a short time before, our country came together in the magnitude and sacredness of the horror and loss of life and promise. We put small differences aside. We talked to strangers. We hung out American flags. We went to church. We honored the pain and grief.
18 years later, domestic terrorists hunt down and murder our children in school. Our children spend time training for and injecting themselves into scenarios such as deciding whether to be brave and try to confront a shooter. How to block a door. Whether to throw their bodies on top of each other. Or whether to crouch and pray for survival.
I try to imagine if we'd been told in September 2001 that our great country would be losing kids this way, not just 2 years post-Columbine, but 20. We would surely have pictured ourselves coming together in love and bravery, putting all differences aside and finding a way to protect our children.
But sometimes what we imagine we would do is not what we do.