Tuesday, September 6, 2011

My 9/11 Experience (Caution: Disturbing Images)=UPDATED

As we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I have been thinking about how it is an event that my generation (much like the generation of the Kennedy Assassination), will recall it knowing "where" they were and "what" they were doing when two hijacked planes hit the Twin Towers in New York City. 

Here is my 9/11 story of where I was and what I was doing, but with an additional segment on how it impacted my life as a mother.

I had just flown home the day before from Georgia, where I watched my baby brother graduate from his basic training in the Armed Services.  After getting my daughter Sarah off to school (she was 6), I went back upstairs and crawled into bed next to my 6 month old daughter, AnnaMarie.  My son Gabriel, aged 4 and my daughter Elisha aged 4 1/2 were snuggled next to me watching Sesame Street.  

My husband called me from work.  I glanced at the time and noticed that it was way to early for him to call to check in and immediately worried something was wrong.  A flat tire? He ran out of gas? My immediate thought was a selfish one, "do I have to get up and do something?".

He asked me if I was watching television.  I told him yes.  When it became clear to him that I had no idea what was going on in real time on every station BUT PBS, he told me to go down stairs and turn on the tv.

My heart jumped into my chest.  I was afraid, but checked the children then ran downstairs and turned on the tv.  What was unfolding before my very eyes has since gone down in history books for future generations to learn about and remember as a horrific day of tragic consequences for the United States of America.

Neither of us spoke as I watched the smoke billow out of what I would later learn was the North tower.  What was I looking at? Did a bomb explode? I was trying to make sense of what was happening and why my husband sounded so freaked out.  Neither of us spoke, I just held the phone to my ear and listened to the commentary on the live news coverage.   My first impression was that a freak accident occurred.  I listened to the news reports and the theory that a small private plane must have lost control and hit the building.  At the same time, my husband expressed to me that he believed this was not an accident, but was instead an attack.  I was confused and frightened but, without expressing it, I was sure he was wrong.  That would NEVER happen to "us".  As an American Citizen, I felt that this kind of incident would never happen on American soil.  I certainly had no comprehension of what was really happening.

That is when it happened.  The particular channel I was watching had live footage of the North tower in flames and out of the corner of the screen I saw it.  Slowly, gently gliding into the frame and then tilting it's angle at just the last moment, I watched in horror as the image clicked in my brain as being another airplane and just as I realized what it was, it struck the South Tower spraying waves of steel, fire and smoke out the side.

I gasped as the fear entered into every participle of my being.  Oh how I longed for my husband to be with me and not just talking to me on the phone.  I wanted my daughter home from school.  I wanted to climb back into my warm bed with my little baby and watch Sesame Street and turn back the clock making this "thing" that was unfolding go away.

Then the reports of another plane came in, this one hitting the pentagon.  I became numb with fear and grief as I heard of yet another, headed towards the White House, crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.  When would the chaos end? How many more where there? Even when it became clear that there were  no more planes, I still felt raw with anticipation that the next "attack" was imminent.  The first time I heard a plane go by in the sky after that day, I had a jolt of fear climb up my spine.

While most of us know where we were and what we were doing on September 11, 2001, there is another memory linked to these September 11 attacks that has stayed with me and shaped me as a mother for all of these years since.

While that day was just something I watched on television, many more "lived" it with tangible consequences to their own lives.  Yet it was only until the weekend following the attack that I actually entered into the event and allowed myself to be affected in a personal way by all I had witnessed as a mere observer.

I was upstairs with all of the kids trying to get the fall clothes out and the summer clothes put away.   Clothes were strewn from one end of the room to the other. AnnaMarie, who had extreme colic, was screaming uncontrollably as usual.  I was overwhelmed, I was tired and Shawn was working overtime as usual to help us dig out way out of the financial crisis that we had once again found ourselves in because of me staying home with our small children.

As I opened yet another container, I smelled a dirty diaper and got up to find Gabriel to deal with yet another one of the many mundane tasks of being a mother.  Gabriel was had pulled all of his clothes off, including his diaper and he and his 4 year old sister where walking through the contents.  Their foot prints of feces were all over the carpet and the clothes that I had laid out in piles.  As I saw the scene before me, I began to cry realizing how many hours of more work now lay before me.  I felt so overwhelmed.

