Everyone has their 9/11 story, and each is important. Mine is one of the milder ones, a quiet one. A lucky one. I was over 1,000 miles away from the cities where terror rained down, in Omaha, NE, sitting in my calm, peaceful office at Creighton University. I believe when a coworker stuck her head in to tell me the news, I even had my feet up on my desk.
A year before, my oldest son, Michael, graduated from Creighton with a degree in Political Science. More than one friend sniffed at his choice of major, asking “Well, what’s he going to do with that?” What Mike did was go to work as a communication aide for a United States senator. In Washington, D.C.
If I was a little envious of the boy, it was because of the city. It was where my parents met during WWII and the stage for the great romance that launched our family. We’d visited in my youth, and later in Mike’s youth, and I loved the city for its beauty and mystique. I was (and still am) proud of my son. My husband worked for the World-Herald newspaper at the time, and a colleague at the paper’s Washington bureau told me Mike’s senator was a tough guy, saying he went through aides quickly because “he chews them up and spits them out.” More than a year in, my kid had proved resilient, learning how to navigate a huge city and a demanding boss.
As I walked out of my office on that pretty fall morning, to a meeting at the Student Center that would last until noon, I heard that the second plane hit. And any small hope that the country wasn’t under attack was gone. It was a painfully quiet, distracted group that met, and it was clear that a few of us near the door were trying to hear what the giant TV that hung over the atrium outside was saying. When we took a break, the group moderator told us before we walked out that another plane had struck the Pentagon. It was unclear if there were any more to come. All I could think was Washington, DC.
I ignored the video of the burning towers on the huge TV monitor and went to the nearest office. I commandeered a phone without even asking the woman who sat at the desk and called my husband’s number at the World-Herald. When he answered the first thing I said was, “Where’s Mike?” He told me everyone on Capitol Hill had been evacuated. “Was Mike with them?” He couldn’t tell me. “Evacuated where?” He didn’t know. He interrupted me to say the towers had come down and I turned to look out the office windows to see film of the first tower falling. A young student worker behind me gasped, “Cool.” I don’t think she understood she wasn’t watching a movie special effect. Then my husband started to say he had a story to write and my temper broke. “Find him,” I snapped. He started to stammer, groping for words, but I didn’t want to hear them. “You know how to find things out, Steve. Find him!” And I hung up the phone.
Somehow we went back to the meeting, although I didn’t pay a bit of attention and to this day couldn’t tell you what was discussed. Shortly before we finished, a woman from my office came in. I watched her cross the room, her face blank, and I knew she was coming for me. It was something about Mike. She leaned down as I turned toward her and she whispered, “Your husband called. Someone from the DC bureau found Mike. Mike asked him to call his dad. He’s fine.” When I looked up with a shaky smile the whole room sighed in relief. Mike and I finally talked later that night. He told me it took him hours to drive from the Hill back to his Alexandria apartment, the gray haze from the Pentagon fire hanging in the air. The next morning he drove past it in the pre-dawn and saw the flag that had been draped there. It was, he still says, a watershed moment.
The Friday after the attack Mike flew into Omaha. The plane he took was one of the first ones out of Dulles. The Nebraska senator he worked for had planned the trip earlier, and they were trying their best to pick up their work. His father and I met him at the airport. Intellectually I knew my son had changed. He had told me so himself. But I didn’t expect to see it so plainly in his face. When he saw us coming toward him, he stopped and leaned a little on the wall, exhaustion in every line of his face. But something else was different, something about his eyes, that made me start running. But I was too late. Much too late. His eyes had changed days earlier, when he stood in the Lower Senate Park and watch the smoke rise over the Potomac.
It’s hard to describe what had gone from my son’s eyes. If there’s a word for it, I don’t know it. The closest I can come is lightheartedness. It’s a spark of assurance that nothing can be so bad, so serious, so dark that it cannot be overcome. It is a look that all the young have and some lucky few of us never have to outgrow. I had seen it in my son’s eyes from the time he was a little boy. That night I realized it was gone forever. Here was a man who was left with no choice but to accept the unacceptable, who understood that there is no way to understand a day where people jumped from skyscrapers, rather than endure the horror within. As he hugged me close and whispered, “Mom,” it seemed in that instant that he was suddenly older than me.
I know that my story is a lucky one. Mike went on to fall in love and marry. He and Susie gave us our darling grandchild Julia a year and a half ago, and now there is another baby on the way. But when I watch Mike with his daughter, see him hold her close, or rock her with a gentleness I never suspected, I sense there are memories that haunt him. Every parent needs to believe they will always stand between their child and disaster. But Mike and I both know it’s all a matter of fate. Insisting down a phone line, “find him,” didn’t help. Watching the smoke across the river didn’t change anything. The only thing we could do was ride it out.
Our light hearts were broken that day, when my son and I both grew up.