This morning, I was in the minivan with my children when they rang the bell in New York City to commemorate the thirteenth anniversary of 9/11.
Thirteen years. I can hardly believe it.
After the bell, there was silence. When the radio went back to its regular program, I turned it down and looked at my ten year old daughter. She had her nose buried in a book. I asked her: "Do you know what happened on September 11, 2001?"
She nodded, her eyes still on the page.
"What do you know?" I asked her.
"What you told me."
I've only told her the basics: some bad people crashed airplanes into buildings, and innocent people died.
This morning, I decided to tell her about my day on September 11, 2001.
As I spoke, her eyes lifted off the page of her book and she stared at me. I had her complete attention, just as New York City, Washington, D.C., and a little field in Pennsylvania had our attentions that day.
I was married on June 8, 2001, just three months before the attack. My mom had just had a spinal fusion five days before, and was in a halo. I had come home from Ames, Iowa, where my husband and I had just moved for him to attend Iowa State University, so I could help my mom.
On the morning of September 11th, after an emotionally difficult weekend at the hospital with my mom, I was sleeping on their couch when the phone rang. It was my aunt, telling us: "Turn on the news! Something is going down."
My mom came from her bedroom, and my younger sister from her bedroom, just as I flipped the television on in the living room. At that point, both of the towers were already smoking, and the newscasters were frantically trying to keep up with what was happening.
I remember being very confused and frightened. My husband was five hours away, and all I could think was: "Last time America was attacked like this, we entered WWII." Was WWIII about to start? Would I see my husband? What did all of this mean?
Before our very eyes, the first tower collapsed and we sat in stunned silence. All I remember about that day was sitting in front of the television, feeling numb. I remember the newscaster saying: "After today, our lives will never be the same."
That afternoon, I finally left the house to get the mail. I remember the sky being a brilliant blue, with not a single cloud to be seen. As I looked around me at the beautiful Minnesota fields and swaying grasses, I couldn't comprehend what thousands of other people were feeling at that moment. The suffering, in mind, body, and spirit, was staggering. Lives were being irrevocably changed. Thousands were lost.
I told my daughter about the brave men and women who took over the terrorists on the flight headed for the White House. How they all made calls home to their families to say goodbye, and then crashed the plane in a field in Pennsylvania, sacrificing their lives to save countless others.
I didn't know I was going to cry, but my heart broke all over again, and I couldn't stop the tears.
My daughter continued to stare at me, and I thought: "She may read about 9/11 in a textbook, but there is no greater understanding than to hear someone talk about their own personal experience." I may not have been at Ground Zero in person, but I was there in spirit. I may not have witnessed the atrocities in person, but I saw more than I could handle on the television. I didn't lose a loved one that day, but I mourned with all those that did.
I was an average American that day, and I was profoundly changed.
As the days and weeks after 9/11 progressed, we learned all the chilling details. We watched the funerals, heard the heroism of those who sacrificed to save others, and we asked ourselves: "Is this the wakeup call that will get our country back on track?"
For the first few months, that's what it felt like...but then slowly, we returned to our daily lives and 9/11 began to fade.
My prayer is that 9/11 will never fade completely. That we'll remember how our country came together to mourn the great devastation, and become fully united.
I pray we remember what we learned thirteen years ago: our enemy is not each other. Our enemy is the outside forces who want to destroy one of the greatest nations on Earth. Our America. The land of the free, and the home of the brave.
As I finished, my daughter's gaze drifted outside the minivan's window and I could see her thinking about a day before she was even born. I knew she was thinking about the people who sacrificed, and how America suffered. I could see the sadness in her eyes.
After a few moments, she turned back to her book, and started reading again.
But for just a moment, my daughter understood why 9/11 is so important.