This year has been different. My kids have shown a real interest in it, as they are both at the age to where things like this are questionable. They both like history, and because of that, both like the History Channel. And the History Channel shows a lot of September 11 documentaries and things like that. We watched a couple of them as a family, and I answered the precipitating questions about each. In doing so, I thought a lot more about the event than I have since it happened.
The most obvious question that anyone asks is the ubiquitous "Where were you?" kind of thing. I was 18. It was my freshman year of college at The College of William and Mary; I had been at college for just a few weeks. I was living on my own for the first time, such as it was--interestingly, I was living in a hotel room as the dorm I had been assigned to was being ripped apart because they had found asbestos in it. I was taking English 203, Calculus, Biological Anthropology, and a freshman seminar called Indian Fiction. I had a crush on the professor of that one.
On September 11, I got up early and went to my 9:30 Biological Anthropology class. I rode a bus from the hotel, and I remember being the only one on it. I was the kind of kid, at least during my freshman year, that showed up early for class so that she could review her reading and make extra notes and generally just be ready. I got to the room where the class was held, Washington 201, which is one of the biggest rooms on Old Campus--one of the only ones that can fit over 100 students. I took a seat in the middle of the right side even though I was the only one there. A guy who was a real gunner--my God this guy was annoying, which means that he's probably a doctor now--showed up. We had never talked before, but all of a sudden, there he was, right beside my seat. He asked me if I knew what was going on, and I told him that I didn't. He told me about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. I don't really remember having a reaction. I remember thinking that it must have been a horrible accident. We talked for a bit, then he went to his seat, and then he got up and started walking around. Again, I didn't think anything of it. Nervous guy--nervous energy.
Matt was taking the same class that semester. We had planned to take a class together, even though at the beginning of that semester, we were not really getting along. We did enjoy the class though--well, I take that back. We both hated the class, thought the professor was arrogant and a little weird. But it was fun having someone in there who rolled their eyes at all the same times. We generally sat together and commiserated for an hour and a half and then went our separate ways for the day.
Matt came in around the same time that lots of other people were coming in, which is unusual since he was usually late. He said that he had been brushing his teeth back in the French house and had seen the second plane hit. It was about that time that people started realizing what was happening. We talked quietly until the professor came in. She was weirder than usual and we spent the first part of class with just everyone comparing notes on what they had seen or heard. At some point, her teaching assistant came in and whispered that a plane had hit the Pentagon. The professor told us, and all Hell broke loose. Most kids who go to W&M have some relationship with the D.C. area: either they live there themselves or they are a diplobrat or have a family member working in the government. People started getting up and running out. A few people screamed. I remember a girl standing in the hallway, crying and punching numbers on her cellphone. Matt and I left, but didn't really know where to go. We walked together to the University Center, more following the crowd than anything. I remember laughing uneasily on the way there--I had not seen any footage yet, and nothing felt really "real." I remember thinking that this all could be some elaborate joke.
When we got to the U.C., we watched the towers fall on the big screen TV there. People cried and hugged each other. I remember being really numb about the whole thing. I guess I was scared. I felt strange and out of it--unlike most of my classmates, I didn't know anyone in D.C. or New York. I had been to both cities--had a picture of myself on a ferry with the World Trade Center in the background hanging in my dorm room. But I had no idea how to feel. I bought myself a peanut butter mocha frappuccino thing from the college coffee house and walked to Calculus, thinking I'd get out of that and go home. The professor, a very strange Canadian man who just may have been a sociopath, told us that he didn't understand what the big deal was and made us do a bunch of problems that none of us understood. What a douche. But what can you expect from the country that gave us Nickelback?
It wasn't until I got back to my hotel room and started watching TV that the whole gravity of the situation hit me. I started to get scared, watching the military units from around Newport News and Norfolk starting to go into threat stage. I finally got a hold of my mom, who begged me to go to stay with my uncle in Richmond. Why? I have no idea. I sent an especially fraught email to the professor I had a crush on, who advised me to come to his office the next day and gave me some Buddhist texts to read before I came. Like a boss.
And then Matt came over to my room. We watched the footage for a while, and then decided we had to get away from it. Since I was living off-campus, I had my car, so we went out to eat at Ruby Tuesday. I have no idea how we picked it--a lot of places were closed, but Ruby Tuesday was open. We were the only people in the restaurant. We went to Target and then came back to campus. I did some homework, talked with my roommate, and went to bed. Matt and I promised to see each other the next day, and I was fine with that. We saw each other for every day after that, as I'm sure you know.
And I still didn't know what to think or how to feel.
A few days following the attack, classes were dismissed for the day. I went to the campus's memorial, and finally, the waves of grief and sadness started hitting me. On my way back to my room, I picked up a copy of our college's newspaper. On the front, I saw the shining eyes of a girl, much like myself. She was an alumna, had graduated the year before and she had died when the plane hit World Trade Center 1.
I read enough to find out that like me, she was a mother. She had balanced having a child (born before her senior year at W&M) with getting her degree. She was married to another W&M alum. She was from VA. She was beautiful and full of life and resilient and intelligent. And now, she was gone.
Seeing that face is what brought it home to me. Just what we had lost. I think of her every year, wonder what her life would have been like if she had been late for work that morning. Every year, I think about her in relation to my own life--Would she have moved? Left NY? Would she worry about her daughter growing up too fast, the same as me?
The year I've thought about her the most. Her daughter and my oldest daughter are the same ages, and I have started to wonder if they will ever meet--if they will both follow the route of their parents and go to W&M. I wonder if she would message her daughter on Facebook like I do, even when that daughter is just a room away, if she would send her daughter funny pictures of dogs in bathing suits. And my youngest is two now, the same age as that daughter on 9/11/01. What would it be like to leave her now?
Gabby has asked me lots of questions this last week. Where was I? What did I do? Was I scared? I have answered truthfully. She asked me how I felt that day. And I am truthful there to. I told her that I didn't know how to feel. And that that didn't change, until I met someone who I wish I had known earlier, who I think of every year, who I would give lots of things just to buy a coffee for one day and share memories about pushing a stroller around the Sunken Gardens.
Rest in peace, Alysia.