VIOLA - This week brings the anniversary of a date forever stamped in our minds and hearts. No doubt we’ll hear people urging us, “Remember 9/11!” How could we forget?
I was 42 years old that Tuesday in 2001, and nearing the end of my first year of living off-grid in a tiny, reclaimed-wood cabin on Pa’s Road, with Riley, the world’s mellowest yellow lab. My closest neighbors on that peaceful road, who were Amish, were always busy. Not being a mom of young schoolchildren, I didn’t have an easy way to meet people and I hadn’t made any friends yet. With no electricity or running water, and without a TV, phone, or computer, I sometimes felt isolated from the larger world.
That morning, I’d had a haircut in town and was driving mindlessly over the winding country roads, heading for home, listening to music on the radio. It was late morning when, as I neared my cabin, the music suddenly stopped and an announcer’s wavering voice caught my attention. Riley, my co-pilot, sensed the change in my mood and stood up on the seat. I turned up the radio and strained to catch what the man was saying. I felt my body go rigid as he repeated, “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center. A terrorist attack.”
Riley pitched backward as I pressed the gas pedal and navigated the steep gravel road, my elbows locked, my hands clutching the wheel. I jerked to a stop on the well-worn patch above the cabin, my heart racing.
I had no way to reach my family, I felt too anxious to go inside, and soon I found myself walking up the road till I came to the bend where Melvin and Sara and their children lived. Riley tagged close behind.
My head hanging, not even sure why I was there, I knocked on their door. When Sara answered, I mumbled to her that I wasn’t sure if she knew or even cared, but something really bad had just happened: a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, and many people had died. Without hesitation, Sara quietly invited me into her home. As I stood there numbly, she removed her apron and turned off the gas on the stove, then gestured for me to follow her.
I was in shock, and it’s unclear to me even now why I went to their house. I followed behind Sara’s bare feet the way Riley followed me, except that Riley was interested in everything and I was on autopilot. Remembering it later, I thought of it as an out-of-body experience. The whole situation was unreal and unimaginable. Were bombs falling? Were we at war?
Sara gave me a grand tour of the barn in which they built sheds and outbuildings to sell; a smaller building with woodworking tools; their garden; and a newer building where they would eventually make and sell baked goods and candy. She never asked, nor did I say another word, about the devastation that had taken place elsewhere in the country, but somehow I began to feel calmer.
I think about this a lot. Sara knew I was upset and she simply did what she could do, what she knew how to do: be kind and make me feel welcomed.
Eventually I trudged back to my cabin, where I tried reading, then writing, and ended up pacing, before getting back into my car to access my only form of communication, the radio. I couldn’t afford to waste gas by driving anywhere, but Riley and I sat in the car and listened to the ongoing news reports. From what I could gather, there had been three more attacks after the initial one. It was still unclear to me whether this was a beginning or the end.
With nowhere to go, and no way to call my daughter, I spent a long day and night filled with dread and worry. In the morning, I started down Pa’s Road with a heavy heart, afraid of what I would discover about yesterday’s news. Riley, my best friend, sat upright and alert next to me.
We were beginning the drive up Highway P to Westby when I stopped the car and stared. A horse standing alone in its pasture was chewing on an American flag. Only half of the flag remained on the line attached to the pole. My mind reeled in awe and confusion.
Weeks later, I was working at my part-time job at the Heart Center in Vernon Memorial Hospital, teaching a client how to use one of the new treadmills. I glanced up and saw for the first time a television image of the World Trade Center moments after it was hit. People on fire were leaping out of the windows.
As we approach the anniversary of this ugly event, I’m again feeling afraid–fearful of what is to come. Yet I carry a glimmer of hope that upcoming elections will bring about some much-needed change. I carry, too, the memories of my Amish neighbor’s act of kindness, of a horse eating our flag (which only later I realized had been at half-mast and therefore within reach), and of a gruesome TV video I wish I’d never seen, along with my sorrow for the almost 3,000 people killed and over 6,000 injured, and all of us whose lives were forever changed on September 11.
How could we ever forget?