September 11, 2001.
It’s a date no American can forget. It’s when I started shuddering when airplanes flew over my house, too close in my 11 year old mind. It’s when the word “soldier” and “veteran” began to mean a lot more and when my mom started to wear a red, white, and blue rubber bracelet proudly supporting my uncle in Afghanistan. I think it read “I Support Our Troops.” I remember her distress when it broke and she was unable to fulfill her promise, that she would wear it until he returned home safely.
I was 11 years old when the Twin Towers were struck. I remember the chaos that circulated in and through our elementary school as teachers passed out colorful pieces of paper that were for our “Take Home” folder. We scanned them, trying to decipher what had happened. “Have a conversation,” it read. I can’t remember what else. It was a list of things to do to help continue the dialogue for the greatest tragedy any of us had most likely seen. We were 10 and 11. Our biggest concern was what the cafeteria was having for lunch. I had never seen anything like the photo on the front page of Lexington’s paper when my preacher held it up on Sunday morning at church.
I lived in Kentucky when the nation felt an irreversible tragedy. When my mom picked my sister and me up from the after school program, she told us that something bad had happened. There had been an attack, a bomb, a plane, that flew into two buildings in New York. “I thought it was a joke, or a rerun of a past war on the radio,” she said. I don’t remember what happened after that. Later, she told me she and our family’s best friend had been screaming on the phone, just minutes before. “He’s okay!” Lisa shouted. “He’s okay!” My mom, too dazed from the events and lost in downtown Lexington, kept saying, “I know!” They had gotten confused—both had brothers named Jeff. Both were involved in the armed forces. Lisa’s brother was supposed to be at the Pentagon that morning.
I went to school in Murray, Kentucky, when the tenth anniversary of 9/11 came and went. I was working for my school’s newspaper, The Murray State News. Because I was a creative writer, and much less a journalistic writer, I was assigned a human interest piece: stories from faculty, students, staff, whoever was directly involved in the attacks (you can read them here and here). I interviewed a faculty member who was at the Pentagon when it was bombed. He told stories of small details—leaving his hat in his office and later having to retrieve it, a friend of his who was nearly burned alive, the sprinkler systems that went off on the sides of the building that had not been touched. I interviewed a student who was living just outside the city. The smoke, she told me with hands trembling and eyes averted from mine, was so prominent in the sky, they thought it was night.
When I think about 9/11, I think about the evil, the horror, the images of people flinging themselves from the buildings. I think about the way I couldn’t possibly understand what had happened in this terrifying time, because I was so young and so far removed. But, in the same breath, I think about how 9/11 changed me. It seems so absurd to even type that, to admit to it out loud. Families were torn apart. Friendships were ripped away. My family had suffered no immediate blows. My friends were safe in their central Kentucky homes. But, I felt (and feel) keenly the heartbreak that occurred those thirteen years ago. Goosebumps crawl up my arms and settle on the back of my neck when I hear of veterans’ stories—both tragic and triumphant. When I was 11 years old, sitting in a pew in a Methodist church in Lexington, I saw what had happened. And though I didn’t understand entirely—the phone calls that were placed on the planes that were hijacked, the servicemen and women who pulled victims from the fires, the mothers, fathers, and children who would never see loved ones again—I knew that it was a time to rally. In a naïve, and childlike sense, I understood that none of us would ever be the same and that now was the time to be together.
Thirteen years later, my mind skims across those blurred memories I have from so long ago. I board a plane and listen to every word the flight attendant has to say about safety. I squeeze my uncle whose arms have gone numb after years of violence fighting for the protection of this great place, tighter when I see him. When we read reports about Gaza, Iraq, and Syria, I remember the way I felt when our country was exploited. I remember everyday. I remember the way I thought that this tragedy meant that we should all stand together, that we should and we will all rally.
To those of you who serve or have served our country, from the bottom of my heart, the Live It Everyday Team and I offers our thanks. You are what makes this country and this world great.
All my love. Haley.