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by Elizabeth

I’m not usually one for public self-reflection, particularly on September 11th, where I fear the risk of over-sentimentalizing.  But this morning,  on the ninth anniversary, I found a poignant reflection in an unlikely place. From the Twitter of notorious over-sharer and occasional racist, John Mayer:

johncmayer: Why is it that the 9th anniversary of 9/11 feels more like the first? There was healing and then the stitches popped. #iloveNY

File this under #wordsIneverthoughtI’dwrite, but I think John’s got a point.  In light of the proposed Quran burning and Ground Zero Mosque, it is apparent that almost a decade later we’ve still got a long way to go in the grieving, remembrance, and understanding processes. I don’t believe that there is, or can be, any tidy collective experience for 9/11 (who is the “we”?), but I do believe in a common currency, particularly among members of my generation who delineate the pre- and post-9/11 world.

So, at the risk of over-sentimentalizing and over-sharing (publicly!), I’m posting a piece I originally wrote in 2006 and recently revisited. It is my best attempt at reflecting on what September 11 was and is, somewhere between a personal and collective lived experience.

I was laughing when the north tower of the World Trade Center was hit.  Eighteen minutes later, at 9:03, a second plane collided with its twin, and the boredom of having spent 22 minutes in Mrs. Lamato’s second period algebra had set in. I left the room no more aware than I was when I had entered it, although newly disappointed with a test grade.  In performing arts, we were fist-fighting, and while we shrieked and were taught to pull hair convincingly, a plane plowed into the Pentagon. We found it odd that our teacher ended the lesson early, making us sit quietly in rows.  Over the intercom the principal announced that “we had been attacked”; it took a few seconds for me to determine who “we” was.  Shushing the gossipers, I sat with legs crossed, trying to hear what wasn’t being said.  Flight numbers and times and locations were repeated slowly, as if what we were being told would be more comprehensible if uttered sluggishly, but our brains were already too saturated with breakups and invites and homework.  We were naive and still our September 11 was just another sunny Tuesday.

While I sat in the health room fourth period, the north and south towers collapsed from the top down, looking as though they had been peeled apart like an orange.  My teacher, having been given the okay to acknowledge the situation, logged online to print photographs of the wreckage, briefing us intermittently.

Rumors began for lack of any real knowledge, and over my usual turkey sandwich and lemonade, I was told by several classmates that planes were circling our state and that the White House was under attack.  My class size shriveled period by period as the names of my peers were called to the office where red-eyed mothers sat restlessly, waiting to escort their children safely home.  I was bewildered and scared- not of another attack, but of not knowing what was going on.  We forced diversionary discussions and attempted small talk through the remainder of the periods uncomfortably. Somebody complimented me on my shirt.

At home, my mom and I sat in front of the TV, our cheeks sticking together, slick and salty.  My sister called, then Dad, Grandmom, Nanny, the aunts.  Physically, we were all alright and accounted for, although every call consisted of “I just can’t believe it” and a brackish, wet receiver.  Later in the evening, I was confronted with a new unfounded fear.  As it grew dark, I began to feel increasingly unsafe; unsettled in the same way I had in August, when two convicts had escaped from the nearby prison.  Presumably, the escapees were hidden in my backyard, waiting for me just as I had pictured Bob Ewell attacking Scout in her ham costume. I had felt then that I was in danger, somehow vulnerable, and on September 11th, I felt similarly, that the felon pilots were evading police in a New Jersey suburb.

It was after 9/11 that I began to feel like an outsider.  While most of the nation needed to be given someone to blame, I had trouble being angry.  I did not—and still do not—possess the capacity to become enraged with the terrorists, no matter how many PBS documentaries I see or press conferences are held.  In the months and years that followed the eleventh, nationalistic fervor erupted among many- something that both frightened and worried me.  Just as I was saddened by the events of September 11, I was equally disheartened with, and perhaps envied, the reactions of my family members and peers who found it easy to hate. While I felt guilty and jealous and confused, I was mostly just sad.

