Ten years ago…
On September 11, 2001, a day every American remembers where they were and what they were doing, I was working as a legal secretary in an office building in Georgetown, an area of northwest Washington, D.C. I was four months pregnant and on this day, as events tumbled after each other in such fast succession that it was difficult to separate fact from fiction, I’d feel my baby move for the very first time.
Many things are sharp in my memory about that day. Some things, like my baby doing a summersault, I remember with clarity as bright and crisp as the weather on that sunny, late summer day. (It really was the most beautiful day.) Other details get tangled and seem as unreal as one of my stories with too many implausible plot threads. My memory is faulty because only a few urgent things seemed important to me during the chaos. This is normal behavior, I think, when there is no normal.
On that morning, I learned that the first plane hit the World Trade Center tower in New York when one of the attorneys announced this news as he ran past my desk. Oddly, I remember this moment before and after very clearly. This particular attorney was always running. And on those many occasions when he passed by in a dark-suited-blur with his cell phone to his ear, I use to thank my lucky stars he wasn’t one of my assigned attorneys. He seemed to live his life to put out fires, only these fires were the Intellectual Property kind with panicked clients. I thought it was a good thing I wasn’t his secretary because I didn’t understand this constant urgency that reminded me of Chicken Little announcing the sky was falling. Only this time it was.
(Side note here. I actually became this man’s secretary less than a year later. He actually was one of the kindest persons you could meet. Who knew?)
Back to that morning. We gathered in small groups in front of televisions throughout the nine story building to watch the news (unaware we were, in effect, soon to be in the midst of the news). The second plane hit the second tower as we watched in horrified fascination with the rest of country. Then, soon after came the startling news a third plane had hit. Its target, the Pentagon, directly across the river and from where I’d changed trains on the Metro not even two hours earlier.
This is when I lost that eerie detachment of being an observer. I think I went back to my desk like a sleepwalker. The Pentagon? I knew people who worked at the Pentagon. Or at least I use to. My ex-husband. He worked there. Or did he? We’d divorced three years ago and hadn’t spoken in, how long? – a year, maybe two? My mind raced to piece together what I knew. If he did work at the Pentagon, he always worked the night shift. He wouldn’t have been there this morning. Would he? No, sometimes he had to work days. Maybe he did today. I didn’t know anymore. I didn’t even have his phone number. I knew he'd moved from the house we'd rented and bought a house. That meant he hadn't been planning to move, right? Ten years of being married, all of our twenties, and I didn’t know.
What should I do? I remember I grabbed the phone and stopped, not knowing who I was going to call. Who could I call to find out? It wasn’t my life anymore and I didn’t have a right to it. Those years of being a military wife – every memory good and bad running like a crazy montage in my mind -- were past. But I had to know. Did I call the Pentagon? As if I’d get through. If I did, what did I say? I’m the ex- wife of one of your Airmen but I don’t know if he still works there? Can you please just tell me, was he there this morning? If I could just know, then I could take a breath. Then another solution dawned on me. I’d call my former in-laws. His mom would know. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t spoken with her for years either.
So instead of calling the Pentagon across the river, I called across the country to northern Minnesota and heard the words that let me take a breath. His mother said, honey, he’s in Germany! He wasn’t at the Pentagon.
The relief was overwhelming. I cried and I have no idea how long I spoke with my former mother-in-law. It was a surreal conversation at a surreal time. Somehow, at this unlikely time, I told her I was going to have a baby, something that had been desperately wanted and didn’t happen during my years married to her son. I was going to be a single mom, a circumstance different than what we’d once expected to share as a family, but we had a moment of understanding that cut through all unacknowledged hurt feelings.
Meanwhile, the sky was still falling. For a while, on the orders of my concerned co-workers for my pregnant self, I rested in one of the offices until the entire building's personnel was being instructed to gather on the first floor. Here the crowd buzzed with murmurs of uncertainty of what to do next while rumors spread of additional catastrophes. This is Washington. We even heard that the State Department building, blocks away, had been hit. It had not, of course, but after everything that had happened, there was no reason not to believe this also. At the time, the source of this news didn’t matter, nor did details (hit by what -- another plane or a bomb?). This was merely another event in that day at the fringe of a something too large to absorb but more menacing because of immediate geography.
We were advised to go home, along with everyone else in the city. Thank goodness, one of my co-workers offered to drive me home – an experience that would take us into the late afternoon before I’d arrive at the home I’d just purchased across the river in Alexandria. What I remember most about this evacuation is the extraordinary calm of every person. Hours in traffic, with windows down on a beautiful day and solemn faces of commuters. And the smoke from the Pentagon. And the summersault in my tummy.
Today I’ll give an extra hug to my nine-year-old.