As summer closes, and the fresh scent of autumn brushes against the dawn, my thoughts are pulled back to a day the changed everything for me. This week marks the 14th anniversary of September 11. I am often asked to describe what happen to me that day, of how I found out that my family was so personally involved in that tragedy. It has been a long and difficult road, but one I freely share. Here is the first chapter in the record of my journey. May we never forget.
Episode 1 – Forever Changed
It seemed a thousand years ago
and on the other side of the world.
~ J. R. R. Tolkien
How do I begin? How do I tell the tale of all that has happened? Ten years it has been, as I sit here trying to put down the thoughts and feelings that have occurred since that day. It seems insurmountable to place into words all that has transpired, yet I feel a need to try. So how do I begin?
It is a tale wrought with anguish and woe, and yet, as I look back, as I walked in the dark path of suffering, I see more clearly that it is also a tale that has always been a Pharos that shone upon the way, though I could not see it at the beginning. But it was there, always there summoning me, as a beacon of light piercing the darkness, calling out to me from around the bend. All I needed to do was take a few more steps, and then I would have seen it. That is how it often is when trials come. We are blinded by our sorrow and fear to all that is available to help us. And so it happened.
God let me down. It was a beautiful morning. The sun shone brightly. A faint breeze brushed through leaves painted with gold and red, whispering of autumn. The blush of day was still and silent, as though inhaling a breath and holding onto it, waiting to exhale. Suddenly, the sound of engines roaring broke through the air, growing ever louder. In an instant, no life would be the same; my life would never be the same.
The events of September 11, 2001, mark a change in my life. On that day, my precious father, Stanley R. Hall, was ripped from this world as American Airlines Flight 77 plummeted into the Pentagon in Washington, DC. Numb and dazed, we walked those first months. FBI agents, memorial services, honors given, all a haze of lost senses.
How did we become entangled in this? How did my family get caught up in this conflict? I cannot answer these questions. All I know is that I am forever changed, marked by the wound of that day. I look back at pictures taken before September 11 and think, that was before, when we were innocent, before everything changed. I see myself as a different person than the woman in those photographs. Life is much more serious now. A shadow of mourning hovers over me each day. Living with grief is hard. The moment I realized my father was aboard the plane was like being slapped in the face for no reason. My breath escaped me. My chest constricted, crushing me with the weight of loss. For days, I was unable to swallow, except to swallow the grief.
That morning, I was ignorant of what was happening outside the walls of my bustling household. I was busy preparing for the day. Besides homeschooling my three children, I had just taken on the responsibility of running the children’s program at our church. I had planned to spend that beautiful September morning working at church, preparing the children’s church room. I was in the process of packing the car to make ready for the week’s activities, taking schoolwork for the kids, when the phone rang.
The phone rang. If only I had not picked it up, I could have stayed the sorrow that was to follow. But I did pick it up; ignorant of what lay before me with the words that would soon follow my cheerful hello.
“Where’s Daddy?” my brother asked, urgency in his voice.
Confusion swept over me. My brother was in Rochester, New York. Why was he calling me? My father lived in Virginia. How should I know where he was at that moment?
“Turn on the TV. Don’t you know the world’s coming to an end?” he cried.
He told me he had tried to call our mother, but all the lines were down in Virginia. He couldn’t get through to her.
I reached for the remote and turned on the TV. Horror filled my eyes as the news broadcast the planes flying into the World Trade Center. Then, as the nation let out a collective gasp, the towers collapsed. A cloud of dust and debris filled the city. All those people. Tears streamed from my eyes, yet I had no idea that our family would be pulled so personally into this tragedy. Then word came that the Pentagon had been struck. My father often worked in the Pentagon. My heart paused.
Through his company’s headquarters in Virginia, my husband was able to get through to my mother. She told us that my father was safe, for his plane to California had left earlier that morning. That was when fear began to take me. While I calculated events as the newscast pronounced them, I began to realize that the timing of the plane’s takeoff might mean that he was not safe. I held my breath.
Just as my mother was looking up my father’s flight itinerary, the newscast stated that Flight 77 had been the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. My husband repeated my mother’s words as I entered his office to tell him which flight it had been. I heard him say those words, words etched in my memory. “Flight 77.” I took in a breath. I wanted to scream. No. It couldn’t be. God would not let this happen to my father, he was always okay. He was the one who always took care of us. Nothing could happen to him. He would surely call and say, “Guess what happened to me on the way to the airport?”
My husband looked sorrowfully into my eyes and with a broken voice said, “I’m so sorry.” Horror struck, I returned his gaze. My mother hung on the phone. He must have told her that it was my father’s flight that crashed into the Pentagon, but I do not recall what followed. I stood aghast, unbelieving. Then I thought of my mother listening on the other end of the phone. What do I do?
I ran from the room. I did not want my mother to hear me sobbing. My first thought was that life was over. In an instant, the culmination of all my hopes and dreams came crashing down. There was no need to go on. Nothing would be the same. I did not care what happened to me. Death could take me. That would be all right. My heart was hollow, echoing of loss, each breath a struggle, each moment something to endure. What was the point of going on? All was lost. It was over.
