9/11 began as horror, became about heroes

I am grateful that, 10 years later, I wake up in bed, in my house, in a free America and my first thought is: “I have to water the dog”- not anything else, anything bad, anything ugly. Minutes later, I remember the heroes . . . and the smoke . . . and the children . . . and the heroes.

It isn’t that I wasn’t prepared for today and hadn’t been reminded that today is today. But my goal is not to treat the anniversary of America’s worst day since World War II, since the assassinations of JFK and King, like a holiday. Unlike Christmas, that has its own smell and feel from moments before you wake, I didn’t want this to become a day devoted to sadness and memories of death.

I wanted to wake today, oblivious to terrorists and fully embracing the life I can have only in America. I wanted today to be about living harder than ever, with more purpose, because I am living for some who aren’t here.

When recalling 9/11, as my newspaper asked me to do, my memory was instant – the children, those who watched strangers and those who watched their parents die. (Read my column at freep.com/rochelleriley.)

But to really recall the first moments of 9/11 I had to call my daughter. As always she was my first thought, and her memory was stunningly clear. She recalled it in that breathless get-it-all-out-at-once way that I used to write:

“We were in art class and our art teacher, Ms. Rubel got pulled into the hallway by the principal and we didn’t know what was going on, but we thought it was weird that we were allowed to still talk in class. They came back, and and she said we weren’t going to have class today and they turned on the TV, and we were all sitting there watching it and right then, the second plane hit the second tower and at that point, I remember we were watching, but didn’t understand. From what I remember, a newscaster said a second plane just hit the World Trade Center, and they showed a picture of the plane hitting, and they were talking about how we might be under terrorist attack. The teachers wer all sitting on art stools and it went from one’ teacher in the room to five or six teachers. We didn’t know what to do. Then Gabrielle started crying and everyone else started crying and said they wanted to go call their moms and dads. They took people in groups of three to call. I said, “Mom there’s something going on with some airplanes. And you said, ‘Did they tell you about it?’ And you came and got me. (My daughter, when she was even younger, thought I had the ability to fly over cars when I needed to arrive in an emergency).. . We went back to the newsroom. I was sitting there watching it. . . You turned to something else for me to watch, and I had lots of food and pen and paper so I could draw. I wasn’t that scared because I didn’t understand. The only time I was scared was at school when someone said they were coming there next. You explained it to me. We called Grampa to see where he was, and you told me he hadn’t gone into the city.”

And there it was. The only connection we might have had, that we knew of, was not made. So it, like the Space Shuttle Challenger, became a horrible tragedy that we watched from afar. Moved, sad, tearful, stunned, we lived with for days with no personal connection.

Until they talked about the fire companies that ran in when others ran out – and didn’t come back.

We know firefighters.

We know police officers.

We know soldiers.

And from that moment, the tragedy became more than a horror we watched from a distance on TV. It became personal. It became about the people whose faces we saw but didn’t recognize that we knew belonged to someone.

I didn’t show my daughter, but I cried a little every day. So as we’ve done every anniversary of the tragedy, I will find something to do today to help someone else, something in honor of the heroes.

The martyrs. The firefighters. The ones who gave their lives to make us pay attention to our safety, our power, our place in the world. We must never forget them.

Thank God for them, every one. Ten years later, thank God.

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