I watched them run into the rubble, smoke and confusion. Saw them disappear through the doors. Running in when everyone else was running out. I remember thinking, “They’re so brave. We’re so lucky to have people like that willing to help.”
Then the screen filled with billows of gray-black smoke, the camera angle pulled back and I could see that the building wasn’t there anymore. The one they’d just run into. It was gone. They were gone. Those courageous, determined faces and all the people they’d hurried to help. Just gone.
I stopped breathing. Birdsong, the mellow gleam of sunlight on antique plank floors, the kitchen clock kept ticking. I was transfixed. My five-year-old daughter asked what was wrong. My frozen lungs wouldn’t let me answer. But what answer was there to give, anyway? How do you explain what you can’t understand?
I’ve never written about September 11th before. I didn’t think I had a reason. After all, I didn’t lose anyone. Fourteen years later, my eyes are so full of tears I almost can’t see to type. The secondary trauma lives in my cells. In the strands of muscle fiber that seized when those lives stopped.
It was almost impossible to let my daughter go to her afternoon kindergarten class. Her heartbeat was small child swift as I hugged her. I think my heart tore out of my body when the bus pulled away. I kept seeing swirling gray-black smoke swallowing dirty yellow turnouts.
It was my son’s first day of preschool. When I picked him up, one of twenty or so stricken-looking mothers talking in gasps trying to make sense of things, we were shushed by the school director. “We don’t talk about those things in front of the little ones.” Don’t we? There were little ones who were going to be talking about this for the rest of their lives.
That afternoon, sitting in the grass of our backyard with toddler play sounds drifting around me, I felt the strangest thing. The pulse of the land had changed. I know this rhythm like a child knows its mother’s heartbeat, and it had changed. It was slower, erratic, almost shuddering. Slowly, my bruised heart recognized what I was sensing.
The stones – the bones of the earth under each site – were grieving.
(First published in 2015, republished in 2021 with minor edits.)