Somehow I had managed to arrange to take a day off on a Tuesday. I was going to theological school half time while working three-quarters time as a director of religious education at First Parish in Lexington, Massachusetts. Late summer is always a busy time for religious educators — kids are back in school, they’re coming back to Sunday school and youth group, and you have to take care of a thousand and one details before they return. I had been working non-stop for quite a few days, but finally on that Tuesday I had managed to schedule a day off.
I slept late. It must have been nine o’clock when the phone rang. I came immediately awake, my heart pounding from adrenalin; my mother had died twenty-two months before that, after a long illness, and I still dreaded phone calls that came while I was asleep. “Hello?” I said.
It was Ellen, the assistant minister at First Parish. “Hello,” she said, and paused. “Have you seen the news yet?”
“What?” I said. “No.”
“A plane hit the World Trade Center in New York,” she said. We turned immediately to business. The senior minister was out of town, and Ellen thought we should have a candlelight vigil that night.
I told her I would get down to the church as quickly as I could.
I didn’t go immediately to the church. Carol had little old TV set on the big desk in our living room, and I turned it on. A second plane had hit. A third plane hit the Pentagon. I remember sitting at the desk in our basement apartment, with a little bit of sunlight still coming in the east-facing window that was set high in the wall, and talking on the phone to my dad. Neither dad nor I was particularly surprised by the attack. We both felt that the world had somehow changed, and not for the better. “I’m glad I’m not your age,” said dad.
I went in to the church. Ellen and Cindie, the administrator, had set up a television so we could watch the news coverage. The towers went down. First Parish was then still a local church, with most of its members living within easy driving distance, and a few people from the congregation came and went during the day.
Ellen and I tried to figure out what we should do: candlelight vigil that evening, get in touch with the senior minister about that Sunday, plan something for the Sunday school for that Sunday. The news came through on the television: more about the Pentagon attack; the fourth plane that crashed in Pennsylvania; the people jumping out of the windows. We learned that people in our church knew people on one of the flights that crashed into the World Trade Center.
Quite a few people showed up that night for the candlelight vigil. Ellen was going to stay with the adults in the main church, and I was going to take the children to the Parker Room, a big room with a carpet on the floor and a fireplace and a painting of Theodore Parker on the wall.
I talked to children as they came in, and I realized that children who were roughly eight or younger didn’t have a clear sense of what was going on around them. But the children who were older than that knew something big had happened. Claire and Emma, two sisters, talked to me for a while before the candlelight vigil started; their eyes were big and they looked a little frightened; they had seen the images of the plane striking the towers on the news; they were watching us adults, and they saw how shaken we all were. Abby, on the other hand, was younger than they, and she was able to play contentedly that evening.
That’s most of what I remember from that day: vivid but confused memories; my own memories mixed up with images I saw on television.
An engineer from First Parish went down that week to the site of the World Trade center, as one of the many volunteers who responded and lent their expertise. He came back and told us about it; he was a changed man.
The memories of that day kept cropping up with children and teenagers all that year, not often, but often enough to know that the children and teenagers hadn’t forgotten. A brilliant young woman who had just started at M.I.T. that fall sent me email saying she now wanted to join the military. A child brought up the subject of 9/11 while we were talking in Sunday school about something completely unrelated. The kids knew that something had changed.
By January, I was a mess. I went to see a therapist. I had put aside my own feelings a little too much because I was trying to help others. Recently, I found an old receipt from this therapist, and I had a vivid memory of sitting and talking with her while she tried to stifle a yawn so that I wouldn’t see her stifling a yawn. That happened quite a bit in my sessions with her. I’m sure my problems were pretty boring compared to what other people went through in that time, but I also suspect she was just plain overworked from helping too many people who had psychological problems stemming from 9/11.
And in the grand scheme of thing, I recognize how little 9/11 has affected my life. I think about the people in Northern Ireland who had to live through decades of bombing and terror. And all the people in Iraq who had to live under the terror of Saddam Hussein, and then under the horrors of the war. And the people in Afghanistan who had to deal with the Taliban, and then with the war. And the people who live in the bad neighborhoods in cities in the United States where there are shootings on the streets on a regular basis. I’ve got it easy.