Where were you when on that terrible day?

Until ten years ago, during my lifetime at least, that question almost always pertained to the day the shots rang out and killed Kennedy; his presidency the seeming symbol of refreshed and restored hope to a nation that had been bruised, bloodied and battered by two successive World Wars. All those lives lost. All those sons and daughters, fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters. Perished. Some burned alive even.

And, then, a chance at rebirth.

Until shots rang out from a grassy knoll and killed it.

On the day that John F. Kennedy was killed, ironically, I was the exact same age and in the exact same grade as my son was on the day that the Twin Towers fell ten years ago. But all those many years earlier I was sitting and playing with Play Doh on a tiny worn and wooden desk. How do I remember that? I don’t know. I do, however, remember the Dominican sisters of Saint Aloysius lining us all up, one by one, as some took our hands while others reached for their cloth handkerchiefs pulling them out from some secret hidden place beneath the belly of their black and white habits. Never showing outright emotion, those nuns would quickly, almost secretly, wipe the tears away from their own eyes as they called us, one by one, to line up in the front of the classroom. I met my sister as the classes piled out into the hallway and we headed out to the parking lot led by another nun who had no intention of holding her hurt back. Her crying kept us all quiet in our concern. And then I remember my mother silently sobbing the entire time she drove all of us back home. Back to the house that had oil portraits of all four of her children and one of President Kennedy himself hanging in our living room. As if he were somehow blood of our blood. John Kennedy took a place of honor alongside her children on the living room walls while the portrait of the Pope hung in a less prestigious place in the dining one. And so was the pecking order in my Irish Catholic household.

Where were you when that terrible day happened?

That old inquiry now gains new meaning as I doubt any one of us will ever think to put Kennedy to that question again.

Terror and transfiguration changed all that.

A little over ten years ago we had only just moved here to Virginia from New York. I didn’t want to come. My marriage was in a state of devolving disrepair and shambles and I knew it was over. After twenty something years. Over. I knew practically no one in this town either except my then husband’s entire family. Who couldn’t exactly ever cotton to the Irish sassy lassy blonde from New York who stole the heart of their homeboy. Nope, they could barely tolerate me, bless their hearts. And if you’re from the South you know exactly what the last part of that sentence means.

I was lonely and scared and had the wonderful gift and opportunity of telling that to my best friend Kathleen each and every day as we had fallen into that same sort of daily early morning phone chat routine. I’d already dropped my son at his kindergarten that September 11 morning and would come home to call Kath, as usual, so that we could dream together and plan what I would do when I would finally grow a set of balls and leave and we’d talk of what she would do if she decided to go back to work. Yup, the usual. Mostly. That day though, something not usual. Her own husband, Pete, whose own career took him into the Twin Towers daily hadn’t gone in to the City on that day because he’d had an outside breakfast meeting to attend. So we talked about that. And how she hoped he might network there and find a new position at his old company.

I can remember that particular phone call and the ensuing events if it were yesterday. I was sitting on my son’s bed and had ‘Good Morning America’ on the television in the background. We were talking about nothing, she and I. Just nothing. As girlfriends on the phone often do. And, then, I spied, out of the corner of my eye, an explosion producing plumes of smoke and a giant fire beginning to engulf that first tower. I sat transfixed to the television. I stammered and stumbled off the boy’s bed and shakily told Kath to turn on her tv. I was pacing and I was POSITIVE that some private plane pilot MUST have had a heart attack and tragically, mistakenly, lost control or even his life before slumping in his cockpit and careening into that building. I mean, what other explanation could there be? We sat in stunned silence, Kath on her end and I on mine, and all I could hear above Peter Jennings anxious voice was our own hushed breathing on the phone. We said nothing to one another. Nothing. This time literally. Until she whispered, “that’s Pete’s building.”

And, then, the unthinkable.

The second plane.

The second tower.

I don’t remember if we even said goodbye to one another. All I could think of at that moment was my son. And as my own mother had done decades earlier, I gathered my wits and my keys and decided to go and grab him from his school. Grab him and hold him close as could be. Our nation was under attack. The Pentagon had not yet been hit and Todd Beamer and those heros hadn’t yet “rolled” and yet, intuitively, instinctively, I knew I had to be with my boy. At the moment that I opened my front door to leave, another friend whose son attended the same school, pulled up in front of my house and motioned to me. ” C’mon El, let’s go!”

I jumped in the passenger seat and we didn’t have to say a thing to one another. The pain was palpable. I was shaking. She was smoking. And then I started to cry. And, then, so did she.

My heart was breaking as I wondered if my best friend from high school, my soul sister Patty, had perished in her offices in the first tower. Patty’s mother is the only ‘grandmother’ my son has ever known. My own mother had passed well before my boy was born. His dad’s mother was not involved. To this day he still refers to Patty’s mom as ‘Nana,’ and to this day ‘Nana’ still sends him a twenty dollar bill every Christmas. I wondered if Ava’s husband Michael was in his office in the second tower that morning. I am the godmother to their youngeset daughter Paige. My extended families. And, then, there were the friends. I knew almost the entire Cantor bond trading floor. After having spent twenty years trading commodities on Wall Street, I knew a lot of people posting buy/sells in that building. Did they survive? Were they alive? Were their families watching these horrific scenes play out the same way I had been watching? I almost couldn’t fathom the worry. The panic. The terror.

