Paul and I had been together for 3 years when 9/11 took place. Long distance relationships are hard, but we did it all through college and grad school (flight school for him). I’d like to think it made us stronger over the years.
A lot of things have made us stronger over the 12 + years that we have been together.
I woke up that Tuesday morning, a junior in college, searching for a clean pair of jeans to wear to a composition class that I was already late for. I lived with 3 other girls, 1 of whom was already in class, the other two were making coffee and watching Matt Lauer.
My bedroom was in the back of the apartment. I had the smallest bedroom, because I was the last roommate to join in on the living arrangements. I had more privacy but much less space. My dresser had to go out in the hallway so I could have room to walk in my room.
When I went in the hallway that morning to get my jeans, I heard one of my roommates repeating “ohmygod. ohmygod. ohmygod.” Granted, my roommate had a tendency to be a bit dramatic, but the tone of her voice concerned me. I’ve received enough middle-of-the-night phone calls with bad news to know what her tone meant as she said, “ohmygod” over and over again.
Zipping up my jeans, I made my way into the kitchen, which opened up to our living room, our main communal space. One roommate was watching the coffee drip into the pot, while the other roommate (the “ohmygod” roommate) sat on the couch with a box of Kleenex and an empty mug.
Not much was being said on tv at that time. The first tower had been hit. Everyone was stunned, shocked, confused. I curled up on the couch next to my roommate and we held hands. I didn’t ask any questions because what I saw on the television was more than my brain was able to compute at that moment. So we just sat with each other, hand-in-hand, with tears running down our cheeks.
My roommate who had been waiting for the next pot of coffee, sniffled and wiped her face before coming over to us on the couch and filling up all of our mugs. She then left for class.
It was shortly after she began her walk to class that the second tower was hit. Our gasps were audible. Loud even. As we sat on the couch, nearly in one another’s laps, we cried hard together. The phone in our apartment started to ring, but neither of us answered it. It was like we were waiting for a third plane.
I had not seen the first tower get hit at 8:52 that morning, but I witnessed the second tower being hit on live tv, and as I watched people leap from windows of the towers to their death, I felt physically ill with helplessness.
People tell you that there’s always something you can do. Something that can be done… whether it’s to right a wrong or fix something that has been broken. I grew up being taught to keep trying. There’s always something that can be done. But on this day, there was nothing. Absolutely nothing that any of us could do at that moment in time. And that is a horrific feeling.
I called my mom as my roommate and I kept our eyes glued to the television, waiting to see what would happen next. I remember worrying about my dad who travels during the work week. I could never keep track of what major city he was in when. Thankfully my dad not in NYC that day and was safe.
I emailed Paul as soon as I saw that the Pentagon had been hit. Our long distance relationship and the sheer horror of that morning had my anxiety through the roof. While I was at school in Auburn, Alabama, Paul was in school in Maryland, at the US Naval Academy.
For a while, my thoughts bounced back and forth from watching the live coverage on tv, witnessing the gravity of what was taking place in NYC, and then panicking that Paul’s safety was in jeopardy being at a military academy. After the Pentagon was hit, I worried for him in ways that my heart was not prepared for as a 20 year old kid.
Eventually Paul was able to call me from a payphone. He reassured me that he was safe. The Academy had been on lock-down and all gates were barricaded with armed guards. The reality of what was happening that day finally hit during that phone call with him.
The terror that I had witnessed that morning while sitting on the couch with my roommate had been brought directly into my life when the Pentagon was hit and the love of my life was a mere 45 minutes away, in Annapolis.
My heart broke for the families who searched for missing loved ones… families forced to bury those who were much too young to be taken. My soul grew with pride when I later heard of the sacrifices made by the passengers on United 93. And my body ached to hug Paul and tangibly feel that he was safe.
As paralyzing as that day was 10 years ago, I credit 9/11 for solidifying in my heart who I was meant to spend the rest of my life with. I suppose sometimes it literally takes a world tragedy to make you realize what you want out of life.