My September 11 made me wish to stay protected, although in many respects I felt as though shelter did not exist.  The day itself differed only slightly from any other in my eighth-grade year, but gradually I’ve realized that I shouldn’t have expected it to.  In some ways I still have trouble fathoming it at all.  What’s most difficult to comprehend, what most are still tussling with, is how anyone could have a motive for killing 2,993 people.  But yet I still cannot hate those who did.

I don’t remember the twelfth of September, perhaps because it blurred with the following weeks of attempted normalcy and habitual behavior.  Most likely, my teachers and classmates and I pretended that we were alright, or that we understood, or that things were normal- and they were.  We realized that normalcy is arbitrary and slowly, sheepishly, continued with our turkey sandwiches and weariness of algebra, hesitant only because we feared seeming callous.  We settled for a new norm, and we were naive, and still our September 11th was just another Tuesday.

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Note:  From time to time Julia and Elizabeth will take a break from feminist blogging to use this space to share their other interests and abilities with you. For Elizabeth, this means putting forth her writing, both fiction and nonfiction, to a larger audience. The following is an essay she recently completed. We hope you enjoy these sidesteps and, as always, feel free to comment on our work.

by Elizabeth

Yesterday, my father sent me an email about the dangers of compact fluorescent light bulbs. Apparently if they are broken, they will emit mercury and kill you. In the last month his emails have taught me how to check my power-steering fluid levels, that my major is among the top 5 lowest-earning, where to call to have my cell-phone number removed from telemarketers’ lists, and, in two separate forwards, each with  “FYI” in the subject line, that too much Tylenol will kill you. To say that I have a controlling parent would be cliché. My father carries the weight of the world by choice. This is why his heart is failing.

For the last five Marches my parents have travelled to Snowbird Resort to ski. My dad begins planning for the vacation in December. His first step is wall-sitting. Before plane tickets are booked or reservations at the Cliffe Lodge are confirmed, my father will take out his stopwatch, find a clear bit of wall on our carpeted second-floor landing, and place his feet squarely shoulder-width apart, with his back straight against the wall. Then he will squat. He’ll stay seated on air like this for up to two and a half minutes, his personal best record, squelching his grimaces in order to encourage my mom to join him. “This is the exercise of skiers,” he tells her, the emphasis in part due to the burning in his thighs, “We’ve got to be in shape for the moguls.”

For the next month, he’ll spend almost every weeknight watching the Warren Miller video series, including Born to Ski and Steeper and Deeper, which are continually renewed from the township library. After he’s sufficiently rewound and rewatched the parts with the deepest powder, my father will browse EBay for ski-wear. The result of such shopping is often unfortunate: my mother, who hates skiing, owns a hideous red, white, and blue full-face mask and a pair of traffic cone orange goggles. They were “just too good a deal” to pass up. “It’s not what you wear, it’s how you ski, Jane,” he says, thumping around the house in ski boots and long underwear.

Undoubtedly, these rituals ensured that my parents were prepared for their trip last March. My father had packed, researched, tested, trained, and simulated. Plans had been finalized, bindings tightened, trail maps memorized. He had guaranteed that whatever the week brought, he would be of top of the situation.

On the third day out on the mountain, my father fell. When he did so, he lost a ski and a pole and could not get up. It was blizzarding, and while my mom was reading indoors, my father was getting his money’s worth for the weeklong chairlift tickets: off-trail in waist-deep powder, which was still falling.

“I know how to ski, Liz, OK?” he later told me, “But it was scary. No one was coming by and I was just lying there for a while.” The other skiers stupid or frugal enough to also be out on the slopes in the storm passed by him, his ugly yellow ski boots perhaps too buried to be seen. When he finally did manage to get himself up and off the mountain, he couldn’t breathe.

