My family is very close. Even though some of us live far apart from each other, we talk on the phone all the time, and I fly to Texas to visit the bulk of them about once a month. My mom has 2 sisters and 3 brothers; my dad has both a brother and a sister. Lots of aunts and uncles helped to raise me. We stick together, no matter what.
I remember being watched by my aunts as a 4 year old while my mom was in the hospital having my brother. They let me do all sorts of innocuous stuff that was insanely fun, like eating chocolate for breakfast and smearing shaving cream all over the bathroom mirror. (OK, maybe I did that while they were busy sleeping.)
On September 11, 2001, one of my aunts was hard at work in the bowels of the Pentagon in Arlington, VA. She had been in the Air Force for about 25 years at the time, with some pretty heavy-duty top secret clearance. They keep those people locked in underground bunkers for exactly this reason -- to keep sensitive information protected at all costs, even under attack. (I’m purposely being simplistic about her duties, they aren’t really important to the story. Suffice to say that after her retirement ceremony, we got to tour some offices at the Pentagon that had telephones where speed dial #1 was clearly marked “President.”)
I can’t remember who called me at 7 am that morning in California to tell me about the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and the field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. It may have been my old boss. For the first hour or so, I thought the planes had flown into each tower and they had then just immediately fallen down -- by the time I was watching the footage, a few hours after it had actually happened, it had been edited to jump cut from impact straight to implosion. That was before I saw the smoke, the flames, the people jumping and the terrifying wreckage of so many lives. By then it all made terrible, perfect sense.
I watched the footage with my mouth wide open and my brain racing for a good half hour before I called my mother. The first words out of her mouth were “I haven’t heard from D.” I felt like a helium balloon that someone had sucked all the air out of. I had assumed that she was of course okay, because bad things just didn't happen to me or to people in my family. Until that very moment, I honestly thought that there was a magical force field around us. And then suddenly there wasn’t.
I won’t drag the story out, because there really isn’t one. My aunt was shaken but unharmed. When the plane hit the building, her desk chair flew across the room with her in it. She was pretty terrified. It took a long time for her to make it home and finally call my grandmother. The mental image of my grandma Lola waiting for hours, watching endless images of unimaginable carnage, anxiously wondering where her daughter could possibly be grabbed my heart and squeezed it as if a gorilla hand was crushing it. We were so, so lucky, and I still don't really understand why we were spared.
That morning, I realized how truly lucky I had been all my life, and just how much others have had to endure that I had been sheltered from. My parents taught my brother and I empathy, charity and kindness, but it never crossed my mind until that day just how easily I could wind up being the one needing all 3 from complete strangers. I had been blessedly, blissfully spared intense loss and sorrow. It was humbling.
In the sea of sadness that followed September 11, the thing that took me all the way down to my knees was the flood of missing person flyers. They seemed to be everywhere in NYC. They cast a crazy voodoo spell on me. They were awful, beautiful, hopeful and powerful. I watched every bit of news I could, hoping to read every word on all of them.
I’ll never forget the man on the evening news who was looking for his wife. His flyer had her photo, of course, along with her name, which tower she was in, what floor she was on, and the simple, unbearable identifying characteristic he chose to describe her to the world, hoping it would jog someone's memory: "She has a beautiful smile.”
The idea that all those missing people were somehow wandering the streets, dazed, not remembering who they were, was hopeful and so horribly, cruelly impossible at the same time. Love is hope, and hope is love.
Eleven years later, my aunt has long retired from the Air Force, and sorrow has indeed eventually come to visit my family. My beloved grandma Lola died last June after fighting lung cancer for almost 2 years.
Her dog Scruffy lives with me here in LA now, a living reminder of her, a breathing thing that she dearly loved. A reminder that I am safe. That I am loved. That I have everything I need.
There isn't an insightful, elegant point to this -- I just wanted to share a little bit of my family’s 9/11 story with you, and remind you to send your love to the people you call your family. Because if you think back to it, in the days immediately following September 11, 2001, for a little while, we were all sort of family.
(I'm on Twitter: @IveyAlison)