The First Time I Laughed After 9-11
I promise I will get to what cracked me up, really made me laugh 'til I cried. But first, I must get through the story of that day. I always thought I would write it for my daughter, try to communicate to her how everything changed that day. Since I have not done that yet, this may be a first attempt at that project. This is not eloquent, it is primitive. It is true, and not always flattering to me. I said some things, and thought some thoughts, that are not my most rational nor most noble. It's where I was that day.
When I dropped LG off that morning, her second week of kindergarten, Miss Sheila told me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. How odd, and how sad, I thought. And I also thought that she was talking about the World Trade Center in Baltimore, the closest building I knew of with that name. I told her that I knew someone who worked there, and I hoped he wasn't at work.
On the drive home, I turned on talk radio. There was speculation that it wasn't an accident. I went into my house and turned on the TV. While I watched the first building burning, I saw the second plane fly into the second building. Oh, dear God. I called my husband. I told him we were under attack. They had the television on at his office; his co-workers were on the phone with family members, too. Jif said that one of his co-workers said a plane had crashed into the Pentagon. This pissed me off. "IT DID NOT," I said stridently. "Why do people have to do that? Isn't it bad enough without people making up shit like that, to make it sound even worse? What is wrong with people? I am watching CNN right now. Don't you think if someone crashed into the Pentagon it would be on CNN?" And then there it was. The Pentagon, too. Our country was under attack, as I stood there in my living room, between New York and Washington, D.C. I didn't know it yet, but behind me, in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, another plane had become a weapon.
I don't know how people in other parts of the country functioned during those first few minutes, then hours. I know that here, we felt like sitting ducks, very likely to be next on the list. I called LG's school. "Cindy, have you heard...." The secretary interrupted me. "Come and get her, Susan, we're getting everyone out of here." I don't know whether children in other parts of the country were sent home. Ours were.
I drove back to the school, and I remember, will always remember, how blue the sky was. I couldn't tell you the shade of the sky on any other day of my life. I walked into the tiny private school where the fearless, wonderful director was, well, directing. Kids, parents, teachers. I don't know what was on my face, but she and another mom, who happened to be a U.S. Marine, grabbed me and we three hugged for just a moment. There wasn't anything to say.
I took my child home. And I was angry. I was furious that her memories would forever include the day I picked her up early from kindergarten, when people were crying in the hall, and the TV was on in the middle of the day. And I was angry that she wouldn't get to grow up cradled by the same illusions that I was. When I was little, I was taught that other people wanted to BE us. Americans. My daughter would know that other people wanted to KILL us. I didn't know that until embarrassingly late in life.
I got LG occupied in her room and I went back to the TV. The towers were still standing. And I was proud of that. I remember thinking, "You thought they would fall. They're not falling." Then they fell. And the sound that they made sounded like I imagine hell sounds. And then, even though I knew people had died, I became proud again. And I tried to make deals with, and threaten, those people who had done this. And I tried to look on the bright side.
"Please don't fly into the Statue of Liberty."
"Don't you DARE fly into the Statue of Liberty."
"At least they didn't fly into the Statue of Liberty."
I kept watching what I couldn't believe I'd seen. I thought that second plane flying into the tower was the worst thing I had ever seen. Until I saw panic-stricken people throwing themselves out of those high, high windows. Then I decided that THAT was the worst thing I had ever seen.
Until that night on the news, when I saw a new "worst thing I have ever seen." The news was about the world's reaction to our trauma. I saw a woman in a deli in Pakistan, pointing at the television where a plane was flying into a building, and I saw her laugh. I saw this pretty, dark-skinned, fat woman pointing at the first worst thing I had ever seen, and laughing. And clapping and dancing. I saw another human being rejoicing about what had happened. That was it, the worst thing I had seen. And behind her was a red, white and blue Pepsi machine. And I said to her, "Then give us back our fucking Pepsi."
I cancelled my clients that night. My daughter was supposed to have ballet class. I took her. They could do a lot of things to us, but by God, they would not stop little girls from putting on their pink leotards and dancing. Not if I could help it. Ballet was cancelled.
Back at home, the neighbors gathered in our backyard, just standing there, talking, wanting to not be in the house with the TV any more. We all said we never really noticed the planes flying over our houses, until they didn't.
That night in bed, I saw the news when I closed my eyes. I liked the world better with my eyes open. I didn't sleep. I worried about what stupid, hateful thing "we" would do during the night, to retaliate. Against whom, I didn't know. In the morning, I thought, "Al Gore is the happiest man in the world right now." No one would have signed up to be President under those circumstances. Then I thought, "Gary Condit is the happiest man in the world right now." He, who had been on the news for weeks, would not ever be returned to prominence in the news again.
In the days that followed, they said the killers were from Afghanistan. I felt like I'd done something very wrong, because I didn't know Afghanistan. I knew nothing at all about "them," least of all, why they'd want to kill us. Then I saw where they lived. I saw caves and dirt. And I said, not without pity, "They live on the fucking moon. No wonder they hate us."
I cried for the people who died. For the brave ones who tried to save others. For the ones who never knew what happened. And I cried for the people who lived. Who knew their loved ones were dead; and for those who still didn't know. And for those who were working so hard to rescue, then to recover, victims. I cried a lot. I cried for kindergarten children who would not grow up as oblivious as I was; who would not have that precious luxury of feeling that while we are HERE, we are safe. As long as I didn't know it wasn't true, it was true. And even though I recognize now that that oblivion was part of the problem, I would still give it back to my child if I could.
I started teaching my daughter even more about our country. I have always been very, very patriotic. I remember riding on the train with LG to the Million Mom March a couple of years earlier, and telling her, with tears in my eyes and voice, what we were doing, and why we were doing it. Mostly, I told her we were doing it because we could. Because we are Americans, and we are free to say what we want. I went to grade school at a time when every single day, after we said the Pledge of Allegiance, we sang, "My Country Tis a V."* That's what I thought we sang, anyway. "My country, tis a V; sweet land of liberty, of V-I-C." I didn't know what that meant, but I knew that my country was a sweet land of liberty, and that this guy, "Vic" must have been someone very important. After 9-11, I started to teach my child those kinds of songs. I sang the national anthem every freakin' day on the way to school, for weeks after that. And I cried.
I let her watch parts of shows about the Taliban, particularly their treatment of women. She knew what a burqa was, and that it was a bad, oppressive thing that she and I did not have to wear.
One afternoon, LG and I had been out shopping. We were in the car with the radio on, when the announcer said that it was time for everyone in the United States to stop what they were doing and say the Pledge of Allegiance together. LG knew the Pledge by then, so we said it, and then she asked me, "What does 'liberty' mean?"
I started trying to explain it, and became very emotional. My patriotism overflowed, as I blinked back tears, swallowed hard, and said, by way of explanation, "There are no Moms and daughters out driving in Afghanistan today. They have no liberty. Women aren't free to drive there..." I stopped to collect myself, and a few moments later, LG leaned forward in her booster seat and touched my shoulder, and said, so sweetly, "Mama, I know you're sad because the Afghanistan Moms aren't allowed to drive, but look at it this way: it's probably for the best, it keeps them safer, because if they could drive, they'd just be crashing into everything, because of those things covering their faces."
And THAT, ladies and gentlemen, got me laughing again. And again.
*"My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing..."