Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Explaining 9/11 to My 4-year-old

It was Sunday, September 9, 2012, when I realized it was... Sunday, September 9.

For the past few days, when I would notice a calendar and see that once again it would soon be Tuesday, September 11, my pulse would quicken, my throat would begin to close, and tears would start to well in my eyes before I could push the emotions down, refocus, and move forward. In those micro-seconds of grief, my mind would invariably flood with images of the lat time it was Sunday, September 9... I was running a sprint triathlon on the Jersey Shore, the sun was high, there was a cool breeze in the air, and life was good. 

Lower Manhattan from the Jersey side

For the past few days, I just wanted to go back and see things as they were, the Manhattan skyline like I remembered seeing it from the Jersey side, one more time. I didn't want Tuesday to come, and a part of me dreaded it.

One of the more profound things associated with 9/11 for me, was getting turned away from the blood bank in the days that followed the attack. For someone who is O-negative, a universal donor, who gets phone calls from the blood bank the day I'm legal to donate again, getting turned away was something uncanny. It seemed all the donors had come out to donate, but there were no survivors to donate to. I remember sitting in my car outside the center, weeping.

Now it's eleven years later, and it's again Tuesday, September 11.  My four-year-old daughter Jane and I enter Balboa Park, looking for a hot dog and "free Tuesdays" admission. As we near the fountain at the south end of the park, I notice a large 9/11 Memorial display, and slow my pace as I walk, her little hand in mine. 

Do I tell her the story? She's only four. The horrific images of the planes crashing into the Towers are in bright colors on the long display walls, along with images of the survivors, firefighters, police, and all the chaos that was Tuesday, September 11. 

I take a breath and lean down on one knee, drawing her close and pointing to the images as I tell her the story.

"Eleven years ago, before you were born, a terrible thing happened. Evil men wanted to hurt people."

"Why?" she asks.

"Because evil people will always want to hurt good people and take away what they have. That's why good people need to be strong, so they can fight the bad people." (Credit here goes to Dennis Prager for the pithy brilliance of this statement.) 


I take a breath, and use the story of The Incredibles to help me tell the story of 9/11. "Remember how Syndrome sent a giant robot to hurt people? Well, these bad men used airplanes instead of robots, and they flew them into buildings to try to hurt people," I tell her. "And a lot of people died."

She looks at the pictures, seeing people with blood and ash on their arms and faces, and asks, "Why them have blood?" 

"They probably got hurt when something fell on them," I tell her. She gazes at the images a few more seconds, then buries her head in my neck. 

I take a deep breath.

"But that's not the whole story," I tell her, quickly realizing I need to give her more information. "Do you remember when Mr Incredible and Frozone went into the burning building to save the people before it collapsed? Well, they had superheroes in New York City, too. See all these people going down the stairway, but the firefighters are going up? They're going in to save people." 

Note: There were 10,000 people or more evacuated from both towers that day, but this information is rarely remembered. We only remember the nearly 3000 that died.

I point to the images of people covered in ash, walking hand-in-hand from the rubble, "See these people? They didn't know each other. But they are helping each other to find safety. See this man? How he's hurt, but he's still helping this lady? They don't know each other, but they are helping each other like brother and sister..." 

"See these people? They're all working together, not like the people in the movies who scream and run away."

"See this one? They didn't know each other, but they're holding hands like brothers and sisters, too. This picture shows how they cared for each other, even when they were all very scared." 

"And this man here that is being carried out. Is he a fireman?" I ask her.
"Yes," she says.
"It looks like he's a fireman, because he's wearing a helmet and a fireman's jacket. But look at his shoes. Those are office shoes. This man was working at his office, and he got hurt. But a fireman came and rescued him, and gave him his helmet, and his jacket, so he wouldn't get hurt by anything else. These men are saving his life..."

And as I point out the triumph in each of the pictures, my own story of 9/11 shifts from one of grief and anger, to the story it was in the days immediately following the attack: the story of courage and unity in the face of absolute chaos and destruction. It becomes the story of the triumph of the human spirit, of endurance, and resilience. It becomes the story of the amazing orderly evacuation of over 10,000 people from two burning buildings, and the people who turned and walked straight into danger in the hopes of doing good for someone else. It's the story of people coming together like brothers and sisters, and choosing to take care of each other. 

I look at the wall of images and names, and suddenly, I don't dread Tuesday, Septerber 11, any more.

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