September 11, 2001 - A Defining Moment for GenX Parents Like MeKatie Allison
For many Americans, it was last year, on the 10th anniversary of the horror that was September 11, 2001 that they found themselves reflecting especially deeply on all that we lost on that terrible day. But for a variety of reasons, I’ve been feeling more contemplative and sad about 9/11 this year – thinking a great deal about all the people in all the families who woke up 11 years ago tomorrow morning with no idea that before the sun would set that day, their worlds would literally be blown apart.
Like many of you, I’ll bet, I remember the morning of September 11, 2001 in bizarrely vivid detail – where I was, how I found out, what I felt, how I watched, and how for weeks after, I clung fiercely, possessively, almost angrily to the people I loved most.
In my own case, on September 11, 2001, I was a married, work-at-home freelance writer/editor, and the mother of three young children, ages 10, 7 and 4. And on that beautiful, early fall morning, my then-husband had already gone off to work, and I’d just dropped my two oldest children at their elementary school, and deposited my youngest at his preschool. I was heading back to our house to try to squeeze in a few hours of writing and editing before my preschooler needed to be picked back up at 1pm when I heard a first, early, and as it turned out, very inaccurate account of a small plane nicking some building in Manhattan via the radio in my minivan, which was probably tuned to NPR.
I was curious about the odd ( and unlikely) sounding incident, so when I got to the house, I tried to find news of it on the internet, but when I had no luck with that after a moment or two, I switched on the morning TV news just in time to see what I still to this day cannot believe I actually saw: a huge passenger jet slamming into the upper floors of one of the world’s most iconic skyscrapers in downtown NYC.
I remember the piercing fear and terror of that moment in an acute way that I suspect many of y’all share from your own experiences watching the plane fly into the building. In that instant, I still knew almost nothing about what had just happened – about what was still happening – but somehow I also knew everything.
For Gen X kids like me who grew up on TV like “The Day After” and movies like “Red Dawn,” I think that many of us always believed that something truly terrible of the magnitude of September 11, 2001 would eventually befall us. But by 2001, I had let my guard down a bit. I had 3 healthy children and a pretty good life. None of my same-age friends had gone off to fight somewhere only to return home with missing limbs, missing memories, or not to return at all. The fears that my generation had so internalized as we grew up in the 70s and 80s – including the threat of nuclear annihilation or Soviet invasion – had collectively faded into a deep, but ultimately still primal worry that no one ever discussed much anymore – certainly not in the way adults and kids alike had discussed these things when I had been a child.
As an American mother living in 2001 – pre 9/11 – I never heard my kids sit around talking through scenarios for what they would do if a bomb went off while mom and dad were at work, or come up with creative ways that they could find their missing family members when the Russkies landed in town, like my friends and I had routinely discussed with one another on the playground only 15 or 20 years before.
I guess maybe by 2001, I’d kind of let my guard down, and had begun to kinda, sorta, maybe believe that the world wasn’t as dangerous as I’d believed as a child. The various worst case scenarios that had inhabited my youthful nightmares as I’d grown up watching too much footage of Vietnam firefights, nuclear annihilation and Red Square military parades every Saturday morning on CBS, right along with Josie and the Pussycats and commercials for Sugar Smacks, mostly never bothered me at night anymore.
Yep, by 2001, the fears of my childhood seemed rather retro, like bellbottoms and gas lines. They didn’t seem to make sense in the new world in which my children were growing up – a world in which few parents would ever consider allowing CBS newsman Christopher Glenn to break into Power Rangers on Saturday morning to explain about anything as terrifying as radiation sickness.
In 2001, I was sleeping pretty well at night. No more nuclear holocaust nightmares. But it turned out that my restful nights were temporary.
On that clear, sunny morning 11 years ago tomorrow, standing in my own, safe living room, the scariest nightmare that any news producer (or horror film director, for that matter) ever could have dreamed up was actually happening right in front of me. And as I watched it happening on live television, all those fears I’d pushed down as far as I could came roaring back in a crashing wave that I am pretty sure put me on my knees right then and there. This thing I was seeing was everything that had ever terrified me growing up, and everything I’d tried to pretend could never happen to my own children, and it wasn’t a TV movie of the week, or footage from a warzone in the Middle East, or some special effect dreamed up by one of the digital whizkids of my generation who were just starting to remake media back in 2001. No, what I was looking at in that moment was a horror movie come to life in a real American neighborhood where many of my friends worked and played and lived. This was entirely real.
Eleven years later, I still become shaky and overwhelmed by emotion if I think too much about what we all saw on our TV screens that day. I cannot even comprehend what it’s like for the families of 9/11 victims to be confronted with those terrible images time and time again, year after year. I don’t know how I could manage, if that were part of what I lived with, on top of living with the violent, sudden loss of a husband or wife, son or daughter.
I can never quite articulate how 9/11 changed me. But it did. I don’t think I have ever allowed myself to be fully at ease in the greater world since that day. When it comes to my expectations for how world affairs can become very personal affairs in an instant, I am always wary and watchful now, and I will never again become complacent about what could happen to somehow bring the world’s most explosive and complicated and intractable misunderstandings and disagreements from a faraway place on the map directly to the place on the map that matters the very most to me.
In an instant.
I am changed, just as I suspect many of you are changed since we lived through the hell of a day that so many of our neighbors, friends, family members and fellow Americans did not live through.
For today, my prayers, love and all the light I can push out into the world around me are focused on all of those among us who still grieve.
Take good care. Please know that we are with you, still, even eleven years gone.
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