Sunday, September 18, 2011

9/11 Ten Years Later: an airline pilot's mostly unremarkable story

Whenever I thought about what to write for the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, the only thing that kept coming to mind was that admonishment from The Onion that asked ballad singers to exercise restraint. I know I should chime in, being an airline pilot-blogger and all, but it just seems so, I don’t know, unrestrained.

Even though the attacks involved my airline, and airplanes I had flown, I didn’t know anyone who was killed. I wasn’t at work; I was at home. Considering it was the worst day of my entire life, my experience of it is rather unremarkable. I wrote a little about it back when Osama Bin Laden was killed this past May. [Bin Laden is Dead: A City Mom May 2, 2011]  It was the first time I’d ever done so. I couldn’t bring myself to write about it before that, aside from a few glancing mentions, in a way that I suppose is not dissimilar to how my father never talked about World War II until recently.

Early on the morning of 9/11/2001, I looked out my kitchen window at that surreally gorgeous blue sky and said out loud “Today will be a better day.”  That was the last time I’ve ever said that. My son had just been diagnosed with a hernia that required immediate surgery. Four days earlier we’d moved into our new house. The work being done on it still wasn’t finished and everything was covered in tarps and plaster and dust. The movers had broken a leg off of the most expensive piece of furniture we owned: my antique mahogany dining room table. I’d poked myself, drawing blood, on a TV antenna during the move. The same TV antenna the most HIV-positive looking mover had just poked himself on, drawing blood, and was going to start the HIV testing procedure that afternoon.
Needless to say, my day didn’t get better.

After the crashes, broken tables and minor surgical procedures seemed, well, minor. Everyone I knew called to check on me. I kept my kids home from school. I’ve never been happier to see my husband, who worked at the Board of Trade downtown at the time, walk through our front door. I wish I had a better story for you, but I don’t.

Perhaps more interesting than 9/11 itself, is what came afterward. It’s in the ways it changed my life so profoundly. It was going back to work on the 19th, not wanting to go. Afraid. Were the terrorists still out there? As I shut the gate and looked up at my house, where my husband and young sons were still sleeping, I wondered in all seriousness if I would see them again. I’d written a note, just in case. To tell them how much I loved them and that I had to go. Because if I didn’t, then they’d already won. At work I saw a terminal empty of passengers and filled with flags and patriotic music. And one anonymous passenger who told me, “Bring it back.” Words I’ve never forgotten.

I have to ask permission to go to the bathroom now when I’m at work. Some of my friends carry guns. My salary was cut nearly in half and I lost my pension. I can’t listen to the national anthem at a Cubs game, or anywhere else for that matter, without having my eyes well up with tears. After our retaliatory war in Iraq started, we were treated so poorly in Europe—by people who would have been speaking German if it hadn’t been for men like my father and millions like him who’d died—that we began to say we were from Canada.

Ten years later, it’s better, but life will never be the same. Everyone was affected by the events of 9/11, which is why my story doesn’t stand out. It’s no different than anyone else’s. Unless someone you loved was killed. Unless you were there. Maybe this similarity is what binds us, why we tell our stories with such lack of restraint. We try to make sense of the event by talking and writing about it. To quote from some famous writer or teacher whose name I can’t remember, We are the sum of our stories. And 9/11 is a big one. So hang a flag tomorrow and let’s all tell our stories, so we can show the world how we brought it back.


     United Airlines Flight 175
     American Airlines Flight 77
     United Airlines Flight 93
     American Airlines Flight 11

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