The baby was screaming, I had boxes of summer and fall clothes strewn about, many of which now had to rewashed.  But I could not even deal with any of that yet because I now had to clean poop off of two children and out of the carpet in three separate rooms.  But it soon got much worse.

As I stood their crying, holding AnnaMarie wondering how I was going to deal with this AND take care of a screaming baby, my 6 year old came into the room to see what all of the fuss was about.

She took one look at the poop smeared all over the carpet as well as on her brother and sister and proceeded to throw up all over the floor.  If you think that is bad, wait a moment, it get's worse.

I kid you not when I say that her 4 year old sister, who at that point did not realize that she had stepped into the poop or that it was all over the floor as well as herself, looked down at herself and then back and her sister and then she began to throw up as well.  

By this time, my head was spinning and you can imagine how sorry I felt for myself.  As I dragged up a bucket of soapy water and began to clean and scrub the feces and vomit out of the carpet, all the while listening to a screaming baby and the others yelling and fighting with each other, I began to break down and sob.  I continued to sob, you know the kind that wracks your whole body and you could not stop even if you tried?  Well, that was me.  I even began talking out loud to myself about how much this just "sucks" and I can't believe how my kids could have been so naughty for doing this to me.  I contemplated going back to work and putting them all in daycare.  I went on lamenting about my predicament when suddenly, a flash of video footage from the 9/11 attacks played out in my mind and with it, an inner discernment that gently opened my heart to see how very blessed even this act of cleaning up vomit and poop from my carpet was.

I saw in my mind's eye, the people who jumped off the towers to their death as their friends and co-workers were being consumed by smoke and flames.  The discernment I had was, how many of those people who died a horrific death, would trade places with me in a moment,just to have just one more day with their babies, their husbands or wives?  A sudden wave of peace washed over me.  It emanated from deep within me and felt as if it were spread right out to my fingertips.  I was so very blessed to be alive, to be with my family, to have an opportunity to love and be loved.  It is a memory that comes to me every time I am reminded of 9/11. 

This memory, of how the hardships of life, the every day sufferings of being a mother or a wife or sister or a daughter, have been part of the journey and I often take them for granted.  I have so many lessons to learn, but that day I learned that even the hardest things to endure like a loss of a job, financial hardship, mundane jobs like housework or other life events have been something that I allow to consume me.  They are but a distraction to the real purpose and meaning of life.  The purpose of life is to love and to be loved through a total and free gift of ourselves to others, especially our own families.  I am still struggling with this.

The truth is that we are given a very short time to be here and that what we choose to do with it does matter.  Perhaps this is what the saying "offer it up" is all about.  Many times we run away from things that are difficult or because suffering is involved.  However, when we realize that enduring the difficulty rather than resisting it, for sake of love, transforms us and those around us the difficulty becomes something completely different.  It becomes a gift.  It becomes an act of love.  There is great mystery to suffering that I do not truly comprehend but one thing I do know is that we should not waste any opportunity to offer up our difficulties and our sufferings to God for grace, for love, for penance, for our families conversions etc.

We can make transform our suffering into something valuable.  When we enter into the mystery of suffering,  there is often personal growth on the other side.  My suffering was nothing compared to the many families that lost so very much that day but I pray that I did not waste it. 

Perhaps, if there is a survivor of 9/11 reading this, it will give them peace to know that far away, in a small town in Wisconsin, a young mother who was overwhelmed with life, entered into the pain and suffering of their day and then joined her own suffering to theirs as a gift to God in hopes that He would bring them consolation in their trials and sufferings.

I realize now that the role that Simon played in helping Jesus Christ carry His cross, was an invitation for me to do the same and that "offering it up" was just one of the many ways of accomplishing this.

My God, Our Father, embrace those in pain from 9/11, may God the Son, console His bride to ease their burden, may God the Holy Spirit fill the hearts of His children to enable them to endure and be healed.  May Our Lady of Guadalupe protect, heal and open all of us to receive her Son.