Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Sometimes, writers have no words

For a long time, I've struggled to think of how I might describe 9-11 to my kids.

It's in the nature of children to question people older than them about something they haven't experienced, whether it's a food they haven't tried, a person they haven't met, or an event they weren't around for.

I wasn't necessarily there, but I experienced 9-11. Everyone did, to varying degrees. It's the same as when I asked my grandmother about Pearl Harbor, even though she was in Western Pennsylvania, not Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941.

So the question will come some day. And when I think about it, I'm not sure how to put it into words.

Like it or not, 9-11 was a benchmark for the U.S. There was a clear change in the direction the country was heading, in the sensibilities and emotions everyone felt. I won't try to qualify it, to say whether we've grown as a nation or gotten worse.

What is clear in my mind is that 9-11 was the event that re-introduced fear to us as a people.

I'm not sure when the last time was that we really were afraid as a country like we have been since Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. Maybe it was the Cuban Missile Crisis. For my generation, we had never experienced this. We were too young and nothing ever really hit home before.

Maybe that's one way to describe 9-11: it was the start of a country-wide culture of fear.

It's fear of terrorists, fear that politicians or officials may allow something bad to happen again, fear of losing our place in the world, fear that what we thought our place in the world was wrong, just fear. It may have abated a little, but it certainly spikes and it never seems completely gone.

This could be what it was like to grow up during the height Cold War, I obviously don't know. But 9-11 definitely seemed to put the U.S. on an edge me, my friends, and my classmates had never experienced before.

Still, the reintroduction of fear isn't a description of 9-11 itself.

Additionally, I've heard a lot of stories about the aftermath, of the country coming together, of people volunteering and doing so much good, and also of the wars that followed the attacks.

I witnessed one of those instances of people stepping up, coming together. I was playing fall baseball at the time and during one of my games in one of the weeks after, my sisters, 11 and 9 at the time, set up a card table and sold baked goods in the park where the field was. The money they made went to New York, where people were still digging through the wreckage of the towers.

But all of those things  aren't 9-11. They're results of it, sure, but I would never think to include them in a description to my children about that event.

So, as I've pored over that day and how I might explain it, flashes of what I saw on television and the information I gathered from friends comes back to me.

There are several stark moments that rush back every time.

I remember feeling an incredible tightness in my stomach after hearing that more than half the FDNY was unaccounted for.

I remember trying to sleep that night in my suburban home, far away from any high population, high value target, but sweating and almost unable to catch my breath anytime I heard anything that sounded like a jet engine.

I remember my heart breaking hearing stories of hospitals in New York going to full staff, only to have a small trickle of patients come in, the rest lost.

Most of all, the moment that drove everything home for me, I remember the first time I saw footage of a person falling from the World Trade Center buildings. I'd never seen a person die before, but on a sunny day just a few weeks into my seventh grade year, I saw someone die in the most horrific way I could think of.

Since then, I've seen and heard some terrible things. I'll have occasional nightmares about some of the heavier things I've covered. It's part of being a news reporter and a human being.

Even still, I don't think I can really explain 9-11. My experiences with it are just small snapshots and I honestly don't know what I'd say to actually really describe what happened.

Just one sentence always comes back to me.

"It was the worst thing I've ever seen."

A child probably won't be satisfied with that answer. I wouldn't have been.

But, as the years pass, more and more, I think there may not be any other way to possibly explain it.