I Hate: Fear

Sept. 11, 2014

I was eleven years old on 9/11 – sixth grade.

I was in gym class when they told us to go to the auditorium for an all school assembly - no time to change. I would spent the rest of the day in my gym clothes. White school polo, navy mesh pants, and a purple velvet hair tie holding my hair in a too-high, too-tight ponytail.

I heard it first from a classmate on the walk back to school. He said one of the world trade towers fell down.

I thought it was an accident. What else would an 11 year old think?

I pictured the building falling over sideways and thought, “why did they build them so freaking tall?” I’d been up in those buildings before, felt them shift from side to side with the wind. My dad had pointed it out to me, and it had made me queasy.

Which, yeah, brings me to my next thought. That’s where my dad works. 

I don’t remember much about the assembly. I don’t remember if I understood anything other than, my dad might be dead.

I remember that I was freezing cold, and I could see all the purple veins running through my legs, right underneath the skin.

I waited in line forever to call my mom. When I finally got to the phone I didn't really know what to say, so I just said "mom?" She said, "Do you want me to come get you?" and I said, "yes." That was it. The entire conversation.

I told our principal my dad’s name…as if there was anything he could do. Then I sat on the wood and cement bench outside the school and waited for my mom to come pick me up.

My mom was stoic. She told me that my dad had called when the second plane hit, and told her that they were evacuating. It made me feel better, even though her demeanor told a different story.

We sat in the living room and watched the towers go down. Over. And over. And over again. Not really speaking. Not doing much of anything. You couldn’t get through to anybody’s cell phone that day. So we just sat. And waited.

I always say that the sound of my dad coming home from work is imprinted on my brain. First there is the jiggling of the loose door handle, and the sound of the old sticky door being forced open. The three beeps of the alarm system. Then the sound of my dad’s work shoes hitting the tile floor in the hall and the change as they hit the two wooden steps leading down to the kitchen.

I have no doubt that it was that day that made sure that I will never be able to forget that sequence of sounds

I was lucky.

My dad actually worked in the World Financial Center, which is the building with the pointy top next to the towers. He always drove to work and took the ferry across. So when the second plane hit, he walked down the stairs, got on the ferry, and was already in his car in Jersey City when the first tower fell.

I lived close enough to the city that many of the people in my town were not so lucky.

It was sad to pass the girl in the hallway whose mother worked for the same company as my dad but on the hundred and somethingth floor of one of the towers. I cried the next week when we all held hands before our soccer game to remember the other team’s coach.

Everything was sad. For weeks, and months.

But what I remember most about 9/11 was not sadness. What I remember most about that day was fear.

I was 11. I was innocent. (Maybe everyone was at the time.)

I hadn’t put much thought into what happened outside my house or my school. I didn’t know about “bad guys.” I wasn’t aware of the chaos that is this world. I guess conceptually I knew about war. But this was real life. My life.

Like I’ve written in earlier blogs, I was always sort of a fearless child. I taught myself to ride a bike because I didn’t know someone else had to teach you. I jumped off a bridge at Yosemite “cause everyone else was doing it.” It’s not that I wasn’t afraid of things. But I don’t think I fully understood that there were things out there that even my mom and dad couldn’t fix.

On that day, my dad was human. My mom was human. We were all human. And most of us were scared. Even the people who aren’t supposed to be scared.

Fear is a funny emotion. It's a survival instinct. Without fear telling us to be careful, we wouldn’t live very long. And yet, fear holds us back. It tells us that we’re not good enough, or strong enough, or talented enough. It makes cowards of the best men, and props up the weak who choose to lead by it.

9/11 will always remind me that there are terrible things out there that you may never see coming. Things that will bring you to your knees. Blindside you.

But 9/11 will also remind me that living in fear doesn’t make you any safer. The only thing to do is to control what you can. I do cherish every moment I possibly can with my parents - I did even when it wasn't the cool or popularthing to do. When my dad got diagnosed with prostate cancer a few years after 9/11, I spent my free periods at school going to lunch with him, or training, while he watched. Because I could, and I knew that was a gift.

The world never stops. Today never seems like the “perfect” time to do anything worthwhile. It’s never the perfect time to train, or forgive, or drive up to have dinner with your family. There is always something less important that tries to get in the way.

But that’s why you have to do those things anyway. Because you don’t know how many tomorrows there will be.

I’m not saying to live every day like it’s your last, because who would do any work on their last day on earth? That’s just not practical. What I am saying, is that if 9/11 taught me anything, it was to know what and who is important to me. And to live accordingly. Cause being able to control life is a gift you might not always have.

And when I sat in that auditorium that day, thinking “who is going to take me to soccer practice, if my dad is gone?” It wasn’t because I needed a ride, or because I needed soccer. It was because I needed him.