I didn’t lose anyone I personally knew in the terrorist attack on New York City on September 11th, 2001. But it changed my family nonetheless.
My oldest child, now a college freshman, was a new 3rd grader in a Jewish day school in downtown Brooklyn just around the corner from Atlantic Avenue, which was then the heart of the Arab community here. When the planes hit the World Trade Center towers no one at first was sure what was going on. The audio recordings of airline and military officials that morning, newly released by The New York Times, makes the confusion and disbelief abundantly clear.
One thing was clear to me that morning: I had to get my son safely away from Atlantic Avenue.
My babysitter stayed with the girls while I took a cab downtown just minutes before the streets were shut down by police. The school had been evacuated. Someone told me that a friend had taken Boychik, with her son, to their house in Brooklyn Heights. Cell phones were down.
So I fast-walked through the eerily quiet streets, through air filled with white particulate, using my shirt as a mask against my nose and feeling like I was walking through a horror movie. But for two people at a corner payphone the normally bustling streets were empty. It was primary election day, and campaign posters near polling places hung like dusty artifacts from another era. A clutch of construction workers stood on the stoop of a townhouse overlooking New York Harbor and the now-collapsed World Trade Center towers. Their laughter was jarring.
When I found him at our friends’ house, I learned that looking across the river from his top-floor classroom, my boy had seen the towers fall. And he was profoundly altered.
Parenting my children through those days was the hardest thing I have ever done. I had to function through the haze of my own shock and grief, taking care of three young children whose needs were immediate. My 2-year-old daughter wanted to know what was wrong, but was at an age where she was easily distracted. My 7-month-old daughter’s needs were simple. Taking care of Boychik wasn’t.
My husband had flown to Florida the evening of September 10 for what was to have been a one-day business trip but turned into several days before he found a car to rent and could drive back.
Meanwhile, smokey ash floated in the air over our neighborhood in the following days and the glow of the smoldering, monumental wreckage was visible from the top floor of our house, where Boychik’s room was, for close to two weeks.
The morning after the disaster I singed butter in a pan as I cooked scrambled eggs. My son ran to the front door in a panic, sure the fire had spread to our threshold. For months he would have a visceral physical reaction to anything that triggered sensory recall of that horrible day. When he watched those towers collapse, so did the sunny part of his disposition. Anxiety bloomed up in its place. It took years of hard work to restore what he lost that day.
Two nights after 9/11 our synagogue held a special service. I had to go and be connected with other people even in the daze of our shock. To be able to rely on the words of our tradition when I had no words of my own. I was too busy dealing with the kids to be able to focus much on the service, but found comfort just in being there.
To see those airplanes determinedly crash into the towers and then, in disbelief, to watch the buildings collapse into mountains of steel and destroy close to 3,000 innocent lives in the process was the first time I had been forced to confront true evil. My father and his parents were Holocaust survivors and, while I had many times heard the stories of their last-minute escape from Hitler’s Germany, there was still an abstraction to it.
Witnessing 9/11 pierced that abstraction. It forced me, forced all of us in New York, to grow up. I still grieve over the loss of life caused by the terrorists that day and my own loss of faith in human nature. It lies quietly, most of the time, but is animated by this sad anniversary.
My sweet boy who was so altered by that terrible day is now a lively young man capable of embracing the complicated nature of our reality. He consciously does good in the world and intends to continue, possibly through involvement in politics. I view his hopefulness and intention proof that good can emerge even in the face of unfathomable evil.