I always wake up to the radio. But, this morning, the radio sounds strange. I'm not awake yet, and all I can tell is that the voices that are on (and it should be music) are fervent. They sound scared. I roll over to my sleeping wife, and shake her, gently. "Something is wrong," I say and get up and go out to the living room and turn on the TV as I wipe the vestiges of last night's sleep from my eyes.
Our TV is old. It takes awhile before the picture comes on. While the picture tube cracks to life, I can hear the voices on it. "We're not sure what we're looking at," they say, and they are genuinely confused.
The picture comes into focus. It's a very tall building with smoke billowing out of it. No- there's two tall buildings, and they are both on fire. Then I recognize them, and I feel a catch in my throat. My wife comes into the room, belting her robe around her.
Holy Lord God, I think. I realize that life is changing; that the gears of history are grinding louder today, and I'm on the teeth. I'm 37 years old, with a 36 year old wife, a 13 year old son and an 8 year old daughter, and suddenly I realize just how great a thing that is. To be together. I call my parents and can't get through. I call my work and I can't get through. I'm not going anywhere right now, and there's no way to let anyone in my life know that- but it's ok. I have my family. The kids are up and they know that something is terribly, terribly wrong, and my resolve to stay in my little suburban house gets a whole lot stronger. This is the day of days, and my family and I watch in horror as we learn more and more. Somehow, I manage to keep it together, emotionally, but just barely. My wife and kids not so much, but I have to be resolute in being there and protecting them, no matter what happens. No matter what the cost.
By 9AM our time, things are starting to settle down, but the news reports are still coming in. I dash downstairs and grab our little TV/VCR combo, give my wife a kiss and a very long hug- the same for my kids- and I dash out the door to get to work. There is data on work servers that needs to be backed up in case this gets worse, and that's my duty.
"I'll be back in 2 hours," I tell them.
"I don't think the kids should go to school today," my wife says with a serious look on her face. I agree, dumbly, without words.
I start driving, and I'm taking the route I always take, albeit some 3 hours later than usual. Traffic is unusually heavy. And, that's when I notice it.
All the drivers are obviously listening their radios. Their hands are all at 10 and 2 on the wheels, and they are all holding the wheels like it's a life preserver- it's keeping them afloat in a sea of emotion that is set to swallow each and every one of them at any moment. They stare, bleakly but focused ahead of them, vainly trying to find a meaning to what is happening. The entire freeway is moving at the same pace under this constant forward motion, driven by cars driven by people that all have the exact same look on their face.
I go to change lanes, and check my mirrors, and that is when I see it.
I have the same face as everyone else.
In that tiny moment of clarity, that's when it dawned on me- that we are all in this together. All of the political trappings of the day; personal opinions; small, esoteric minutae that makes up our own individual experiences- all of that had been swept away by a shared experience of three separate airliners that had gone down. No one on that road was different from anyone in that moment- skin color, political leanings, sexual orientation, occupations, social classes perceived or real- none of that mattered. We were all the same, and more than that- we were the same as the people who had been aboard those airplanes. And, everyone on that road knew that, too. In a way, that was somehow comforting, but it was at the same time extremely humbling.
Work took a little longer than two hours, but the phones were working again. I called home. "The kids are outside, playing, but I can't stop crying," says my wife. I understand that, although I haven't had my cry yet. It's coming, though.
"I'll be home just as soon as I wrap up here. We're closing the office for at least the next couple of days," I tell her.
"Good. No one needs to be working right now." she replies.
I surface street it home at about noon. Now, there's no one on the streets. The air overhead, usually full of airliners on final approach to Seattle-Tacoma Airport is empty. I take every corner and sidestreet at no more than the speed limit, even though my travel is completely unopposed. I want to take in the view and the scenery because, at this point 12 years ago today, I don't know if this is the last time I'll be able to see it or not. We just don't know.....is all I can think.
Home is still relatively quiet, except for my wife who is watching our old TV with the volume down. It's on every, single channel, including the Home Shopping Network. It's all you can see, hear, taste and smell. More reports coming in- and the first set of death tolls. It's too staggering to contemplate. The kids are playing on the street right outside, but in my living room, there is nothing but the constant blur of reported chaos and death, conjecture and rumor, talking heads and reporters who have clearly been affected by this day.
And, every single one of the people on TV have the same look as I had seen on the freeway.
That look- the overly focused eyes and squared jawline of the people that I encountered all day that day - and, my own countenance being the same - because we were all the same - that is what I remember from 12 years ago. In the days to come, we would be tested again and again and in different ways, and I would see that look in the people's eyes and those same jawlines. 12 years later, that look is gone, and it seems as though many in this country have forgotten what a watershed moment that was- not because we were attacked and almost 3,000 innocent men, women and children were killed - but because for a moment, we were all the same, and that meant something.
On a bright, sunny September morning in 2001, all of us as Americans were changed. We shared an experience that impacted every single one of us, and it has shaped this country. We still bear the scars of that today. I sometimes wonder what it would take to get this country to get back to at least that sentiment- that we all have to pull completely together and resolve to make a difference in our lives and our world, but to do it without the need for such tumult. Without the need for partisanship. Without the need to throw others under the bus. Without the need for a history and life changing event to spur us on to doing the right thing, and instead just do the right thing. But, sadly, I don't think we have it in us to do that. Unfortunately, I fear it will take a fearful loss of life and liberty for people to throw off stupid Right vs. Left arguments and other silly arguments that mean nothing when 3,000 people fall 1,000 feet or are crushed by monuments we make to ourselves in our own arrogance.
I fear that I will have to see that jawline in a mirror before that will happen again.