I couldn’t fathom terrorists.

Driving almost too slowly to the school, we sat, Dina and I stunned, sniffling, reveling, remembering (she’s from New York as well) until we took a left off the main drag and drove up in front of Broad Bay Manor. I don’t know why, but we hadn’t expected what we saw. There, in the parking lot was a throng of parents waiting for their tiny children too. Waiting in a car line that snaked around the entire building. Twice. All these parents coming to retrieve their precious ones. We were all doing the same thing that my own mother had done all those many years ago when innocence shattered shook this country.

I look around for my son. I notice the clear blue of the sky. The sun shining so bright it hurt my eyes. The air so crisp and clean, not yet filled with the coming dread. It didn’t match up, the events I’d just witnessed and the almost Divine perfection of the day. It didn’t go together. Maybe it wasn’t real? Maybe it didn’t happen after all? Maybe I would wake up and still be in a crappy marriage but wouldn’t have to wonder if people I knew and loved had died without warning.

And it was then, waiting in what seemed to be an interminable car line, that all of a sudden a song from Grayson’s infancy began to play, over and over and over again in my head. See, my son was not a good sleeper as a bitty baby. I was forced to develop some sort of soothing and nightly ritual and routine to be able to lull him into any sort of slumber, a ritual that once worked through also worked well into his toddler years. A part of that ritual was playing the same music cassette to and for him night after night after night. For years and years and years. His response was Pavlovian. Apparently mine was imprinted.

Because on that musical cassette was a poem put to song, the lyrics or lines written by the peaceful, esoteric and otherworldly poet Kahlil Gibran. The words of that song now stuck singing out in my head as if they were being piped in by a Mothership sailing somewhere far, far in the heavens above. I couldn’t shake them. I couldn’t stop them. Louder and louder. Competing with my thumping heart trying to get my full attention.

‘Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”

We inch up a bit closer to the exit door of the school. I think I hear Dina say something about the radio recounting people jumping from the upper floors of the towers. They are jumping to their deaths, choosing that sliver of hope of survival as opposed to surely perishing by fire. People are jumping. They are making choices about the way in which they will, in all likelihood, die. Others on the streets below watch unimaginable horror.

I picture these images in my mind’s eye but can’t concentrate because that music, those poetic words from Kibran keep competing. They effectively drown the outer din.

“You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.”

I see him. I finally see him. My boy. His small blonde head pops up every once in awhile bobbing between the two taller boys that are sandwiching him. He looks so happy. He looks so little. He looks around. And he sees me. And he waves. Like little boys who see their mother’s in front of them often do. And I wave back. Although I can’t really make him out now other than a wavy outline since the tears in my eyes, tears of gratitude, tears of joy at seeing him, tears of heartbreaking sadness and grief all converge and well up and prevent me from really seeing anything, at all, clearly. I feel like I might not be able to see anything clearly ever again.

The car continues to creep a bit further and the epiphany occurs. And it sounds just like the last lines of that Kibran poem:

“You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.”

Only love survives.

And Patty did too. After the birth of her third child and unable to shake that pregnancy weight, she’d been attending a Weight Watchers meeting in lower Manhattan when the tragedies took place. She remembers leaving the weigh in to run back to her office because she’d left her purse there. A few feet out that Weight Watcher’s door some stranger turned her around and told her to “run for her life.” She did. And was safe.

Only love survives.

And Michael did too. He, like Kathleen’s husband Peter, had a meeting outside his office that morning and although he’d gone back to the towers, he’d been able to get out of Manhattan and eventually make it home safely as well.

Only love survives.

The Cantor Fitzgerald traders did not. Thousands of responders did not. All those different plane passengers did not.

“For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.”

Because, only love survives.

Because our spirits are inextinguishable.

The sadness, the loss, the longing for peace will wither and die.

Love and our spirits survive.

That is not a prayer. It is a promise.

Where were you on that terrible day?

Where was I?

No, I wasn’t talking to Kathleen on the phone or watching Peter Jennings on tv. I wasn’t with Dina driving down Great Neck Road or picking up my oblivious son from school. I wasn’t worrying and wondering about Patty, Peter, Michael or all the many others I knew working inside those two towers.

I was learning firsthand that only love survives and that our spirits are inextinguishable.

I can only hope that many, many, many others have learned that same same lesson since that same day as well.

Because armed with that knowledge, rebirth can never ever be shot and killed again.




Author's Bio: 

Ellen Whitehurst is a Lifestylist and Ultimate Health and Wellness expert as well as the author of the bestselling MAKE THIS YOUR LUCKY DAY (Random House, 2008.) Ellen is recognized as the country’s premier expert in Feng Shui and other empowering modalities. A former monthly columnist for both ‘Redbook’ and ‘Seventeen’ magazines, Ellen is also a recurrent contributor to The Huffington Post and John Edward’s InfiniteQuest.com among others.

Ellen is also the newest Health and Wellness expert for DoctorOz.com. She has two bestsellers on the Top Ten course list at DailyOM.com and can be found offering her own hugely popular hybrid of Feng Shui and Astrology (called ‘Shuistrology’) right here on her website.

Whitehurst is a recurrent radio and television guest and is currently working on her own reality television show called ‘Cookin’ Up The Good Life with Ellen Whitehurst.’ Join with thousands of others and check out her daily musings and easy, empowering advice on her Facebook page.