It was my sister Tonette, calling from Arizona, who told me about the first plane. She gets up at the crack of dawn and I was barely out of bed. “Turn on CNN,” she said. “What a horrible accident.” We both thought of the story our father used to tell, about the time an airplane crashed into the Empire State Building in the 1940s, how he pedaled his bike uptown to see the damage.
I turned on CNN just in time to see the second plane, and the end of the world as we knew it. I’m not going to get into the rest, you’ve all seen it and heard it, stories about heroes and death, and the rise of patriotism, the contrived and real versions, and the age of fear, and the people who have exploited a nation’s paranoia, and the people who stepped up because they knew it was what they had to do. Those stories.
Here in my family’s universe, we already had plenty of paranoia and fear and people stepping up. Our son Joey had been born August 6 – which, we learned much later, happened to be the same day President Bush received a memo entitled “Bin Laden determined to strike U.S.”
Joey was born three months premature, was incredibly tiny and vulnerable, and therefore spent many weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit of Northeast Georgia Medical Center.
It was a frantic few months, as my wife and I juggled work commitments, and our daughter Sam tried to concentrate on school, while making daily and nightly trips to the hospital, 30 miles away.
Every day was something new – “Joey’s oxygen levels weren’t good today,” or “he seems to be gaining weight,” or “I don’t like his color,” and so on. We were living on pins and needles so much that we’d almost developed brain calluses from all the mind fucks.
And when that second plane slammed into the World Trade Center, and the buildings came tumbling down, and horror took center stage on daytime TV, the urge to be with our little boy was overpowering, because it was a time to connect with people you love, or care about, or need. It was one of those times. The urge to protect him, out of some irrational feeling of fragility of self and of the world was all consuming, so we drove to Gainesville to be with Joey and with other people.
It’s been eight years, and it’s almost a blur, but it must have been a couple of days after the terrorist attacks, when all of us were still on edge and numb, my family on multiple fronts. We were sitting with Joey in the NICU when the warning lights started flashing, and a nurse told us there’d been a bomb threat – made specifically to the NICU, where the most at-risk babies are treated, some lunatic trying to capitalize on the freshly-established fear of terrorism. The nurse was wearing a gigantic vest with kangaroo pouches to transport the little kids, because they planned to evacuate.
We wouldn’t let her take him. It’s some copycat nut, a kid pulling a prank, we reasoned. Couldn’t blame the nurse, though. A few days earlier, like almost everyone else you know, she’d been watching people jumping to their deaths from the towers. You could see she was vividly imagining a huge fireball incinerating her floor.
We held our ground. If an evacuation was ordered, we were carrying our son. We’d just been granted permission to hold him after weeks of watching him through the clear cover of an incubator. We were definitely gonna carry him. Of course, it never came to that. They determined the call was a prank, and the NICU settled down.
The whole affair struck me as the perfect example of how terrorism works, sending fear-laced tendrils out from the fire and into every corner of our geography and perception, connecting the dots one prank phone call at a time. What a wretched thing, the product of a human mind – are lemurs capable of this? I’ve suspected a few cats.
So, yeah, the events of 9/11, changed how we view the world and each other. It’s one of those bold-print days on the U.S. calendar, a before-and-after line in history’s sand. It’s set in stone in our heads, with thoughts of the dead.
But for me, when I need a reminder of how unexpectedly change can come upon us, I look at the little kid who comes wheeling through the front door every day after school. He reminds me, when I’m paying attention, that there is joy and opportunity that can come out of even the most trying times.