What I Learned from Sept. 11

I wasn’t going to post anything about this on the blog (like, ever) because I didn’t want to contribute to the ongoing grief-o-rama — and also, to be honest, this isn’t terribly easy for me to write about. But after reading Marybeth’s eloquent post about how she feels on 9/11 as a parent, I thought I’d finally write this down.

My younger sister (who I’ll see in NY this weekend) was visiting us the weekend before Sept. 11. She took a red-eye flight home to New York and was in the air most of the morning of Sept. 11; her plane landed in New York a few hours before the attacks and was in her apartment in the east village when the first plane crashed. Fortunately, she had the presence of mind to wake us up with a phone call ("I’m okay. Turn on the TV. Talk later. Love you. Bye.").

We watched events unfold on television in silent disbelief, grateful that my sister was okay but wondering what was going to happen next. Since it was just after six in the morning where we were, my wife and I watched the TV news in bed. Next to us on the bed was our three-week-old daughter. Our new baby was the lens through which I evaluated everything that happened that day.

Because we were relieved about my sister and totally stunned at what was happening, we didn’t react emotionally to what was going on, at least not at first. But after the towers collapsed, we saw a live TV shot of a father with a child about the same age as our daughter strapped to his chest, running away from the debris cloud.

That was the scene that caused the emotional dam to break. We certainly identified with the father — holy shit, we live in a big city too, and that guy could have been us — but for me there was something much bigger at work. Having a baby is an act of supreme optimism; you have to feel pretty secure in your relationship to society to want to bring a kid into the world. But at that moment, I felt utterly (and selfishly) miserable for our own baby. I felt like she and her generation had been cheated. Through tears, I kept saying sorry, baby. We thought we had brought you into a great world, and now it looks like the world is going to be not quite as great.

It took more than a year for me to get my thoughts and emotions sorted out about this, but when I did, I realized I had it completely wrong. It may be the case that the world is a little worse than it was before 9/11. But all that happened in the past; if you’re focused on the future, you can look at anything in a more constructive way.

It took me way too long to figure this out, but things made a lot more sense when I realized that the world is not a gift we give to our children. Our children are a gift we give to the world.