As a freshman mass communication student in September 2001, we had a weekly one-question test that asked us to write down the biggest news of the week. Given that I’m a very late riser, all of my college homework and class preparation took place in the late hours of the night. So on Monday, September 10, 2001, I memorized some arbitrary news item to have ready for when I rolled out of bed at 11:45 a.m. for my noon class across campus the next day.
I was too pleased with myself as I scribbled down that Michael Jackson had wrapped the recording of his 30th-anniversary concert special. As I sat smiling, I noticed a somberness I had never felt from my classmates.
“I don’t even have to collect these to know that everyone wrote the same thing,” our teacher said, as she in fact did collect our papers.
Beyond confused I did like any good college student would do and played along.
“Yeah, that was so crazy this morning!” a classmate yelled.
This morning, I thought, teeth clenched tight within open lips. Suddenly, it struck me. I had just failed a test, but also, I had no earthly idea what crazy thing happened on the morning of September 11, 2001. As the class went on, I learned about the act of terrorism that had stripped the New York City skyline of the Twin Towers. I immediately thought of my Harlem-born mother for even with all of her ‘I ain’t never going back to NYC-isms’ was indeed New York to her core. An ever-early bird who woke up by 7 a.m. each day, I wondered how hurt she must have been to see the planes crash into the towers on live TV. I couldn’t wait to call her.
“No, what happened?” my mother, who had actually slept in for like the first time ever, asked me.
She fell completely silent as I repeated the news, then I could hear her TV set in the background.
“My city!” she yelled as if she had just watched someone take their last breath.
Then within moments, she changed the subject.
“I need you to come home soon.”
After reminding her that my New Orleans HBCU was a little too far away from New Jersey for a quick trip home, I told her there was no way I’d be getting on a plane anytime soon.
But about two weeks later, that choice was no longer mine.
I imagine my mother’s last breath was reminiscent of the deep gasp she made on 9/11 when we spoke that day. Her asthma had triumphed over her lungs and she was gone on September 26, 2001.
When I called the airlines to book the flight, I was immediately given a special bereavement rate of $250 roundtrip New Orleans to Philadelphia. When the agent was running through the confirmation details, she paused before asking, “Your mother died in the 9/11 attacks, right?” My negative response led to my ticket price changing to $2500. Feeling defeated I didn’t book a flight that day. Instead, I called several airlines and even considered the possibility of flying into the recently-defamed Newark airport, where the fourth terrorist plane had originated but crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. But, I mean, wasn’t I shaken enough?
Things were so different. The airport was incredibly empty. New regulations meant I was not only screened twice but that I had to remove my shoes and be patted down from hair to ankles. My carry-on bag was rummaged through and the security agents were hostile in the most terrifying way. And for all the emotional distress I was in at the airport, I had to remember that I was on my way home for my mother’s funeral.
The scarcity of funeral homes and clergy in the northeast at the time made planning a ceremony almost as hard as finding a decently-priced bereavement flight. But, we got it done, and by the top of October, I was back on the plane headed to school with an urn containing my mother’s ashes.
“Ma’am, you can’t carry that on!” an aggressive gate agent grabbed at the urn, eventually snatching it away from me to gate check it.
I sobbed for hours both from the fear of being on a plane so soon after one of the greatest acts of terror this country has seen in modern times and from what felt like having my mother snatched away from me again.
I don’t know if it was divine for my mother to take her last breath as her beloved city fell to wildly toxic dust from the rapidly collapsed buildings, or if it was merely a coincidence that her lungs rapidly collapsed on her so soon after watching what she would only know as the fall of New York.
Mommie didn’t get to see the city triumph through the attack, the survivors, the heroes, the country come together to lift it up. She missed all of that. She didn’t get to see the way the world changed. She would have hated that we went to war; that I went to war with myself over the memories bubbling over inside. That my peace of mind only just found me, ironically coinciding with the end of that war.
To live your own tragedy at the same time as a major world event is a somber milestone I wish on no one. It is to remember that you gasped at the same moment as the world for an entirely different reason. It is to seek empathy in a place that has exhausted all of its energy. It is the grief the world forgets, yet it is the annual reminder that your pain is ever-present.