I was parking my car in Burlington, Massachusetts, north of Boston, around nine o’clock on September 11, 2001. I pulled into the parking lot at work and sat there for a while, listening to reports on NPR that a plane had struck the World Trade Center in New York.
I could have sat there listening for hours but I finally shook myself and went inside. A coworker held the door for me and said, “Have you heard?” We silently shook our heads in disbelief.
Upstairs another coworker pulled the TV cart out of the closet and hooked it up. For all that we were an internet company, that day it was important for all of us to look at the same thing at the same time rather than on our own monitors in our individual cubicles.
As we watched the scenes of destruction, some people were on the phone desperately trying to find out if our colleagues who’d flow to New York that morning for a meeting were okay. I was thinking about two friends, people I’d worked with for years, who lived in Battery Park City, steps away from the Twin Towers.
The news showed footage of the South Tower collapsing over and over again. Then the North Tower. As we watched, I got out my trusty Palm Pilot and opened my “Book of Common Prayer” app. While others talked, I silently said the “Prayer For the Human Family” over and over again.
Eventually our VP came around and told everyone to go home. Parents were leaving to pick up their kids because school was cancelled. A friend who worked in the Prudential Tower called to tell me she had been sent home for fear of an attack on it, the 2nd tallest building in downtown Boston.
Not knowing what else to do I drove to the workplace of my then-spouse, an Episcopal priest. We went for a walk and then sat in the autumn sunlight on a hillside.
I’d watched “The Great Escape” with James Garner the night before. I’d never seen it, stumbled upon it while flipping channels, and stayed up way too late. So we talked about the Greatest Generation and wondered if this crisis would be the test that defined our generation.
My spouse had not seen the footage of the towers falling and I said over and over again, “Don’t. You don’t need to. It’s enough that I’ve seen it for us both.”
Slowly we lapsed into reverie, suspended in an incredibly peaceful and beautiful autumn afternoon. I said, “If I die today, at least you know that I love you.” There was nothing else left to say.
Later that evening we spent time with our closest friends and their two young children, aged seven and four. We sat at the piano and sang the patriotic songs from the back of the Episcopal hymnal: My Country ’Tis of Thee, O Beautiful for Spacious Skies, and the Star-Spangled Banner. In the weeks that followed the four-year-old had dreams about a baby bird falling out of the nest in a high tree and his mama putting him back.
I have children of my own now, two of whom were born after September 11, 2001. In 2011 we were on a visit to my dad at his cabin in the woods. The cabin had a circular sleeping space in a cupola at the top with windows all the way around.
My husband, a veteran of the first Gulf War, spoke with my dad, a veteran of the Cold War, and expressed grief that his children had never known peace. My son was seven at the time and unaware that his nation had been at war his entire lifetime. He overheard and said, “Dad, I know what peace is. I’ve slept in the cupola.”
It seems fitting to remember this exchange as we mark twenty years since September 11, 2001 and witness the exit of American forces from Afghanistan.
Postscript: We eventually learned that three colleagues who worked in our data center on the top floor of One World Trade Center were killed. I didn’t know them, but every year on September 11th I feel an enduring kinship with every single person I worked with in those years. Here are the names so they are remembered: Kenneth P. Lira, Edward Saiya and Frankie Serrano.