September 11, 2001, I was doing what all young mothers do.
Separating from my child for the very first time.
Not that we were never apart. Hell, I was a working mom, so there were plenty of times when I saw my son for only minutes a day, as I often left before he was up and got home shortly before his bedtime.
But this was different. This time he was leaving the nest for his first day of preschool. He was only two and a half, but with a six-month-old baby at home and us considering a cross-country move, I needed a few waking hours to deal.
Dropping him off at his brand new preschool was the hardest thing I’d ever done.
Or so I thought.
As I left his school, a man stopped me and said, “I just heard the craziest thing. A plane flew into the World Trade Center.”
Before I could respond, he added, “Wait, what did I just say to you?” The man looked sincerely befuddled, with the same expression on his face as you have when you wake up from a nightmare.
I repeated the horrible thing he said, and he replied, “No, not one plane. Two planes.”
The preschool stood not far from Prospect Park in Brooklyn, so we were on a hill. By now I could see smoke rising on the not-too-distant horizon. We were about five miles from Ground Zero, as the site soon became known.
The hours that followed were a mad scramble — first I ran home to tell my husband, whom I found staring at the TV in disbelief, then we ran back up the hill to grab our son from his school, then we jammed back down it to the nearest grocery store to buy canned goods and water (and it was there that the butcher called out, “Tower One is DOWN!”… and minutes later “Tower Two is DOWN!”), and finally we flew home to bunker down in our apartment while outside the once brilliant sunny day now looked like a snowstorm.
Of course it wasn’t snow — this was only September 11th, after all — it was the ashes from the decimated Twin Towers that continued to fall for days.
The acrid stench and clouds of debris hung over Brooklyn for several weeks longer.
The horror was perhaps no more up close and personal than when we marched in a candlelight vigil for Park Slope’s first responders — about half of our fire department perished in the tragedy — weeping with our neighbors and vowing that New York would rise again.
But then again, we were some of the lucky ones. Our friends who worked in the towers each had their own miraculous tales of why they were late that morning. Several like us had children starting preschool, others were turning out to vote in local elections and planned to get into work about a half hour late.
Still, there was a moment as we left the grocery store on 9/11, our children’s double stroller packed with bottled water and draped with bags of groceries, that I will never forget.
As I leaned down to cover my children’s mouths with my hands to protect them from the “snow,” I paused to look at their beautiful little faces. The realization that they would never know a world that didn’t have this kind of destruction, this hideous terror, and moreover that they would grow up knowing this very real threat that had busted through the security of our soil and would forever be a foreboding specter hanging over our country literally took my breath away.
Growing up GenX was a sort of idyllic time, relatively speaking. We missed the era of hiding under desks during school drills, the Cuban Missile Crisis, McCarthyism.
Instead, we saw the end of the Cold War as the Berlin Wall came down. This is not to say that bad things didn’t happen to good people during our childhood (i.e, the Challenger disaster, Jonestown, Watergate, Three Mile Island, Rodney King, Exxon Valdez, and Operation Desert Storm, just to name a few). But all of these things felt far away, or even if we were in the proximity of a certain event, isolated instances that were aberrations — one time deals that we could learn from and never, ever repeat again.
But 9/11 was its own beast. Terrorism at our feet begat a Department of Homeland Security, an era of Big Brother governing, and a world that feels perpetually at war.
Nowadays, school shootings are commonplace, and sometimes even going to see a movie feels like you could be taking your life into your own hands. Even doing something healthy, like running a marathon, can become a dangerous undertaking.
Do you remember the YA books you read growing up? Some saucy Judy Blume perhaps? Maybe you were more of an S.E. Hinton fan, or perhaps you were like me and devoured the entire V.C. Andrews Flowers in the Attic saga (five books people, five books!). If you were a touch younger and more of a soap fan, it was probably the Sweet Valley High or the Baby-Sitters Club series for you.
Cut to today, where much of our pop culture — books, movies, TV shows, video games — reflect dystopian nightmares. And the heroes and heroines are inevitably kids, fighting an ever-shifting battle against terrorists (the government, their parents, the undead, etc.) that don’t distinguish between their targets — the younger the better. Think Hunger Games, Twilight, Maze Runner, Divergent, the various iterations of The Walking Dead.
Other things like natural disasters, which are on the rise, also feel more devastating. I think that’s for two reasons: global warming AND because the sense that the government would provide and keep us safe was blown to bits back on September 11, 2001.
And while in many ways we are more connected thanks to social media, all of this chatter swirling around us means that we are also more desensitized.
So what’s a post-9/11 parent to do?
Aside from trying to crack the Middle East peace puzzle while you drive morning carpool, remember you are raising human beings, and those people really, truly are our future.
Teach them empathy, not apathy.
Tell them that things are not hopeless, they are not helpless, and they do have the power. We live in a democratic country, and… wait for it… they can vote. Or at least help influence how their parents vote. (Don’t EVEN get me started on the 2016 election, which from here looks like a circus on both sides of the clown car.)
And remember that you are not hopeless, or helpless. Or alone for that matter.
In the days following September 11th, 2001, my husband and I and everyone we knew took to the streets. We headed to the Brooklyn Heights promenade and gazed at the devastation, just as everyone we knew nationwide stayed glued to his or her TV.
This is not what we want for our kids. For anyone’s kids — here and abroad.
Focus not on the terror that tears people apart, but instead the community that pulls us back together, stronger than ever.
So if you see me pausing today to really, truly remember 9/11, just know that the past always informs the future, and as parents, we can’t afford to look away. As President Obama so eloquently said in a radio address ten years after the tragedy: “Even the smallest act of service, the simplest act of kindness, is a way to honor those we lost, a way to reclaim that spirit of unity that followed 9/11.”
Sounds like solid parenting advice to me.
Bless you, my bitches, and Gd bless America!