When the first plane hit the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, like many people, I thought it was an accident. Jeff was on his way into the city, and he called from the train. My mom (who had been staying with us for three weeks since Ben was born) answered the phone. “Turn on the news,” Jeff said.
We did, and we watched for a little bit. I saw the flames but, in my mind, I was thinking it was going to be similar to the story about when the plane hit the Empire State Building long ago. A tragedy, yes, but at that point they were saying it was a twin-engine plane, and for some reason I assumed the building was basically empty. It was just too early in the morning for many people to be in there. Geez, I hope the pilot got out okay, I thought. Total denial.
My mom was getting laundry ready to take to the laundromat, and she had the basket in her arms. We were talking about something. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a fireball on the TV screen.
“Wow, I just saw a fireball or something,” I said.
“Huh,” my mom said, having no comprehension about what had just happened . “All right, well, I have everything. See you in a bit,” and she walked downstairs with the laundry basket to her car.
I turned to the TV and began paying attention to what was going on at the World Trade Center. It took a minute to register what that fireball meant. Then I flew out the door and down the stairs.
“Mom! Mom! A second plane hit the other tower!”
She had just put the laundry basket on the back seat of the car and had closed the car door. She turned around and looked at me. I remember that look lasting a long time. I was searching for something in my mother’s eyes that would let me know that this was not happening. There was that beat, that moment where it could maybe be undone. And then she reeled backward, her arms flailing. I heard a small scream and realized it was coming from me. We stood there, searching each other’s faces, stunned, and we both started crying. We went grimly back up the stairs to face the news, holding hands.
Ben had been born three weeks earlier. On September 11th he was exactly twenty-one days old. Thus far he had spent most of his life with his eyes closed, and today was no exception. The difference was that this otherwise serene and peaceful baby began to cry. And he cried for the next thirty-six hours straight.
It wasn’t a screaming, wailing cry that called attention to itself. It was a quiet, very personal, barely audible, mournful, grief-stricken, gut-wrenching cry. It wasn’t grating like a baby’s cry can be; it seemed to express the feelings of us all and sounded like a natural backdrop to the events.
Ben cried his little cry when he was awake, and he cried when he was asleep. He cried while he was feeding and while we were talking. I kept him in a little sling strapped to my body; every time I stopped to listen to his weeping, I would cry too. What struck me most was that there was something soothing about his cry—it somehow made us feel more connected to humanity rather than to the horror of the events. Strange as it may sound, it was as though Ben was trying to comfort us in the only way he knew how.
Thirteen months later, Ben noticed a book I was reading that I had put down on our coffee table. It was about the Twin Towers and had a small, grainy picture on its cover with both towers on fire. He couldn’t walk yet and could hardly speak, but he kept crawling over to the coffee table, picking up the book, and looking at the picture whenever I put it down. I was baffled. I didn’t know whether I should take the book away from him—he was, after all, just a baby—but I couldn’t imagine that the images meant anything to him, since he had only been three weeks old when the towers fell and wholly unable to focus his eyes at the time. But he kept being drawn to the picture.
Finally I said, “What’s up, Ben?” I was just saying this out loud, since I knew he couldn’t answer me. He only knew about ten words. He kept staring at the picture and then he slowly looked up at me.
“Ouch,” he said. “Ouch.”
Every time he saw the book he looked at this image with a quiet reverence and then said the same thing. When Jeff came home from work that night I wanted him to see this and I handed Ben the book. Ben’s sunny mood immediately turned somber and, once again, he stared at the picture deeply. Looking up at his daddy, he said, for the tenth time, with his limited vocabulary, the perfect expression of what a person could possibly say about that day.