Severe Clear

September 9, 2011 | 2 8 min read

By 8:47 AM on September 11, 2001, a lot had already happened at our house. We had walked our daughter to school for her third day of kindergarten. The baby had awoken, been fed and changed, and was back in the crib for his morning nap. And the middle, the three-year-old, was on the way to the grocery store with my husband, who was going into work at the Boston Globe a little later than usual. My sanity hinged on having an hour or two to write, every now and then; finding an hour or two was my main, my constant, goal. My husband knew this.

So when he called, I didn’t answer. Then I thought maybe he had a question about groceries. I sighed and listened to the message. I could hear the radio on in the background, the prickling of the AM news station. He said I might want to turn on the TV. He said terrorists had flown planes into the World Trade Center. “It might be something to watch. And remember,” he said. He was a journalist, not easily surprised.

My first thought was, there goes my goddamn morning. And I almost didn’t leave my study. But I did, and went downstairs and turned on the TV, and sat there in my bathrobe and began to understand. When he came in a few minutes later I said, tonelessly, “They hit the Pentagon too.”

“I have to go in.”

“I know.” He put down the groceries and was gone.

I don’t remember now how I distracted my son so I could watch a little longer. The TV was rarely on in our house, and never in the morning. I couldn’t cry or even look very upset, or at least I thought I couldn’t. A flat rationality substituted for grief. When they kept talking about how complicated a plan this had been, I thought instead how obvious it was. It was the sort of thing a nine-year-old boy would think up. Fly planes into towers, soaring and unguarded. They had been targets this whole time.

In 2001 it was already the twilight of TV news, and people now, used to anchors who are volatile personalities just like the celebrities they cover, might not realize how terrifying it is when a professional breaks down. That morning, I was listening to Peter Jennings. I remembered how openly jubilant he had been when the Berlin Wall had fallen, but that seemed like a conscious choice next to the horror he could not keep out of his voice now.

I don’t remember the people jumping, or the man high, high up, waving the white flag. I only remember the wide shot of the towers and how blue the sky was and how beautifully billowing the smoke. How from far away it seemed not to be moving.

When the towers began to fall, Peter Jennings was again disbelieving, but all I could think was of course they’re falling. Just as I had thought, of course they flew planes into them. I suppose it was a defense mechanism. We should have seen it coming. And if it was visible, then it was preventable. So all the fault, and thus, the control, was still ours.

Since it was a Tuesday it was a regular early-release day, at twelve-thirty, for schools in our town. The sun was golden and perfect. The air was so clear it seemed not to exist. There was an enormous parade of people walking to school, including lots of dads still in their suits: the downtown skyscrapers had been evacuated. Others had just left work anyway. We all thought more attacks were coming. They did not feel over. The disbelief and uncertainty made us giddy.

We could not decide what to say to our children but we had to say something, for we knew we could not tear ourselves away from our TVs, and also because the working parents were home, in the middle of the day.

And also because the skies were so quiet. By then, U.S. airspace was empty. I would not have thought that airplanes made such a noticeable and constant background noise, but once it was gone the sky was eerily larger. The feeling of waiting increased.

We didn’t know yet how many fathers had said goodbye that morning and not returned. How many mothers had left notes and gone to airports for business trips, and disappeared.

The narrative turned out to be pretty simple. Men had flown planes into buildings. Because the men were evil.

At the playground later that week, or maybe even the beginning of the next, I saw a friend whose husband was also a journalist, a photographer for a national magazine. “That morning, he just got in the car and drove to Washington,” she said. “And I haven’t seen him since.” Her two kids were the same ages, almost to the day, as our younger two. I could see her trying not to feel the situation personally, trying not to resent a national tragedy, but she had deep circles under her eyes.

That same day, I also heard someone say, for the first time, nine-eleven. I didn’t like it. I thought it was too jaunty and disrespectful. I still needed the drawn-out syllables, the vision of the calendar page, the more old-fashioned sense of history in September eleventh.

In those first days and weeks it was so obvious to me that not a single additional person needed to die violently, ever again, that I allowed myself to believe that our country, the wise, the mature, the grieving, would not answer the attacks with anything like the same. These had been attacks on decency, on the very idea of humanity, on the possibility of love. I felt to my core that one more innocent civilian dying would be blasphemy.

It took almost a month. When our bombs began to rain down on Afghanistan, I felt more hopeless than I did the day the towers fell.

At some point my husband said that soon, now, they’d invade Iraq.

“Why? What does Iraq have to do with anything?” I said.

He said, “They’ve been waiting for an excuse.”

I had gone off antidepressants before getting pregnant with our third child, and staved off postpartum depression with therapy. The week of the attacks, I cancelled my regular appointment. I went the next week purely out of a sense of obligation and said I was sorry, but I thought that right now my own problems, whatever they might be, were irrelevant.

My shrink said maybe we should talk about why I thought I was irrelevant.

I said maybe we shouldn’t, and that no, I did not feel the need to explain. We sat in silence, and I left early, and that was the beginning of the end for therapy for me.

