Touched by tragedy

For the past week, I’ve cried at the drop of a hat.

I was blaming it on hormones until I took a minute to analyze my triggers, and it was a no-brainer: the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001.

As the anniversary drew near last week, news shows focused more and more programming on the national tragedy and its aftermath. Newsweek and Time wrote retrospectives and found survivors to interview. Morning news programs tracked down the children of those killed and did “where-are-they-now” segments. I teared up constantly.

But on Friday, after watching yet another segment, I choked up as I began talking about that day a decade ago to my 8-year-old son as he ate his Raisin Bran. I told him how fearful I was, how alone I felt as his dad left town that day on a business trip, how I didn’t know whether to run to the school to pluck my kindergartener from class or leave him there.

And then my youngest asked me a probing, thoughtful question: “Why were you so scared that day, Mom?” Tom asked. “You weren’t in New York or Washington, D.C.”

He was right. I was in the heart of the Midwest, far from the blazing buildings and blinding smoke and sirens. I didn’t know one single person killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center or the Pentagon or the crash of the airliner over Pennsylvania.  Why was I scared that day? And why am I so emotional now?

I think I know. The world changed forever that day, and I knew as I watched the Today show and saw the second plane fly into the World Trade Center that life would never be the same. And it wasn’t just because the United States had lost its naiveté or whatever.

That beautiful September day marked the end of a rough six months of my life.

In March that year, I’d left my full-time job as an education reporter at The Kansas City Star to become a free-lance writer and stay-at-home mom. It wasn’t a move I’d been dying to make but one I felt forced into by an inflexible working environment. I left a job I loved, one I felt I was perfectly suited to, the kind of job I’d dreamed about when I was a kid. Just up and left it.

I knew in my heart I was doing the right thing, spending more time with my kids, but for six months I grieved my working life as I adjusted to extreme 24/7 parenting. (Not that working moms aren’t 24/7 parents – I always hated when people referred to themselves as “full-time” moms.  I’ve always been a full-time mom. But when I worked outside the home, I had hours during the day when my children were cared for by someone else and I was a person who did good work that was respected by the outside world.) A stay-at-home mom doesn’t get much positive feedback – the reward comes years later. And that takes a little adjusting to, I found.

So that day in September 2011, I’d just dropped off our oldest child at kindergarten. He was barely 5 and had been in school all of three weeks or so.

My daughter, who was 4, and I were getting ready to leave for the first Kindermusik class of the semester when my mom called to tell me a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I turned on the TV in time to see the second plane hit, and like the rest of the world, Mom and I both knew it wasn’t an accident.

I bundled Maggie into the car and headed for Kindermusik, NPR blaring from the radio. I listened intently, a million story ideas flowing through my brain. I picked up my cell phone to call an editor at The Star when I realized no one there would have time to talk to me. I wasn’t a staff member anymore.

It was the first major news event of my working life that I wouldn’t be caught up in as a reporter, and the realization hit me like a punch in the stomach. I was out of the loop. Just a regular news consumer, hungry for information. And I felt lost, adrift.

A voice from the back seat brought me back to reality. “Mommy,” Maggie said, “please, can you turn off the radio? It’s scaring me.”

Oh, God. I’d completely forgotten I had a kid in the backseat, that I was a just a mom now, not a reporter. I told her I was sorry and turned on her Kindermusik CD.

After that, I suppose I dealt with the events of the day and those to come just as any other American did. I was cautious, I worried about flying again, I watched news reports and read articles in newspapers and magazines. I didn’t have any inside information, no access to the wire services, nothing.

In the past, when something big happened, I felt a part of things because invariably I localized stories, just like every other reporter. When the Columbine High School shooting occurred, I wrote stories about how local schools prepared for such an event, for example. And doing those stories, although fodder for massive bitching and griping, gave me a sense of contributing to a solution and probably helped me deal with whatever grief and despair I felt at such awfulness.

This time, though, there was nothing. And the void inside me grew and engulfed me as I grieved people I didn’t know and a world that was never coming back.

And then one day, I figured something out. My exit from journalism freed me, gave me the opportunity to help in ways I couldn’t as an unbiased reporter. Maybe I couldn’t reach the masses through the media anymore, but I could help in some way, somehow, in my corner of the world. I could try to change what I could where I could.

So as I embark on my second year of grad school in my quest to become a social worker, I can look back and trace the epiphany that brought me here to that glorious September morning 10 years ago, when I felt the world crumbling all around me.

It took me almost a decade to find my way, not unlike the survivors and children of those who didn’t make it. And life still won’t be the same. But I think I’m OK with that now.