Overcome, I collapsed on the floor. My two oldest children, then ten and six, ran over and wrapped their precious little arms around me, the remnant of him. Confused, they held their sobbing mother as I cried, “No, no, no” over and over again.
As I knelt there on the floor, cradling my body within my arms, I told myself, pull it together. You are carrying on for no reason. Daddy is going to call. We don’t even know for sure if he was aboard the plane. Stop crying and stand up. You are getting ahead of yourself. But what if it were true? What if he was dead? It was beyond my comprehension. After a time, I got up. I had to get control of myself. My little ones needed me.
I went to my husband and asked, “What do I do?”
He looked at me and said, “Pack your suitcase.”
Puzzled, I returned his gaze for a moment and then asked, “What do I put in a suitcase?”
I have spent my life traveling, packing many suitcases, but in that moment, I had forgotten. Numb, I turned and went upstairs. Previously, I had purchased a black dress. As of then, I had not had an occasion to wear it. I laid the dress upon the bed next to my suitcase. I refused to pack it. Black dresses were what you wore to funerals. The dress wouldn’t be needed; I knew my father would call. He just couldn’t get through. The phone lines were down. That was all. But the call never came.
My husband was finally able to contact the airlines. The representative confirmed that my father had checked in, but could not establish that he had actually boarded the plane. I knew he had. He would not have checked in and not boarded. Finally, I carefully placed my new black dress inside the suitcase and closed the lid. That was that. This is what it is.
All I could think was get to Mother. She was alone. We were in Texas; she was in Virginia. Never before had I felt so far away. My uncle lived in Maryland, my sister also; only an hour’s drive away from my mother’s house, but Washington, DC was shut down. The Beltway was closed. There was no easy way for anyone to get from Maryland to Virginia. She was all alone. All planes were grounded. There was nothing else to do but drive the long hours to Virginia.
I called my close friend to tell her what had happened and to let her know we were leaving town. Stunned, she asked if she could come over to be with me. I told her no. I was afraid that if she came to comfort me I would fall apart. I had to be strong. I had much to do, and I could not afford to break down. There would be time enough to grieve, but at that moment, I had to get to Virginia.
Hours slipped by. By late afternoon, it was reported that Al-Qaeda, a terrorist group of radical Muslims, claimed responsibility for the attacks. With this added knowledge, we began to prepare for the trip. We needed to get the car in good order. Anesthetized by shock, I dropped my husband off to run an errand, and then I took the car to get the oil changed. As the kids and I waited in the lobby, the news was on the TV, showing us over and over again the unfolding of terror. There was the Pentagon, its walls collapsed and burning. How could my father be in the midst of those flames? I looked away. The shop had a LEGO table set up, so I watched the kids build towers with the blocks as I held my eleven month old in my lap.
“Look, Mommy,” they called, “our planes are crashing into the buildings.”
A shock wave ran down my body. But I let them play, aware they were trying to make sense of the senseless, trying to come to terms with what their innocent eyes were forced to witness. Their lives would never be the same. They would have to live in this world, now so touched by hate.
In the stillness that followed September 11, the silent emptiness filled us with the stunned awe of disbelief. How could anyone do such a thing, such a terrible thing? How can we live in a world so full of hate?
So we drove, twenty-three hours stopping only for food and fuel. Twenty-three hours with three children, one of them a baby, cramped for what seemed like endless hours in the backseat. There was not a sound of complaint, not a whimper of discomfort as the hours stretched on through the night and into the opening of the next day. We kept the radio off, shutting our minds from the events that had occurred. The car was silent; the skies were dark, the hours rolled by. I sat stunned in my seat.
My aunt and uncle from Maryland finally made it through DC and stayed with my mother for a few hours until my brother from New York arrived. We finally reached my mother’s house on the afternoon of the twelfth. We came through the door tired and grieved. We fell into waiting arms, clung to one another, and sobbed.
How strange to walk this earth after death had come. I had experienced death before. Working as an oncology nurse, I had often held the hand of cancer patients as they slipped from this world into the next. It always struck me how surreal are the moments after death. How can the world and its people carry on as though nothing had happened? It is like looking through a lens, watching the events of life unfolding, yet without being part of it. In that moment, life stands still for the grieved, yet the rest of the world continues its pace through time uninterrupted. I wanted to shout, “What are you doing? Don’t you know someone has died? How can you go on as though nothing has changed?”
Well-meaning people would tell me, “Don’t worry, everything will be okay.” They would hug me or pat my back as though they could wipe away the sorrow. But how could everything be okay? You cannot fix everything. You cannot undo death. How will this ever be okay?
How do you go back?
“How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart you begin to understand there ‘is’ no going back? There are some things time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep … that have taken hold.” ~ Return of the King
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The story continues in SILENT RESOLVE AND THE GOD WHO LET ME DOWN (a 9/11 story). I hope you will join me in this journey, to see what is was that God revealed to me. May it be a light to you when your way is dark.