For the past five years of my life I’ve had the “Where were you on September 11, 2001?” conversation with my students and each year their responses got more and more vague until, most recently, I heard, “I wasn’t born yet.” Each year I struggled to try to explain what happened and the events that resulted from the attacks that day, always careful to edit out my own political views and questionable conspiracy theories. Regardless of the whys and hows, it was an event that impacted millions and still continues to influence the world today.
I was sitting in the last seat, first row of my eleventh grade American literature class when two planes were purposefully flown into the World Trade Center. My teacher stepped out into the hall quickly to talk to another teacher, returned to stand stoically though noticeably shaken behind her podium, said something like, “You don’t have to be afraid until I am,” and went back to teaching the lesson. Even in the days before every teenager owned a cell phone with internet access and unlimited text-messaging, word around a high school spread fast. By lunch everyone was talking about how the Twin Towers had been bombed.
My French class crowded into the history classroom next door and watched the same clip of the planes hitting the World Trade Center replayed again and again. The grainy footage on the TV at the front of the room didn’t feel real. I deemed it a poor computer generation and went back to my seat in the near-empty classroom next door. We were dismissed early that day, instructed not to stop at our lockers, and rushed away from the building.
When less than a month later I watched the green, grainy footage of the US bombing Afghanistan, nothing made sense to me. I remember walking by the war memorial park near my house and seeing yellow ribbons tied around the trees. Somehow I knew this war would drag on for years. I started taking photographs with intentions of creating an album so that I’d someday recall what it was like in the beginning. I had no idea then how the war would impact me personally in the future.
Months after the Twin Towers were reduced to rubble, I met the man I would later marry, then just a sophomore in high school, but determined to join the military, a dream he’d had since childhood, one I’m sure September 11th only further fueled. When a year after we started dating he enlisted in the army I stood by his decision with pride and vowed to remain by his side through war and peace. We were engaged just before his 13 month deployment to Iraq and married upon his return in the park where the yellow ribbons had long since been removed. In college creative writing classes I wrote poems and stories about a war everyone else had grown weary of and just about forgotten. For me, the war was still very much a part of my life.
This year on the thirteenth anniversary of September 11, 2001 I spent the day with my four year old niece instead of in a high school classroom. When this morning I asked her what she wanted to do and she answered, “Go on the bus and the train and go to the airport,” I was taken aback. “Today’s not a good day to go to the airport,” I explained. “Why?” she asked. “Because many years ago today some people did some very bad things in an airport.” “It’s okay,” she said. “It won’t be very fun,” I tried again. “I want to go to the airport!” she declared again and because I really didn’t have a good enough reason to say no, we went.
I’ve never seen Boston Logan Airport as quiet and empty as it was today. I tried to hide the fact that I was silently appraising everyone’s threat potential on the shuttle to the airport. When we set foot in Terminal E (my niece’s choice) I felt the fear dissipate as she ran around exploring and yelling with excitement. And as the afternoon progressed, the airport, which for years has been a mixture of emotions for me– from the memories of saying goodbye to my former husband, to greeting him upon his return, to my own solo-travel adventures in recent years– became just another playground, another Allison and auntie adventure day.
We ran from terminal to terminal, climbed up and down every escalator, skipped across the moving walkways, circled around baggage claims, weaved in and out of travelers toting suitcases, marched and yelled our way through the echoes of the parking garage, stopped to watch planes taking off through rose tinted windows, and pretended to be trapped in the elevator too many times to count especially after we discovered one that made rainforest sounds with every press of a button, opening and closing of the doors, ascent and descent. Each time we passed a map I stopped and asked her to pick another place to go and she’d point with authority and say something like, “To the green terminal!” and take off running.
Somewhere in our exploration we passed a sign that said, “Elevator to the Chapel.” In all the times I’ve gone through Logan Airport, I’ve never noticed they had a place for prayer. I hesitated as we approached the small room and turned to my niece who had been laughing, running, yelling, and singing all afternoon and asked her if she wanted to go in. She nodded her head yes. “If we go in,” I warned, “you have to be very, very quiet.” She nodded her head again and held my hand as we walked from the bright white fluorescent glare of the airport into the dimly lit chapel.
My niece and I walked hand in hand toward the pulpit in the front– a small stage with several red cushioned chairs, a statue of Jesus, and a large wooden cross draped in a white cloth. To the left an altar of candles and a gold statue of Mother Mary. A woman surrounded by suitcases knelt before the statue and prayed with a touching ardency despite the noise and rush from the hallway just beside her. A man who had unrolled a prayer rug from his suitcase was privately performing prostrations in the back corner of the room.
My niece and I knelt down at the pew closest to the front. “What are the people doing?” she whispered. I explained they were praying and realized she probably didn’t yet understand what that meant. “Sometimes people pray when they aren’t well or want to ask for something,” I whispered in response and because that explanation didn’t feel right– it’s always bothered me when people switch on their religious fervor in times of need, then quickly forget their faith once life evens out again– I said, “You can express gratitude or think of something you are thankful for.” I silently offered my own blessings to anyone who has been impacted by September 11th whether directly or indirectly. For a few moments the four of us in the small chapel knelt silently in our own versions of prayer. How beautiful it was to be together yet separate, different and yet so much the same.
I asked my niece if she wanted to go and she said yes. She held her tiny index finger in front of her lips and led the way tip-toeing through the chapel. “Is it okay to talk now?” she asked after we’d made it back into the bright white hallway. “Yes,” I said and she went on running up the nearest stairway.
Each year on this day I wonder how my life would be different if thirteen years ago two planes hadn’t been hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center. Sometimes I think I might have lived the past thirteen years with a little less fear and a little more peace of mind, that I wouldn’t have longed for a loved one through his deployment and come to understand the costs of war all too well. Really I know that if it hadn’t been September 11th it would have been another day, another war in another place that would change the way we live, think, and act. When we remember what happened years ago today, we remember not only the cost of one nation’s tragedy, but the long-term repercussions that one act of hatred can have on the world in any place, at any time.