You’re too young to understand the enormity of what’s happened right now, but I write this for when you’re ready. Today, Sept. 11, 2001, our lives have changed in major ways that we’ve yet to know.
The United States came under attack: just before 9 this morning, people who took control of passenger airplanes crashed them into the World Trade Center here in New York and then the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. By 11 a.m. both once-majestic Trade Center towers had collapsed and major buildings across the country were shutting down. Another hijacked passenger plane crashed in Pennsylvania.
As the events unfold today, I can’t help thinking about when we were on vacation last month. A small American flag in a drugstore window caught your eye, and you stopped and squealed “An America flag!” with such delight that I bought it for you. We talked about how you should always hold the flag high, because it was a symbol of our country and our way of life. A day or so later, your Daddy bought you one too. You were a sight to see, a little Black boy walking happily around Martha’s Vineyard with two Old Glories flapping in the breeze.
The attacks today were attacks on our flag and all that it represents. They were attacks on our collective soul. The horror of what has happened will be hard for you to fathom. Terror, chaos and confusion will eventually be a neat chapter or two in your history books, with all the hindsight and context that scholarly reflection allows. Thousands have died, and thousands were hurt, casualties that are impossible to imagine in one country—our country—in one day. Co-workers, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, cousins and friends. Heroes and babies. Lost amid crumbled glass, steel and concrete. Despite the technological and military might of this country, despite the freedom and democracy that we enjoy, and that so many have fought and died for, we are now afraid. It is the most serious attack on this country ever – a major breach of the nation’s security. New York and the United States are gravely wounded, and on highest alert. There is talk of payback and war.
For the first time in our history, the Federal Aviation Administration closes all U.S. airports. Bridges and tunnels into New York are blocked. Downtown there is chaos. Uptown, I rush back to your school, where I had dropped you off earlier, and find the setting surprisingly calm. I talk with an administrator who encourages me to let you stay. I realize that you are safe and I leave you with your class.
The president announces that Freedom itself has been attacked, and that Freedom will be defended. He is traveling back to Washington, within the boundaries of his own country, under the protection of U.S. military jets.
At your school, your new teacher tells your class that “an airplane had an accident and crashed” into the Trade Center towers. I’m glad she said that; it helps me answer your questions, like, did people die? And did the World Trade Center blow up? I respond honestly: yes, and yes. And we say a prayer for those who died and were hurt.
Your Daddy, who’s swamped at the newspaper, checks in from time to time. We won’t see him again today. I worry about his being at Times Square, the “crossroads of the world” and another potential terrorist target. But instead of telling him to come home, because I know he won’t, I tell him I love him. He says to kiss you for him, which I do.
I try to make your day seem normal. I pick you up at your school, hug you a bit too long for your tastes, and we walk home along oddly serene streets. As we make our way across 96th Street, I glance south on each avenue and can see plumes of thick gray smoke billowing up from the devastation downtown. When we pass a park, you ask to stop and play. I hesitate. On a sunny, 80-degree day, it’s empty. I say, let’s just go home. To my relief, you don’t complain.
Back home, you watch a lot of Cartoon Network in the kitchen as I sit in the dining room taking calls from those who manage to get through the phone lines and listening to the radio with growing sadness. At one point I have to step into another room and close the door. For a moment I bow my head, sit quietly, and cry. I mourn for those killed and for the losses of their families. And I ask God to help us bear this impossibly heavy load. Then I straighten up, wipe my eyes and become Mommy again.
Later, with military ships headed to guard our coast, the smoke begins to fade and stories of amazing rescues and hearty survivors offer us hope. The subways rumble beneath the city again and normally reserved New Yorkers strike up casual talk with strangers on the street. Workaday folk travel from far and near to offer food and clothes and blood, whatever will help. On talk radio, into the night, caller after caller vows that this, too, we will overcome. Our lives will change, yes, but we’re still here – these United States. Even with all its warts, that’s something to be thankful for.
And as I tuck you in bed, and we pray for all of us, I remember your joy back on the Vineyard: Proud American, age 4, raising Old Glory. You are so blessed, my sweetheart. You have your life, your limbs, your family, your freedom, and, still, your innocence.
Wave your flags, Zachary. Wave your flags.