My memories of September 11, 2001 are flashes of moments. They play back like a movie reel of a character’s life flashing before his eyes. Moments of realization, stress, emotion. Fear.
I was a sophomore at Baylor University and a resident assistant. I had the two beds in my room joined together to make a king-sized bed to facilitate my natural inclination to sleep diagonally (a trait which The Professor has come to loathe). I remember being comfortably stretched out on my bed when my phone rang. My mom told me the reports of someone flying a plane into the Twin Towers in New York. I told her that it was probably a copy cat from that other terrorist attack. In my mind I saw the tail end of a small prop plane sticking out of an office window. I went back to sleep.
Next I remember recognition – this was really happening. It wasn’t a prop plane. It wasn’t just one window in one office. I remember watching the second plane fly into the building. I remember covering my eyes with my hands. I remember turning away when they showed people leaping to their deaths.
A large part of the day was a blur of mothering fifty freshman residents who were somewhere on the emotional spectrum between shock and hysteria. I was paid to be their rock, their adviser, their advocate and their referee. I spent the day doing all those things.
I’m not a good crier. I rarely cry, and when I do, it’s usually from being overwhelmed more than anything else. That day was no exception. I was too busy being the rock, the resident assistant, and so I buried into my own brand of stoic self protection.
I had a test. I remember that. It was with a particularly loathsome professor who announced that the only way you could get out of the test was if you’d had a family member in the Twin Towers, Pentagon or any of the airplanes. I remember taking the test with a mix of anger at the professor and zen-like ambivalence – what were tests anymore, now that the whole world had changed?
Ironically, that’s the only thing I remember about that class – I don’t remember the professor’s name, the subject matter. I have a vague recollection of a lecture hall, but that’s it. All I clearly can remember is that one moment of callus in a sea of support I found at Baylor that day. It is a reminder that how we respond in times of crisis will be remembered.
I called my grandmother and asked her if this is what it was like when they learned Pearl Harbor had been bombed. Her words caused the hair to stand up on my arms. “No, Sarah, this is worse. Pearl Harbor was a military base. These were civilians.”
Perhaps the scariest part of the day was looking for my dad. He had flown to New Jersey or Boston or New York the day before. I couldn’t remember which. And did he really fly yesterday? What if his flight was today? What if he flew there yesterday but then flew today to another city in the region? He always flew American Airlines. The what-ifs were suffocating, and although I had been assured by my mom and by my dad’s business partner – whom I had called in a protocol-breaching move of desperation – that he was okay, I refused to believe them. Not until I heard his voice. The lines were too busy on the East Coast and I couldn’t get through to him.
At dinner I sat in the Collins cafeteria alone, cell phone in hand, eyes glued to the TV. The phone rang and I saw Daddy pop up on the screen. Maybe it was because I had to be the strong one all day with my residents, maybe it was because I was overwhelmed and tired, maybe it was relief that my game of what-if’s was over – but as soon as I saw his name, I burst into deep, loud, ugly sobs. I answered and uncontrollably cried for five minutes while my dad assured me over and over he was okay. He had met some people at the airport who were also stuck on the East Coast. They were going to rent a car and drive home together.
When I hung up, I looked up from my tray of cold food to see a dozen strangers around me, hugging me, hands on my shoulders. They had heard me crying, and they had come. When it was finally my time to break, when it was my time to lose it, when my shift of being the rock was over, people appeared and listened to me incoherently mumble “my dad’s okay,” over and over between gasps of breaths.
It remains one of the most touching and lasting memories from my years at Baylor.
I remember writing in my journal that the whole world had changed. The America of my childhood was gone. I knew war was imminent. I highlighted verses in my Bible about not being anxious, and marked 9/11/2001 in the margins.
I went home that weekend. My dad still wasn’t home from his cross-country drive. They dropped people off all throughout the South, each person thankful they could secure a scarce rental car, each person desperate to be around the warmth of family. All I remember about going home was that I had nightmares of people attacking our house. And I cried as I pulled out of my driveway to go back on Sunday. It was the only time I ever cried leaving my house. I was scared to go back to college, scared to leave my family, scared to venture back out into the world.
After 9/11, I got into the habit of checking the news on my computer every morning just in case something happened overnight. I remember struggling with anxiety, and I remember praying constantly for our military and intelligence services to stop another attack – an attack which I along with many others felt was inevitable.
I think those moments will stay with me forever. They should stay with me forever. They should be passed down to future generations so that no one forgets.
What do you remember?