That summer, we had joined a pool in a neighboring town. It cost too much, and, as my husband said, was “the apotheosis of suburbia,” but I wasn’t sure how I would get through the summer without water available. Sometimes I had a sitter with me, but often not. I would hold the baby in one arm and the three-year-old in the other, which was possible in the buoyancy of the water, and stay where the five-year-old could still stand. None of them could swim. It was a little nerve-wracking — once the three-year-old nearly drowned in front of my eyes, because we were right where the water was just above his nose, and he didn’t know he only had to step backwards. But I realized just in time, and grabbed him. His enormous eyes imploring me.

That incident notwithstanding, I felt a goopy sentimentality about the pool, even before the attacks. I knew this baby would be our last. I knew our daughter beginning school was the beginning also of a long, long change, that nothing would stay the same. Summer had seemed one long suspended moment, but in fact time hurtled forward. As if to confirm this, I began to realize that the main pool, with the waterslide, was situated in such a way that the large gym building next to it — which, conveniently, also featured an enormous outdoor clock — made the sun’s progress obvious. In July, at seven o’clock, almost bedtime, part of the pool would be shadowed by the peak of the gym’s roof. But by early August, it was six o’clock. Then five.

That week of September, September eleventh, was the last week the pool was open. All week, it was nearly empty. But there were dads around. You saw a lot of dads.

All week, the weather was heartbreaking, perfect.

When our son began preschool, a week after the attacks, we attended a parents’ orientation night. We spent a good deal of time talking about evacuation procedures. We talked about what would happen if communications were knocked out. We talked about backup locations and backup-backups. No one thought this was odd.

The holiday card we sent out that year was a family picture that had been taken at a friend’s wedding at a house on Cape Cod. My husband is in a seersucker suit; I am wearing a hat. The children’s outfits match, and are smocked. Behind us is the faraway glimmer of the Atlantic.

Our three-year-old was obsessed with tools then, and in fact had to have a toy hammer in his hand at all times. That day he must have misplaced his usual one and, being an accommodating child, had found a substitute. In the picture, he is holding a croquet mallet. Possibly he was in need of extra security, in the middle of all those strangers. He looks very serious, but the rest of us are smiling.

No one believes that the croquet mallet was not a plant. This picture is now known in our house as The Ralph Lauren Shot, but privately I think of it as The Last Innocence. It was taken on September eighth. The sky is already severe clear, but I didn’t know that term yet.

That Thanksgiving, we flew to see my parents. It was the first time we’d flown since the attacks. At the airport, my son’s Bob the Builder backpack was flagged; in the front pocket, with the rest of the tools I’d flung in at the last minute — a realistic-looking silver plastic set — was a toy box cutter, with a rubber blade. “Oh my God,” I said. “I didn’t think.” The TSA guy looked at me incredulously. “I’m so sorry. Please take it. Oh my God.”

But now we looked suspicious and he decided he also wanted to confiscate my son’s hammer of the day, a small wooden mallet designed to bang colored wooden pegs. “It’s his security object,” I said. “I know that sounds crazy. But look. It couldn’t hurt anyone. It couldn’t even fool anyone.” The guy persisted. My son’s eyes were filling. My remorse about the box cutter evaporated and I demanded to see a supervisor, who relented and said my son could keep the mallet if it stayed in his backpack for the entire flight. I said okay.

Once we were past security, I took the mallet out and handed it to him. “This is called civil disobedience,” I said. “This is why America is great.”

About a year later, I tried to write a story with the attacks as a backdrop. It was about a mother whose young son, who loved only tools, things to build with, was being encouraged to play with toy guns at a birthday party. At the party, the mother felt lonely and hopeless; she didn’t know why they had been invited, and she worried about her child and disliked the birthday child, and was ashamed. The story was set in October of 2001. Only the date gave anything away. Even so, I couldn’t make it work.

I have no doubt that the story’s failure was due to my own deficiencies, but I have yet to read any fiction inspired by September eleventh that works. It is still too monolithic an event to be refracted. It yanks us out of the dream. It was brutal, and specific, and brutally specific, and perhaps is not surrounded by enough other cultural markers and changes: we went back, almost overnight, to our patriotic shopping. The attacks did not mark the dawn of a new era, and certainly not an era with much poetry about it.

We went to the pool one last time. The large pool, the one with the waterslide, was empty, except for a father and his little daughter. All summer the waterslide, too scary for my children, had been a background roar amid the shrieks of older and braver kids. But now its splashing was almost tranquil.

Suddenly there was different roar, overhead, and the adults’ heads jerked up. All commercial flights were still grounded, and we had become accustomed to quiet skies. But these were military jets, three, in formation. Across the pool, the dad and I looked at each other.

“Going to Hanscom I guess,” he said. The air force base. I nodded.

The expression on my face, I am sure, mirrored his: terror, relief, sheepishness, and a recognition of this momentary alliance between strangers. Awareness of how large the pool was, how empty, and how small we were in this wide-open space. Of how the pointed shadow was beginning to fall over the water. Of how, unimportant, undefended, we nevertheless were targets, and always had been.


Image credit: Horia Varlan/Flickr

is the author of The Swimming Pool (Doubleday 2010) and is completing her next novel, The Story of the Half-Brother. Her short fiction and non-fiction has appeared in Post Road, The Drum and The Millions, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives with her family outside Boston. More at