On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I was a new college student. I had just graduated high school that spring and had had my 19th birthday five days prior to the morning in question. I remember 2001 acutely and specifically, due to the life-changing importance of the events which occurred in and after September of that year.
Let me start you off by introducing myself--no, I don't mean introducing myself to you as a fully grown adult, author, radio personality and accomplished musician--I mean me at 18-19 years of age--me as a mess of a human being--someone who was cookies; still baking--or cookie dough, in the immortal words of Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
At 18, I had barely graduated high school--not because I lacked intelligence or motivation, but because I was a confused, emotionally and physically abused teenager with some serious and painful health issues who had to fight tooth and nail through my years as a student to graduate. I had to fight illness, fatigue and extreme pain, it's true, but I also had to fight other-ism, sexism, and bigotry like the dickens just to keep my head above water, despite having an off the charts IQ and being a beautiful and talented young woman, albeit a troubled one.
When I finally graduated high school, I was unbelievably proud. I was relieved. I looked forward to limitless possibilities with my name hovering on a stamp just above them, waiting to be pressed. I knew that, in the words of the famous song, "happy days [were] here again, the skies were blue and clear again." I finally felt like I could focus on being the person I had always known I was but had been unable to make pop on paper. I could do anything--nothing--whatever I needed, and I'd have no one but time, myself and natural consequences to answer to. To me, this was a feeling I always knew I would have. I figured, in my still so childlike mind, that all adults felt this all the time--even adults who were wedged into societal corners by things like poverty, racism, abuse or lack of healthcare--and finally, I was able to join the ranks of such adults. I was able to be the person I knew I was on the inside with no fear of judgment.
I had just enrolled in college, just gotten a new job at an integrated preschool program and had just received an immediate raise, promotion and some excellent feedback about what a fantastic worker I was. I was living at home and commuting to school to save money. My Dad had just taken a job downstate and I stayed at home to fill in and help around the house (though I realize now that, as any 18-19-year-old would be, I was likely more of a hindrance than an actual help) and had committed to living down there during the week, while my Mom kept her upper management job at the local library (she was head of circulation services--a very important job in its own right, and one which she ended up working until she was almost 70, because she loved it so much and was in turn so well-loved and respected by her staff and her manager alike).
My parents were very independent and thoughtful people. They didn't have time for helicopter parenting, even when I was young, and they always trusted me to act appropriately and maturely and to be an autonomous individual, and, as someone who, while being a smidge over the line into the extrovert zone in Myers-Briggs terminology, enjoyed keeping my own company, I didn't mind at all. I was always popular with my friends, but didn't have any interest in being the leader of a specific group, nor was I interested in following anyone who did, which made for rather a strange brew of being well-liked, but not particularly caring whether or not I continued to be. I had, by the time I graduated high school, sadly, been in a highly physically and emotionally abusive relationship with a young narcissistic, sociopathic man who, like me, possessed an IQ well into the genius zone, and who, unfortunately, unlike me, possessed the EQ and the emotional maturity of a cracked and poorly varnished teacup. In short, my young life was already quite full of duality--of extremes, and by the time I turned 19, just before the events of 9/11, I had been in this abusive relationship for nearly two years. I thought I could handle the worst life had to offer...then came Tuesday, September 11th, 2001.
On that morning, my alarm clock was set to go off at 10am, since I wasn't working and I only had one class that day. I remember waking up to my bedroom tv on, my Mom standing in my doorway, urgently telling me to wake up while the sun streamed in on a gorgeous summer day in Chicago, birds singing, hardly a cloud in the bright sky. After a few moments, my Mom left my TV on and went back to her room without another word, so she could turn on her bedside radio. I followed her into her room to ask her what was wrong, and she hushed me as we listened to the radio announcer on WBBM Chicago telling us that a plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York City.
I was startled and shaken and, at the same time, wondering how anyone could possibly think this was anything other than a tragic accident. My Mom and I returned to my bedroom to watch Good Morning America on ABC, transitioning back forth between ABC and CNN, in search of more up to date facts, while the normally consummate professionals, Diane Sawyer, and Peter Jennings struggled to digest what had just happened--what would continue to happen throughout that fateful morning--live; on air. That's when the second plane hit. We quickly got dressed and went downstairs to continue watching the news.
Reports began coming in that this was, in fact, a deliberate attack on American soil. We heard the Pentagon had been attacked and, later on, that a plane had crashed in Shanksville, PA. Then, as I was at the gym, glued to the tv with the rest of the members who had come to work out and stayed to stand, staring and crying at the tv in shock and horror, the South tower fell.
I drove to school in a haze. The entire college campus had been shut down, and, upon walking back to my car, I heard the sonic booms of fighter jets overhead. My heart dropped into my stomach. Then I heard the news--the North tower had fallen. America was under attack, and we didn't know what target would be next.
I called my abusive boyfriend, who for once had nothing negative to say. We told each other to stay away from downtown Chicago. I called my best friends, my family, I called my Dad. I called all of my loved ones. All said the same--stay out of downtown--stay away from crowded places, stay at home. I cannot overemphasize the fact that in that moment--that day, even--none of us knew what was next. The vice president had been moved to an undisclosed location, the president was stopped in the middle of reading a book to school children and eventually taken on board Airforce One. Commercial and passenger planes were grounded. Everything was quite actually up in the air. Nothing like this had ever happened on American soil before. We were under attack.
That night, we heard that Al Qaeda, a small group of terrorists in Afghanistan, led by Osama bin Laden, black sheep of the ultra-wealthy, broadly philanthropic bin Laden family was claiming responsibility. Was this true, or was this small-time terrorist with big-time ambitions simply seizing an opportunity to claim fame for his group of radicals?
As the week unfolded, I began to fear that this would lead us to an ill-advised war with a country which, while run by a psychopathic dictator, was in no way responsible for this heinous attack. Facts and figures were cast aside in favor of emotion, opinion and conjecture, all while the person who had claimed responsibility for the attack seemed to be only a secondary concern to those in charge. It felt to me like there would be no closure--no healing of the wounds which were inflicted on my soul--on the collective soul of the nation that September day.
Living through September 11th and having it come at a time in my life which was so formative and so crucial was arresting. My world changed. My sense of safety was taken away. It never returned. I doubt that it ever will...
I did, however, come to the realization that when we all grieved together--when we all acted together to respond to the worst things humanity has to offer, that we could, collectively and individually, make things just a little bit brighter, and that through concerted effort and continued action, we could rebuild and re-emerge a stronger, more empathetic, compassionate and intelligent people with a lasting bond that transcended belief, opinion or personal experience. That day, we as Americans lived through something together, and while our experiences were individual and unique in their pain, their awe and their scope, they were also collective. This sense of collective experience is what I aim to capture, both by telling my story and by reaching out to all of you to collect yours. I believe something happened that day, aside from, yet irrevocably connected to the tragedy of the attacks which took place from New York City to Washington, D.C. to Shanksville, Pennsylvania. I believe we experienced something profound together, and that we have been acting on that collective experience ever since.
I'd be honored to tell your stories in the segments of this blog post series to follow. Please feel free to reach out to me here in the comments section or privately via the Dominique Does Life Facebook page, and subscribe right here to the Dominique Does Life blog.
Together, we rise.