I was on an aircraft, leaving Ottawa, heading for Chicago nine years ago today. It was a bright sunny, September morning, just cool enough to be enjoyable. Wheels up, we headed for O’Hare winging along the border with the US.
The objective was to fly to San Francisco to start work on a new set of presentations and computer images with a learned colleague in SF, then spend the next several weeks touring the US, doing the presentations to clients. It was what we did back then: On the road for weeks at a time, living out of a suitcase, on room service, a new city every few days.
Except I never got there. The aircraft was rerouted, back to Ottawa, told to land and park it. Something had happened. Something bad.
There is something profound about dragging your luggage into a packed Ottawa airport witnessing 3,000 people not making a sound. All eyes staring at the TV’s suspended over the heads of the crowds.
Seeing a distraught young couple trying to get a dial tone on their cellphone to call family back in the US, watching their panic rise. Handing them your own phone, so they can call and check in. A distracted, muttered thanks from them, as they not dare to take their eyes off the television, watching the smoke billow out of the towers. Nobody pushing, yelling or jostling, each of us wandering slowly, not understanding what our eyes were seeing and not wanting to look away.
I was home in time to take root in front of CNN, still not comprehending what I was seeing. Calling my boss at home on the West Coast and rapidly explaining I wouldn’t be in San Francisco later that day. It was early on the coast: Nobody was up. Nobody knew. Then, almost instantaneously, everyone was up, plugged in and fully alert. BBC, CBC, CNN, the major networks, all showing the same plumes of smoke.
The replays came in, the second airliner plowing into the tower, the fireball arcing, spitting silver slivers across the September blue sky. You knew it was a whole airplane, full of fuel, food and folks, but it looked so beautiful for a moment. Your heart going up, then plummeting down in horror.
Then the image of a skyscraper telescoping in on itself, falling inward as the grey clouds of smoke billowed out and up. Reporters not saying a word, the pictures telling the story. I sat there, with my mouth open for a full minute, not knowing what to say, do or feel.
I still don’t know, nine years later, what to take from that day. Confusion, sadness, anger, fear, curiosity, these feelings still tumble over each other when thinking about that day.
So does the feeling of sleepwalking, not being entirely connected to your body, knowing something is not right and there is nothing, anything you can do about it. Waiting, inexorably for the second tower to fall, as the reports started to come in about the Pentagon and something bad happening there.
After nine years of reflection, there is the indelible image of the grey pall of smoke across downtown New York, with two landmarks missing from the horizon. It still doesn’t register properly.
The rest of it, since that morning nine years ago, has been a jumble of madness, sadness and anger that has touched just about everyone on the planet in ways we never will fully comprehend, if we let it take control.
Or, we can look out the window right now at a sunny, clear, blue sky on a cool Saturday morning in September.
Take a moment to give thanks to whatever particular belief set you might have, for the ability to enjoy these small things right now: This second.
We might never make sense of 9/11 and the immeasurable losses since, but we’re still here and we’re still living every day with courage, grace, humility and gratitude.
That is the best memorial.