I flew with my four-year-old nephew last week; it was his first flight. I explained to him that he would likely have to remove his shoes as we went through security. He didn’t blink, slipping off his tiny crocs and dumping them into the bin before striding self-importantly through the metal detector ahead of me. Our stories of a time when you didn’t need a passport and could haul your family size bottle of shampoo onto the plane, fall on disinterested ears. For him, for most children, there is no “before” to compare to – the way it is now is the way it’s always been.
There’s an airshow in town this weekend. For the last two days, the afternoon skies have been filled with the momentary deafening roars of F-something-or-others as they pass through the neighbourhood airspace. The approaching sound is not as noticeable as the fade into the distance; all of a sudden, it’s just there, rattling the windows, disturbing the dog from his nap, making it impossible, for that brief moment, to focus on anything. Everything, for just a minute, stops; pedestrians on the sidewalk, kids playing in the park, men and women working in their yards. Even inside, anyone near a window pauses.
We all look to the sky and watch as the planes pass overhead and then move farther away, over the next neighbourhood, and the next, until we can’t see or hear them anymore. Only then, it seems, do we feel able to resume – to continue walking, playing, cutting grass, talking on the phone.
I can’t remember if we looked up before. I can’t remember if the interruption was as noticeable, or if it felt as necessary to watch and wait until the sky was empty again. All I know is that it feels necessary now.
For the last week or so, the annual 9/11 “where were you whens…” have kicked into higher gear than usual, and rightly so. Significant occasions draw far more of our attention on the ones, the fives, the tens. Wedding anniversaries, for example; ten years garners much more excitement than eleven or twelve. It’s simply how it is.
Even in the face of all the remembrance taking place, I hadn’t planned to write about this. After all, the attacks on 9/11 did not happen to my family, my city or my country. Several hundreds of miles and an international border away from New York City, it’s not assumed that 9/11 changed my world one whit. Oh sure, now I need a passport to shop at Target, but even that turned out to be a smaller deal than anyone would have thought.
But to say that 9/11 changed little for me would be dishonest. It may not have changed my day-to-day world in a noticeable way – but it certainly changed my worldview, in ways noticed and not noticed.
September 2001 was already a month of change for me. I’d spent the first ten days of the month as I’d spent the end of August – making daily visits to my husband who was ill and in hospital. The 10th itself had been a difficult day; we’d celebrated his birthday quietly with our daughters in the hospital cafeteria. Through the evening and the night that followed, not one but two of his hospital room-mates had died. Life was already beginning to take on a new element of vulnerability, and the first hints of awareness at how precious and fleeting life could be had occupied my thoughts for several days.
I was about to turn 30 myself, and had taken the first baby steps toward the calling that would morph into a career over the next decade. Online, I’d begun to discover a wider world of ideas and opinions that I could endlessly explore and consider. For the first time that I was aware of, I was starting to feel like an adult, rather than a young mom who was just pretending to be one.
And then, that Tuesday morning.
There are a lot of legacies from that day, large and small. I can recall, with alarming clarity, the blue of the sky as I first heard the news, just after the first plane hit the first tower. Since then, I haven’t seen a sky that blue that I haven’t thought, just for a moment, “It could all change, any minute, any second.” It doesn’t stop me in my tracks; rather, it’s an almost subconscious pause, the thought gone as quickly as it comes: that’s what the sky looked like, just before all hell broke loose.
I don’t know if we ever noticed the sound of a plane passing overhead, before that day. Since then, however, it’s always the same; the half-hearted listening, the almost imperceptible nod as it passes into the distance: that one’s good, it kept on going. In 2009, we experienced a small tornado just two blocks away. I was outside when it happened, and heard the roar of the funnel cloud coming closer to the water tower nearby. I stood rooted to my spot on the porch – I fully expected, in that moment, that a plane was about to crash. Not until I saw debris funneling upward one street over did I realize that it was Nature’s wrath, not man’s, that was barreling down on us.
For me, at least, it was still early days for online media. The Internet was, if not in its infancy, than certainly in the throes of an unpredictable adolescence. I belonged to a writers’ email group, and on an average day, about 150 emails came through. On that day, upwards of 1000 emails were sent to the list, as we discussed and shared what we were seeing, hearing and feeling. Almost no one I knew in my online world read many blogs, let alone wrote their own. Facebook, of course, and Twitter were non-existent. It was the search for more information and broader views on that day, and the days that followed, that ultimately made my world web a little wider.
And then there is the date itself. I feel oddly protective of September 11. I can’t remember if it took two years, or three, before it started to seem “ok” to schedule a meeting, plan a party or otherwise act as if it were any other day. Silly as it may be, it felt, and still feels sometimes, like that’s a day that should have been taken out of circulation, so to speak. Most of the time, I can be rational, and say, it’s just a day. And then someone plans an airshow on the 10th anniversary, and I feel irked, like it’s just plain bad manners to torment us with the sound of roaring jets on this of all weekends.
So, on first contemplation, that’s what I can come up with ten years on: small, barely noticeable changes, just rituals and responses that have become routine. I notice planes. I pack the Lady Gillette in the checked baggage. I know to look beyond the newspapers for insight and opinion.
And yet. There has been an impact, so much greater than all that, and so much more consuming.
9/11 solidified a philosophical shift in me that was already in progress. While I may not wear it on my sleeve, or wave it on a placard, it’s there, quietly guiding my days and offering me comfort when times get tough.
Life, you see, is short, and the presence of loved ones a gift to be cherished. People went to work that day – ordinary people with ordinary trials and triumphs. Some of them had new babies, or new jobs, or new homes. Others had bills piling up, kids struggling in school, spouses they were having a hard time understanding. And at the end of that day, none of that meant a thing. All that mattered was the joy that they made it out alive – or the grief of their families if they didn’t.
Very, very few things in life are as important as we’d like to think they are. If we can not predict the number of days we are given in this life, at least we can impact who we are on the days we are given. I make an effort to be kind, to be understanding, to have compassion. I don’t always succeed, but I always try. I try to show the people I love that they are important to me, either by word or action. Because of that day, ten years ago, I try to make this day count.
In my life, that’s what’s important.