On the morning of September 11, 2001, I walked Ben to school as usual. On the way, also as usual, we met other kids in his class and their caregivers. Everyone was marveling at the odd, and oddly beautiful, silvery streaks in the sky. I wondered if a blimp had exploded.
As we approached the school, a taxi pulled up and another of Ben's classmates emerged with his mother. "Guess what!" he shouted. "They said on the radio that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center!" We all agreed that if true, that would be a sad event. We were imagining a small plane whose pilot had somehow become disoriented; two or three lives lost. We dropped the kids off and went on with our mornings.
There was a primary election scheduled that day, and I had volunteered to conduct exit polls at Brooklyn Borough Hall for a friend who was running for City Council. Crossing the street, a man said to me, "I was a pilot for 24 years. I've never heard of such a thing. Something is off."
When I arrived at Borough Hall, our borough president's staff was huddled outside with walkie-talkies. I stopped to ask them what was happening. "It was a terrorist attack," one told me. "They think the MTA building may be the next target."
The MTA building -- the public transportation hub for the city -- shared a wall with Ben's school. I raced back. I signed Ben out. I wanted to take the whole class home with me, but was reminded that none of the kids could leave without written parental permission.
As we left, we met Ben's friend Jessica and her parents. The adults had driven back independently (no cell phones back then) to pick Jessica up after hearing the news on their car radios, and were now stranded in downtown Brooklyn with all of the streets blockaded and public transportation cut off. They walked home with us. Ben and Jessica played in Ben's room, with the door shut, while the adults huddled around the radio in the living room, with the volume turned low enough so the kids wouldn't hear it. Bill was walking home from his office in Manhattan, unable to reach a pay phone, but I didn't know that for sure and didn't want to talk about it where Ben could overhear.
We didn't know how to explain to the children an event so huge the adults were having trouble taking it in. We knew we needed to say something, if only because they wondered about this spontaneous school holiday; in any case, they were bound to hear about it from their friends. We finally explained that planes had knocked over the Twin Towers, and a lot of people had died. I made up my mind to answer any questions Ben had truthfully, but not to offer more information in case he wasn't ready to hear it. He didn't have a lot of questions, though.
He did want to walk down to the Promenade after dinner, to see the wreckage from across the East River, so we did. The Promenade was covered in singed office memos and other building debris, as well as smoky yellow ash. Where the towers had been were smoldering piles of rubble. We walked home in silence, holding each other close.
Over the following months, although he never talked much about the tragedy, his feelings came out in other ways. He wrote a composition for school about an intergalactic time-traveler (our family was and is addicted to Dr. Who) who reverses a terrorist attack on a trade center in Mars, saving hundreds of lives. He and his friends played at being firefighters who always reached the giant buildings in time to rescue everyone. Never a stellar sleeper, he had increased difficulty relaxing at bedtime.
I asked him this year how much he remembered of that time, and he said, "Everything." But, he said, although he had been chronically frightened for a while, he doesn't feel that way anymore. Bad things happen all over the world, and you can waste your time worrying about them, or go on with your life assuming that one day the unlucky person is going to be you, or someone you love. He has chosen life and love over fear, and I'm grateful.