I heard the ringing from my bedroom as an annoyance, a disturbance of the cool still depths of sleep. It was the landline ringing. This was before I owned a most basic flip phone, before I felt a need to be laden with technology’s greater services and demands. The morning was two days before I remarried my second husband, a short week before my heart procedure (but after the forest heart attack).
It was early, much earlier than I expected to be awakened. I fell into a surface skimming sleep, my heart steady enough, even quiet.
The ringing again. The sound sliced through the rooms, penetrated the wall dividing me from it. I stirred, stretched. What was it? Who called me this early? It had to be an appointment reminder. Oh, appointment–yes, the dentist this morning! I slipped out of the warm bed, rushed to shower, dressed hurriedly. I had an hour maximum to eat, brush my teeth, drive downtown.
I recalled the ringing so checked the recent numbers and calls in passing. There had been seven calls, all in a row. I stood motionless. Then the phone rang once more and I felt it in my body, that double clutch of fear.
Naomi, my daughter from across the country.
“Hello? What is it Na?”
“Mom!” Her voice a riptide of tears.
“They attacked the World Trade Center! Crashing planes–more is happening right now! It’s horrifying–I’ve been trying to get you all morning!”
“What do you mean? I was–I have a dentist appointment soon…What are you saying, Naomi? In New York, now?”
I turned on the television. Saw.
I cannot tell you what else we said, how we reached each other across the miles, what was pushed and pulled from us then put into a new kind of language, one informed by the catastrophes unfolding. It was felt by all of us in my country, a deluge of anguish unleashed in seconds, a fearsome vulnerability overcoming each fiber of mind and body, the very soul snatched from its moorings.
And yet I went to the dentist. It wasn’t a decision. It was following a protocol of doing the next task, a simple reaction to what was next on my schedule: dentist, 10:00 a.m. I recall driving over one of our fourteen bridges, glancing at the hills to find them still there, then at other drivers. We were all staring forward, and if we caught sight of someone looking back, our shock was a deep darkness emanating from one to the other.
I remember checking in at the office, the radio with no music, its volume turned up, the urgent news being cast among us. The weighted silence in a nearly empty waiting room.
I sat back in the dentist chair, mind bleak. Blank and overflowing at once.
“I…” My jaw felt frozen.
The female dentist, one whose native tongue was not English, stared back at me, small dark eyes wide. “I know… how? Can we get through any of it?”
The terror attacks? The absurdly kept dental appointment when all was hellacious, falling apart? Being alive while others died? How, yes, how anything but a scream I could not let out?
But we acted out the senseless moments. I got into my car. My limbs were stiff, as if my body did not want to move forward, not enter the street, not witness this changed country I lived in and loved, all too much, too much, not even what I could imagine. Worse.
There were ongoing phone calls to and from family, friends. My face taut, mouth clamped shut then wrenched by sobbing. The church across the street opened its doors. I watched groups of people gathering on the sidewalks, entering arm in arm, crying, hunched in each other’s arms. Moving in this landscape of tragedy, finding no comfort.
The moment there arrived the news that my sister-in-law was in the Pentagon when another plane crashed into it, I collapsed. In a little while I got up and walked across the street to the church, holding the cross in my view, seeing it framed by an ordinary Portland sky. I entered the building so full of the heat of life, a place echoing with tears that fell hard as the autumn rains, prayers offered by lips that could barely part to find the words. I stayed as long as I could stand the amassing pain. The loneliness knowing my sister-in-law was in unbelievable jeopardy. Or gone. So many. The day immovable yet massive with loss.
Countless phone calls: they fell apart quickly or ended in silence, my hand clutching the receiver, knowing the one on the other end was doing the same. Holding phones as if holding close the bodies of those we loved, wondering over those others we could never know.
The afternoon was a trap. Sharp moments crisscrossing mind and being. Numbness coming and going, feeling on the outer reaches of lucidity. Waiting to know more. Not wanting to hear or see the latest reports while refusing to not do so. The urge was to resist this reality of earth spinning into a whirling blur.
My husband arrived, another daughter. We waited.
It was an email at last. J. had managed to get out safely, after hours and hours and things I never would know, to finally arrive at her front door and have it opened by my brother and his arms enveloping her.
She had moved an important meeting from one place in the Pentagon to another at the last minute. One decisive action rescued lives, her own and others that unspeakable morning.
I can barely conjur what it was, acrid smoke billowing down the hallways, the monstrous din within the madness of moments as streams of people ran and ran and ran. I cannot ever know a fragment of the whole truth, cannot fit together the who, what, how and why of it all even now.
I mean the counted and untold lives, the very last moments. The herculean emergency salvaging, strangers working in earnest. Miraculous repair of wounds as thousands died. After effects that no one can know unless in those places of horror. The incomprehensible reverberations for countless individuals. For generations. For my country oh my beloved country.
But here, fourteen years later, I feel it still as tears take me.
I terribly feel it.
*******In Memoriam, for all who lost their lives on 9/11******