Reflections on experiencing 9/11 as a high school senior in 2001 and how it helped me find the words to what I had just experienced after surviving colon cancer at age 17.
Did you guys hear what happened this morning in New York City with the Twin Towers?”
I looked up at my classmate, who stood on the other side of the bench in the girls’ locker room combing her blond hair. Like mine, it was matted and sticky with sweat from our workout. Our cheeks were pink, and we were rushing to get changed.
Since the autumn mornings were chilly but bearable, our PE teacher had been taking us on cross-country-like runs through tree-lined dirt paths near the high school. Although I could have easily asked to skip out on the running, I was more determined than ever to keep up. I’d never been a runner, and I hadn’t played sports since I’d quit volleyball, but now as a cancer survivor, I had a new motivation. I felt unstoppable. I courageously rode roller coasters when I went to the amusement park with Mike’s family. I jumped off diving boards in a swimming suit and didn’t care who watched. And I challenged myself in PE.
If I was still alive, I was going to go for it. I would no longer be a shy girl holding back.
The other girls in the locker room didn’t respond to our concerned classmate, and I felt relieved. I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t a clue what was happening in New York City. Shrugging it off, I wasn’t too concerned. We lived in the middle of America, right in the heart of the United States, and what happened on the coasts, including NYC, rarely affected us (or so I thought). I hadn’t a clue what had happened at the World Trade Center inside the Twin Towers. Plus, I’d been outside running for the past half hour, and my mind was focused on getting my armpit sweat to dry, not national news.
The bell rang, and I tossed my damp gym clothes into my locker before slipping on my backpack and heading for my next class. I was grateful for everything—to be back walking the halls at school. To be strong enough to a lug a heavy backpack. I was glad my hair was growing longer. I was even grateful, oddly, for the ability to be around germs again. I wasn’t surrounded by white-haired cancer patients anymore, but instead, everywhere I looked, there were people my age. I never realized how much I missed that until it was gone.
On my way to the next class, personal finance, I didn’t rush through the halls, but I walked fast enough to avoid being tardy. The football coach taught the class, and his teaching style differed from other classroom teachers. He gave very little homework and tests. He spent the hour lecturing to make things like checks, credit cards, and investments understandable. When he taught about big expenditures and the idea of debt, I realized cancer may have actually cost my parents money. Mom and Dad hadn’t mentioned it, but I began to wonder what kind of price tag had just been put on my life. Did I now have a million-dollar rear end? I didn’t know the actual amounts, but I figured cancer drugs and surgeries weren’t cheap.
From the second I walked into Coach’s classroom, I knew something was off. The rarely-used TV was on with nearly every eyeball glued to it. Sliding into my seat, I watched as big, gray puffs of smoke surrounded two tall gray buildings—the Twin Towers, I gathered. The World Trade Center was falling down. The room was quiet, both before and after the bell. What we watched looked like a history movie, except we weren’t in history class. The news coverage flipped to the Pentagon. Clearly something was wrong, but before I understood, Coach turned the TV off.
“Okay, ladies and gentlemen, let’s try to focus today.”
We didn’t talk about what we’d just witnessed, nor did Coach attempt to explain. An hour later, once the bell dismissed us, the halls were buzzing with gossip.
“Did you see the buildings fall? Who do you think did it? What happened?”
We’d not witnessed anything like it. Our generation, the millennials, as people would call us, knew of a world full of peace. The only other image I could recall seeing that looked even remotely similar to the collapsing building had come from the Oklahoma City bombing when I was much younger. This seemed even worse and more severe. It had never occurred to me, nor the others in the hallways, that someone from outside the US could attack our country.
As the day turned to afternoon and evening, fragmented pieces came slowly together. After school, I flipped on our TV at home and learned the buildings had fallen because of an attack. From channel to channel, it was the only topic being discussed. Pictures of ash-covered New Yorkers running down the street in high heels. Jumpers escaping the fires atop the tall buildings. Firemen rushing into the flames. It was pure horror. Along with the rest of the world, I watched in disbelief. Terrorists had flown airplanes into important buildings. A lot of people had just died. I instantly felt the gravity and the loss of those who were suffering. Cancer had given me a unique ability to empathize.
In the week following the Tuesday attack, the Kansas City Star delivered a special issue to each home containing a newsprint version of the American flag folded inside. Within minutes of the paper hitting our driveways, we taped the flag to our front doors. As I drove through our neighborhood, I’d see flag after flag. It was somber and sad, yet incredibly unifying. What had once divided neighbors was suddenly gone. From the house with the yappy dog to the house with the year-round Christmas lights, everyone was suddenly equal. Our little annoyances didn’t matter anymore.
In addition to the flags, cities all across the country held rallies, including our suburban town. We all bought T-shirts promising to “Never Forget” and gathered on our high school football field to salute the flag, honor first responders, and pay tribute to those who lost their lives in New York City, an area which suddenly didn’t seem so far away. The attacks were terrifying and horrific, and we were all scared. Yet they were also bringing our community, and the nation at large, together. We were Americans. We were neighbors. It was an interestingly odd time to be taking everything in.
Not only was I unsure about how to step out of high school and into a world under a threat of terror, but I was doing it as someone who’d just survived my own personal attack, cancer. Watching my neighbors cope with the scrolling headlines following 9/11 gave me language and understanding for what I’d recently lived through. I could relate to the fears. Is it going to strike again? Where did it come from? Where did I go wrong?
Yet I also found a determined optimism. I will stand firm. I will never forget. I will survive.
An excerpt from Blush: How I Barely Survived 17
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