I didn’t know about the fall, the subsequent trip to the hospital, or my parents’ early flight home until two days afterwards. My father left me a voicemail. “Just wanted to let you know,” he said, “we’ve got it under control.” In the months that followed, my father again researched, tested, trained, and simulated: monthly stress tests, EKGs, blood work, and a catheterization to inspect his heart provided few conclusions. He drove to the hospital in Philadelphia, and, after his procedures, instructed directions and lane shifts from the passenger seat on the way home. From my inbox I kept learning: about the hidden costs of owning a puppy and ways to prevent heart attack and diabetes.

****

In June there was a diagnosis: Congestive Heart Failure and cardiomyopothy. Along with the names came rules. No alcohol, little sodium, nothing to raise his heart rate over 120, blood pressure tests throughout the day, blue horse pill Glycosides, white seed-shaped ACE Inhibitors, blood pressure stabilizers, diuretics, Beta Blockers twice a day with food or milk. No skiing. The medicines made him tilt his head upward while he was sitting down so that the room stayed still. Some made him yell at us for leaving drawers open in our dressers and not screwing the cap tightly on the toothpaste. One made his eyes look like they could be deflated with the prick of a pin.  All made him weak.

Through June and July, my father and I carpooled to work as we had the past two summers. Our conversations followed a pattern:

“We’re going to be late.”

“The clock is fast.”

You’re late. You took a 22 minute shower. Do you know what a water heating bill costs these days?”

Through the intersection at Scotch Road, past the funeral home. Honking and light flashing at cars that hesitate in the rush hour traffic on the Pennington Circle.

“And it’s Tuesday. For the last 20 years, Tuesday is garbage day.”

Switching between classic rock radio stations and NPR, slurps of scalding coffee through the plastic travel mug slit.

“You can’t even take out the fucking garbage? I’ve got to do it? But hey, don’t worry, let me pay for school, let me pay for your car, let me drive you to work, let me do the garbage. Hey, don’t worry.”

Applying Chapstick, adjusting the air conditioning, the angle of the seat until inevitably:

Jesus. I’d be better off dead.”

We were tired and angry and sad and what we didn’t say we knew:

“I am afraid that if I go to sleep I will die.”

Right at the fork, past the University. Traffic is slow and we may be late if we don’t hurry.

“I am scared.”

“I am sad.”

“This is how I know how to provide.”

Pulling into the parking lot two minutes early.

“I’m sorry and I love you.”

“I love you and I’m sorry.”

For the last month of the summer, I drove myself to work and on Tuesdays, took the garbage to the road.
****
I spent the next four months studying in London. My father rearranged my luggage tags in the airport and demanded that I bring a bag of cashews in my carry-on for protein. I showed him that I had my passport and boarding pass and told him that I wouldn’t take more than three Advil. “We’ve got it under control,” he repeated.

With my additional British email account, I received twice the amount of messages from my father. He sent jokes about John McCain, pictures of the yellow playground slide in the middle of the Google offices, advice on where to hide my passport in my flat. He updated me on his life, “Doing well. Tired. Busy,” and signed his notes shorthand, “L, Dad.” When I called to video chat my mom, my father’s large blurry oval face would inevitably appear upside-down in the camera’s frame. He’d say hello, then, like a Big Foot sighting, disappear.

In November, I was emailed the good news that my father’s six medications are making his heart pump blood more effectively. Though the rules do not change, he’s now on a lower dosage of the medicines which make him more crazy and frugal than he is to begin with. My parents bought two giant plastic exercise balls and a video to go with them. “You need to roll in a straight line, Jane,” my father instructs, “You work your core like that.” This is the extent of his allowed exercise. He is adjusting.

Because my father carries the weight of the world, his heart is failing, though genetics, a virus, and plain bad luck may also have contributed. In my inbox I’ve saved an email he sent two weeks ago, titled “How to Relax: Twenty Tips for You to Stop Sweating the Small Stuff.” “FYI,” I responded, “I’ve got in under control.”

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