“I can’t believe you live here,” a friend of mine said when she visited from the Midwest. I was new to Hoboken and we stood in a local park marveling at the view of the Manhattan skyline across the Hudson River. It was late evening but, being so close to the city, we couldn’t see stars. These were my new constellations: the jeweled lights on the George Washington Bridge, the ever changing crown of the Empire State Building and, back then, the pattern of lit windows on the Twin Towers.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was walking along the river with my headphones on, the view of New York at my back. With my mind on the music, I followed the path as it looped around. Finally, I faced the city.
Tears came before thoughts. One of the towers was missing; in its place, a pillar of smoke. Five blocks away, my son’s teacher closed the blinds and abruptly announced to the class that it was naptime. Unfortunately, Ethan and his classmates had already seen the tower erupt into flames from their kindergarten window.
Close to forty people from Hoboken lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center. The students in Ethan’s school were lucky. Everyone’s parents made it home. Though several worked in the towers, good fortune and happenstance kept them from their offices that morning. One mother was halfway there on the ferry when the first plane struck. The boat turned around and dropped its passengers safely on the Hoboken side. The father of one of Ethan’s preschool friends was killed that day. His older daughter was four; his baby, not quite two.
When I picked Ethan up that afternoon, the school was still waiting to learn the whereabouts of some of the parents. Ethan was stirred up and talkative, the sight of the burning building alive in his mind. I was grateful to be in the position of listener just then, aware that I would soon have to come up with answers to the most heartbreaking questions I could imagine.
I thought back to the day I first brought Ethan home from the hospital. My need to protect him felt overwhelming and fierce. We traveled home by taxi and it seemed as though every car on the road was careening wildly. I worried that each pothole we bumped across could cause permanent damage to his brain and that urban pollution was seeping dangerously into his pores. My sense of proportion returned as the weeks passed, though the responsibility of being his protector remained real. Having cerebral palsy sometimes made me feel inadequate to the task as I held his slippery body in the bath and when, as a toddler, he could walk much faster than I.
Now that he was almost five it seemed easier. He knew to stay within my sight in crowded places, and hold my hand to cross streets. I’d explained to him that, while most people are good, he should be careful around strangers and never go anywhere with someone he didn’t know.
It’s a tricky balance, teaching caution without instilling fear. Since becoming a mother, I’d given a lot of thought to such concerns. Still, nothing prepared me for this sudden entry into the frightening world where I would now be raising my son.
How much should I tell my small child about the act of genocide we had just witnessed? How much did I truly understand about it myself?
My own mother would have tried to explain it away as an accident. I almost wished I could believe in her approach. Ethan had plenty of time to learn about hatred and violence. But when he asked me why the planes crashed into the towers, I knew it would be disrespectful both to him and to the victims of the attack to pass it off as a sad but otherwise meaningless event.
I took a deep breath and hoped the right words would come. “Some very angry people flew those planes. The anger grew so big inside them that it turned into hate. And then the hate grew so big, they made up their minds to hurt a lot of people.”
“They were angry at the people in the Twin Towers?” he asked.
“Actually, they were angry at our whole country. I guess they thought that since the Twin Towers were big and important, their anger would really get noticed. It was a terrible thing that they did.”
Ethan was quiet a moment. “Now the Empire State Building is the biggest in New York,” he noted, “like it used to be.”
I got the message. He’d taken in all he could about anger and violence for one day.
Days later, we walked to the pier. As I stood studying the altered skyline, an awful stench rode on the breeze across the state line. It’s what war smells like, I thought. As a country, we’d been spared for so long. But most of the world, at one time or another, had known this smell and, with it, this kind of fear and loss. I felt a new tenderness toward America now that we had joined the vulnerable.
The wind picked up and the toxic smell grew stronger. Beside me, Ethan pushed a toy car along the railing. I took him home so he wouldn’t have to breathe any more of it in. That much I could protect him from.
Five years have passed. We still live in Hoboken, situated as it is between two major terrorist targets, the Holland and Lincoln tunnels.
Sometimes I think about moving. But this is our home and it suits us. My disability prevents me from driving yet New York’s great transportation system allows me to live a vibrant, independent life. Besides, I’ve stood in airports in large cities and small towns and watched my son matter-of-factly take off his shoes so they could be x-rayed and proven not to hold bombs. This world is a more tentative place than the one in which I grew up. You can’t move away from that. What we do instead is talk.
I discuss with my son what’s scary about living in our country now and what makes living here wonderful. I do my best to keep him safe, annoying him with reminders to cross carefully, to wear sunscreen. I also encourage him to stand up against hate and against a government bent on proving our enemies right about us. Beyond that, all I really know to teach him is to live fully and thoughtfully while we’re here.