My father fell the same day the towers did.
They were strong. They were not supposed to fall. Hundred-story buildings in the heart of New York do not go down in flames. Forty-five-year-old fathers do not lose their balance and spend God knows how long lying on the bathroom floor.
They were not supposed to fall, but they did.
As I sped in my car to my freshman speech class, I didn’t know about either one. I just didn’t want to be late, to be called out by the professor, to have my grade docked. I drove eighty on the interstate, pulled crooked into a parking space, and run-walked to campus.
No one even noticed when I came in. Everyone was huddled around a television set, watching the towers burn, smoke, crumble. Katie Couric and Matt Lauer talked with panic in their voices as they replayed a plane flying into the second tower, over and over.
I was eighteen then, eleven years ago. Two weeks into college, three months into having a father with cancer, when the towers fell.
I was terrified, like the rest of the country. What would come next? Were there bombs to follow? Even here, even in tiny West Virginia, were we safe?
I was afraid, but I also felt strangely comforted when the world started mourning. Before, I felt alone in this strange new world of suffering, death, fear. Now there was a whole nation of people beside me–not in the radiation room or the oncologist’s office. But grieving, all the same, their lives disrupted as mine had been.
On the day the towers fell, my mother sped home from work to take my father for his radiation. Her tire blew out on the interstate, and when she came home, he was lying on the bathroom floor. None of us knew how long he had been there.
We had always laughed about that old comedy sketch, or maybe it was just a joke or a one-liner. “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!” we shrieked with laughter. My father would get up then, with my mom’s help. He would walk unsteadily for another month. Then, sometime around when we started using the name Osama bin Laden, when we started using words like Taliban and Afghanistan, he would get into a wheelchair and would never walk again.
It is all wrapped up together in my mind. September eleventh, the day when what is not supposed to happen happens.
I was not supposed to be flying two days ago, on 9/11.
Eleven days before, one of my dear friends texted me, a girl who had sat next to me in Intro to Speech that morning in 2001 to watch the towers crumble, who had been at my father’s funeral and standing beside me at my wedding.
Her brother was gone. A college senior who designed puppets and studied film and edited movies. He had been eleven years old when the towers fell. They would have a short wake with family and friends at the funeral home. “Please pray,” she texted.
I flew back to West Virginia, from the home in Southern California I had known for five days, to the home I had known for twenty years. I sat in the funeral home as my friend shared a eulogy for her brother. And again, in September, what is not supposed to happen happens.
My calendar says that 9/11 is “Patriot Day.” I suppose that whoever named it wants me to summon up feelings of patriotism and pride, to wave my flag. But September 11th will never be for me a holiday of national pride. It will always be for me a memento mori , a reminder of death. The day when what is not supposed to happen happens.
The day I started to realize that state-of-the-art buildings with powerful people, with security guards, in the heart of New York are not impenetrable. That strong fathers, six feet six and forty-five years old, who carry tubas and props for the band, can fall, can get sick, can die.
It terrified me then. What would I do if I knew that I was going to die? I asked myself. at eighteen. Would I pray to God to forgive me? Would I sell all my things and give them to homeless people? Travel the world? Write a book? Mend relationships with everyone I had ever hurt?
The day before I fly back to San Diego, I drive to southern West Virginia to see my grandfather. I haven’t been in a long time. Too long. He has a doctor’s appointment and barely dodges another hospital stay. He has problems with his heart, his kidneys, his back, his hip, his cataracts.
I drive back to my mom’s after dark. I sing along to country music as my car hugs the curves of the West Virginia hills. A coal truck speeds past in the other direction, this close to the yellow line. My heart skips a beat in my chest.
It could cross the line, I tell myself on the eve of 9/11. It could cross the line, just like that. I start to conjure up the familiar questions. How would I live differently, I ask myself, if I knew I was going to die?
I can’t come up with a change. I would kiss my husband long and hard, watch old TV on Netflix, play games. I would keep wrestling with God like Jacob did, keep singing at the top of my lungs to old hymns in the car. I would laugh too loud and mess up the kitchen making things with too many ingredients, too many pots and pans. I would keep trying to craft beautiful sentences, beautiful moments. I would keep loving fiercely and recklessly, keep risking it all, keep screwing things up and trying to fix them again.
I used to be terrified, I remember. But I am not terrified anymore. Someday, what is not supposed to happen will happen to me. And my best response is to live. Live. Live.
I board the plane the next morning at 5:50 to fly back home. My mother is worried that I am flying this day, the day when what is not supposed to happen can happen.
I grab my carry-on and walk onto the plane.
I am ready to go.