For our family, September 11, 2001 was already a day of mourning. Before the first plane hit the first tower, I was up before dawn and boarding my own flight from Kennewick, Washington, to Seattle, where I was going to catch a connecting flight to Michigan to attend the funeral of my young cousin, Aaron. Just two days before, a car accident had claimed his life, and over the course of the brief phone call that had delivered that news, a childhood full of memories had flashed through my mind. It seemed that a light had gone out in the world.
As my family made plans to gather together, I wrung my hands. Paul and I couldn’t afford the plane ticket, and I felt a million miles away, the distance cold and separating, like the space between planets. I longed to put my arms around my aunt and uncle, to hear stories and share my own, to join in the keening as we all acknowledged the loss of our friend and son and brother and cousin.
I don’t know how, because I didn’t say anything, but someone from church heard of our plight. In a whirlwind day, prayers were offered, a collection was taken up, and before the sun set, I held in my hand a precious ticket that would carry me across the country to join my family for the week. In the midst of pain, gratitude and the joy of being so well-loved filled me up.
In Seattle, I boarded the new plane and sat back while the pilot taxied past the gates and awaited clearance to take off.
Twenty minutes later, we were still waiting. A couple of people who had neglected to turn off their cell phones answered calls from home. “Plane crash” was whispered down the cabin. “The World Trade Center.” “New York.” What a terrible accident, we thought. How could that have happened?
The pilot came over the intercom and announced that all U.S. air travel was suspended indefinitely due to “security concerns.” Wait. What did he say? All U.S. air travel? Surely not. What would it take to make that happen? I’m sure he meant in one airport, or on one airline.
The plane taxied back to the gate, where we de-boarded. Chaos reigned. Those with cell phones had them glued to their ears. The line for the pay phones wound all the way down the terminal and out of sight. And everyone had their eyes glued to the televisions that were hanging from the ceiling, tuned to cable news and the incomprehensible sight of black smoke billowing from downtown New York.
When I heard about the second plane, everything clicked horribly into place. Who could do such a thing? An airline official appeared and announced that they were closing all the gates. We would have to make our own arrangements to get home or wherever we were going. My hopes of being with my family on this horrible day drained away, and an entire nation’s mourning joined with ours.
A stranger let me use his cell phone. I phoned my family to tell them I was all right and then called Paul, and he and Katie started the drive up from the tri-cities to pick me up. By that time, nearly everyone was gone. Most of the flights at that hour of the morning had been outgoing ones, so Seattle’s residents had returned home, with others catching taxis and booking hotel rooms to wait out the storm. The airport seemed like a ghost town of dark Starbucks and empty newsstands. The group of us left to wait for help from afar huddled together in a bar near the baggage check, watching events unfold on a TV that, in happier times, had broadcast football games and beer commercials.
When the first tower fell, we gasped as one. I looked around and saw eyes filled with tears, and one woman sobbed openly. I knew that even from thousands of miles away, I was living a piece of history, a day that would permanently mark our country in one way or another.
Some events in human experience are so powerful, their effects felt so reverberatingly, that they forever divide time into “before” and “after” in the lives of those who experience them. For many people, this event may be the death of a loved one, a debilitating accident, or a shattering revelation. But on September 11, 2001, this life-altering moment came to an entire nation.
Today, five years later, we are looking back. We’ve learned a few things. There is great evil in this world, a force that thrives on fear, death, and despair. There is also great good, and there are individuals willing to sacrifice comfort, safety, and their own lives to guard the freedom and safety of others. Confusion still remains, and the path beneath our feet seems anything but clear sometimes. Even now, we don’t all agree on which way to go from here. But we can’t lose sight of the kindness, courage, and inspiration to be found among our fellow men. And we can’t let go of God’s hand.
As frightening as this time has been, it is just the latest volley in a war that has been raging since the world began. The battlefields of that war are the hearts and minds of you and me and each person in the world. Those are the spoils. And we declare the victor ourselves.
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.
Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.” –Ephesians 6:12-13
I know I will see my cousin Aaron again one day. And all of those in God’s family who have gone on before me. But my race isn’t finished yet, and I plan to keep running. To keep getting up when I fall. To keep choosing. Because when the dark day comes to me, I want to stand firm.
I hope we all will.