If you ask me, 8 years seems like a long time and still seems like yesterday. I've debated for a few days if I wanted to write something relating to September 11th. On one hand, I don't feel qualified. I didn't personally lose anyone or even know anyone who did. I've never been to New York City. I never saw the towers standing. On the other hand, if the attacks had happened 24 hours later, it would have been a very different story from my personal perspective. Since I don't think I've written much about 9/11 before, I'll begin by answering the question that seems to be the main topic of discussion today, just as it has been for the 7 previous years. "Where were you when you heard the news?" I'm not sure where I'll conclude. I don't know how to keep this brief, so if I lose you somewhere along the way, I totally understand.
I was at Dena's parents' house. September 12th, 2001 was probably the day I had most anticipated in, well, my life, I suppose. I was leaving for a semester in Italy. It was my last semester of college and wasn't even really necessary for my degree. I could have graduated in May, but I chose to stick around an extra semester so I could study abroad. What a better way to end a college career, right? So, I had spent the summer working for Dena at the clothing store she managed, trying to save up as much money as possible for all the meals and trips and leather goods I knew I'd be purchasing. I had already finished the days I was scheduled to work and I was planning on sleeping in and doing very little on the 11th. But, Dena's grandma called early and woke me up. She wasn't feeling well and her sister-in-law wasn't feeling well and they were going to spend the day not feeling well together. She wondered if I would give her a ride. So, I threw on who knows what and gave her a ride. I got back to the house and turned on The Today Show. I don't know at what point I even began to process what I was seeing. I think both towers had been hit at that point but hadn't fallen. I honestly don't remember. I just remember picking up the phone and calling my parents.
My dad answered. My dad is a retired Sergeant with the Illinois State Police. (He was not retired at that time.) My mom was a paramedic. I grew up in a home that didn't mince words. When you ask a question, you get a factual answer, no fluff. I said "What's going on?" My dad gave me the kind of bullet-point answers that come standard with his job. "Terrorist attack. Lots of people dead. Probably thousands. I've got to go pack - Sears Tower may be next. I'm probably headed into Chicago." I very distinctly remember looking at the front door. My luggage was packed and sitting at the door. "Dad," I said "I'm supposed to leave tomorrow." He replied, "You're not going anywhere, kiddo." He didn't mean it in a fatherly, emotional way. He meant it as a fact - no one was flying anywhere for the foreseeable future.
From that point on, the day was a blur of phone calls. So many people thought I was leaving on the 11th, not the 12th. If they had been right, I would have been in the air at roughly the same time. I got phone calls, Dena got phone calls at the store, my parents got phone calls. The school called. They were letting me know that, of course, the trip was on hold. They would call with more information.
I was to be the R.A. for the semester, so the school contacted me almost daily letting me know how things were going. After a few days (that felt like years), it was decided we would all come to campus and begin our classes. If the trip had to be cancelled, we would just continue with those classes from Searcy. If the trip was able to proceed, at least we would be close to on-schedule when we arrived. I was asked if I could make a couple of trips to the airport to pick up students who would be arriving. Of course, I did. I don't remember how many trips I made. I just remember one girl who was supposed to be going to the England campus. She was from New Jersey. She saw the smoke from her house. While I never stopped thinking about the tragedy and the loss of lives from the first moment I found out, she was the first person I met who had a personal connection. It all seemed so real at that point.
When we all arrived on campus, there were continued discussions about the trip. A couple of students decided they wouldn't go. One girl in particular had a brother in the military. She didn't feel like she could justify a semester of travel and fun knowing her brother might soon find himself in harm's way. For the most part though, our group wanted to go as soon as it was feasible. We adopted the same motto as it seemed the rest of the country had: If you don't keep living your normal life, the terrorists have won. So, about two weeks after the tragedy, we were on a plane headed overseas.
This is the point where I feel really unqualified to talk about the events surrounding Sept. 11th. I wasn't here for most of it. I didn't have to deal with the aftermath. I had two weeks of constant news coverage. Everyone else had weeks that blurred into months. While in Italy, we had our fair share of news coverage, for sure. An attack on American soil was definitely the biggest story around the globe... but it just wasn't the same. We got USA Today at the villa... but it came the a day late. We called it USA Yesterday. We had news coverage, but it was CNN International. An anchor with indeterminately-accented English, not the comforting Matt Lauer I was used to. It was a different perspective than I was used to also. The news I saw the first two weeks was tragedy, bathed in prayer and patriotism. The international news was very respectful, but more matter-of-fact. The selfish part of me is grateful for the distance between myself and the events of that day. The citizen in me felt guilty about it. I still feel that way, to some extent. I don't know how it would have been different if I had experienced the aftermath from home. I just wonder what it was like sometimes.
I do think I was afforded a unique opportunity though. I feel like that semester in Italy made me feel both more connected to my identity as an American but also made me feel apart of a global society as well. To meet people from various countries and have them ask us if we were Americans and, when we said yes, immediately ask if our families were okay and pass along encouragement or prayers was very eye-opening and touching. To be at the villa when an American couple working as missionaries in Pakistan arrived was humbling. Knowing they agonized over the fact that seeking safety put their mission work on hold was unsettling. To return to the villa one evening and find out the US had begun bombing Afghanistan was, for lack of a better word, weird. To call home and rarely speak with my dad because he was assigned long shifts patrolling outside a nearby nuclear plant was bizarre. Being overseas while America dealt with the ramifications of what happened 8 years ago today was a blessing and a curse. I don't regret going. In fact, it was one of the best experiences of my life. The timing was just odd.
The strangest part was coming back a few months later to a different country than the one I had left. I was changed by new experiences, travel, culture, etc. My home was changed by tragedy. I felt out of place for a while. All the songs on the radio seemed to be tributes to the attacks. Everyone else knew all the words. I'd never heard the songs before. People would ask what I thought of a picture or the story of a hero that I hadn't seen or heard yet. It took a while to get my footing back under me. But, eventually I did. The reverse culture shock went away and I was comforted to see the strength and the pride the was shining through in spite of that terrible day.
So today, like every Sept. 11th, I think about all these things. I see the images from the newscasts. I remember the faces of the well-wishers I met overseas. I feel grief for the families of those that were lost. I continue to pray for the men and women who are still fighting for our country. I pray for those who are still opposed to our country. This anniversary is a sad one. It will always be a sad one. There's no getting around it. We all experienced it differently. Hopefully we all learned something. What that might be is not for me to say. So, we remember. I remember...