Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Dubious Welcome

After the long drive from Canada, Bill settled into his new life in Texas very quickly. We arrived on Wednesday 9/5/01, and he moved into his small, rather old apartment on Friday 9/7/01.

He'd brought down a rickety futon bed, a worn sleeper couch, and the big, hideous blue chair and ottoman that he absolutely loved. I think all of that familiar, shabby furniture made him feel a bit more at home. I had a feeling that that blue chair could cause some contention should we get hitched, but I figured I'd worry about that another day.

Bill, Ethan, and the Ugly Blue Chair

As it turned out, the blue ottoman proved useful; the apartment had no dining room and no room for a table, so Bill used the large ottoman as a makeshift table.

A Warm Welcome
That weekend, we drove to my parents' house in the country for a joyous welcome party. I still remember the irresistible taste of that big decorated cookie.

My Niece Savannah, Sister Emily, Me, Bill, Ethan

When Bill started work that Monday, we were pleasantly surprised to find that his new coworkers had decorated his cubicle with a Canadian flag.

You can't see it in the picture, but the monitor was adorned with a bar code sticker that read, "Mr. Wonderful." My coworker Al had given him this nickname after listening to me rave for months about how incredibly awesome Bill was. (A couple of years later, everyone realized I'd been telling the truth when Bill received the Summit Award, the highest honor a support associate in our region could receive. After our client support director had finished extolling Bill's virtues, Bill squirming and blushing all the while, I couldn't resist exclaiming in my most breathless voice, "He really IS Mr. Wonderful!" You can imagine how thrilled Bill was about that.)

Tragedy Strikes
It was good that we had a few days to revel in our new life together, but it didn't last long. I was driving to pick up Bill for work on Tuesday morning, just ten days after Bill had crossed the border, when I heard the most devastating news. At 7:45 our time, a hijacked American Airlines plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. "What a bizarre accident!" I thought when I first heard the story. It never occurred to me that it could have been deliberate.

Fifteen minutes later, I was sitting on Bill's couch watching live footage of the wreckage when a second plane hit the other tower. We sat in disbelief, too stunned to speak as we watched the first tower collapse in a billowing cloud of dust, killing the first wave of rescue workers.

We had no idea of the protocol at work regarding a terrorist attack; should we stay home? Should we try to reach a supervisor? After a half hour or so, we went ahead and drove to the office, ten minutes away.

After an hour on the phones, which were mostly dead since the entire country was watching television, we were sent home due to our proximity to the airport. By this time, two other planes had been hijacked, and we had no idea what might happen next.

In Shock
We picked up Ethan and took him to the park next to Bill's apartment complex. It was a beautiful day, and I wanted to enjoy the sun on my back while I watched Ethan play, but I felt guilty to be enjoying myself under such circumstances. I almost felt guilty to be alive.

A few minutes later, we walked back to the apartment. Bill and I lay on our sides on the futon, my back nestled against his chest. Ethan played on the floor, and I stared at the wall and tried to keep my mind blank.

I shuddered when I realized how close we'd come to a much longer separation; the borders were now sealed. I was so thankful that Bill was with me, yet his strong arms surrounding me did not make me feel safe.

"Are you sorry you came?" I asked. "This sure isn't a warm welcome to America."

"No," he murmured into my hair. "I'm glad I'm with you."

I felt the same way. It felt like the end of the world, but if it was, being in Bill's arms was where I belonged.

Unexpected Hope
It's hard to express the despair of those first days. As my dad put it, our generation had been leading a charmed life. I think many of us believed that bad things like war and terrorism happened only in other countries. Now we had no such illusion.

Still, an ironic and beautiful thing happened. The tragedy brought us together as a nation and made us stronger. Here's how I explained it in an email to my Girl Scout friends:

"Sometimes I feel angry, but most times I just feel stunned and literally sick to my stomach to think of such violence and evil in the world....

What's bothering me most is what to do about Ethan..... I told Mom last night that this is the most terrible time to be a mother. I've never been a mom before, and now I'm faced with something like this! I want to run away and hide. I want to run to my own mother. But I have to be there for Ethan and try to put this in perspective for him. He's only four, but he too was affected. He has been fascinated with the violent image of the plane crashing into the building and exploding into a fireball. He keeps re-enacting it with his toy plane and saying 'Boom!' I thought he didn't really understand the sorrow of it until a couple days later when, out of the blue, he said, 'Mom, did the building go to heaven?' I told him no, buildings don't go to heaven, only people. He insisted that the building is in heaven, but not the airplane. So I said, 'Maybe you're right.' I didn't know what else to say. How do you explain such a thing to a four year old?

"At other times I feel proud and patriotic and full of love for all my fellow Americans. This is a new thing for me. I guess before I was a little patriotic on the 4th, but I never got tears in my eyes from hearing the anthem played, like my dad always did. The other day I was listening to a special version of the national anthem, where they put in audio clips about the disaster, and I started sobbing so hard I could barely see the road. But it wasn't grief; it was pride! I'd never felt that proud of our country. It's ironic and beautiful that the evil people who planned this and carried it out did not succeed in destroying our spirit. Instead, they made us stronger!"

Eight Years Later
It's a different world than it was before that September 11th. I no longer think about terrorism on a daily basis, but neither do I take our safety and our way of life for granted. I'm reminded of it every time I go through security at the airport, and every time I hear about a terrorist attack anywhere in the world.

For me, though, the sorrow of September 11th will forever be linked to the joy of beginning of my life with Bill.


Melissa Irwin said...

Joe and I got engaged (unofficially) on 9/23 that year, and then married 3 days later on 9/26 at the courthouse. The terrorist attack on our nation kind of drove us to each other. In those days....noone wanted to be alone. Now, we're about to celebrate 8 years of marriage.

Sarah said...

So we both have some romantic history attached to that awful time. Life is strange. Congratulations on your upcoming anniversary, Melissa!


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