A Subtle Change in Direction
I was going to resist the urge to write something about September 11th, or nine-eleven as even my children now know it. Jake was a only a year old when it happened. I walked them to school this morning and talked about the anniversary and how it would be discussed in their classes today.
Ari’s Uncle died, right? Ben asked.
Right. He was on one of the planes.
Yeah, the Twin Towers, he sighed with world-weariness only a ten year old can muster with a straight face. He was in kindergarten when it happened. We carefully avoided all television, hid the newspapers, and tried to keep the images of planes crashing into buildings away from all three of the kids. They were babies. Still, it soaked into their experience- we could not protect them.
What I am most struck by on this anniversary is the idea of paths we chose, when we chose them and why. Sometimes, the crossroads present such a clear choice, you feel as if there wasn’t one when in fact, there was. September 11th was a crossroad for millions of people.
For me, it was a day I became really clear about my family and the importance of Jeanine’s career. We had recently signed a deal to buy a yet to be finished loft in West Hollywood. Modern, fabulous space to put Jeanine in the heart of her business- she writes music for television and film. Being in LA was essential, she had said. I have to be there.
I did not want to live in LA. The image of hot pins poked in my eyes was more inviting.
So we compromised and bought the loft. She would travel back and forth- a lot. And she had been. The Boston to LA routes were all very familiar to her. Her favorite was Flight 11; the American Airlines flight because it had better service on the plane. More comfortable seats. She had a seat booked on the flight, returning to LA to finish a project and meet with the realtor about the loft.
A couple of days before the 11th, she changed her flight. I haven’t seen the kids for days, she said. I think I’ll hang around so I can have breakfast with them. Take them to school.
I remember thinking she would get charged a fee and it was a waste of money. The trip was a short one- only a couple days. She could wait. But I agreed.
I came home from having coffee with my friend Margaret, having talked about transitions and our kids. My oldest had started kindergarten. It was a milestone event. She was worried about her oldest daughter and wanted to think out loud about the things she was seeing at the time.
I walked in the door and Jeanine was coming up from her basement office. Did you hear? I said. I had not. By chance, and really everything that day feels like it was random chance, Walter was working in the yard. I called him in. We turned on the TV. The image of smoke coming out of the building and the words the announcer was saying made no sense.
Well, Jeanine said, then today is the safest day for me to fly.
You aren’t going anywhere, I said.
Now, Sara, when a plane crashes, the odds are so great… she started to say. On TV, the second plane hit the second tower. We watched it fly into the building. We were all quiet. Eventually, we started asking questions, out loud, to each other, to no one, what the hell is going on? What is happening? Is this real? How could that happen?
Jeanine, white as a ghost, said, no, I’m not going anywhere today.
The phone started to ring. And ring. And ring. Because everyone knew Jeanine was flying to LA that day. Call your mother, I told Jeanine. I called mine. I heard myself over and over, on the phone say, no, Jeanine’s home, we’re okay. Everything is okay. Finally, my sister called started to cry when I said Jeanine was booked on the flight but had changed. Then I started to cry. Sob. The fear washed over me. I almost lost her.
She chose a different path. A subtle change in direction.
My friend Terry called, relieved Jeanine was home. Two hours later, she called from the car, driving to New York. Her brother had been on Flight 93. Are you sure? Yes, she replied, I have to go be with my family. I remember listening to her and calling her back a half an hour later. I spoke with her wife. Are you sure? I couldn’t understand what she was saying. The words came out but my own fear was pounding to loud, I couldn’t really hear her.
It took Jeanine three years to acknowledge how close she came to being on Flight 11. Too scary, she said. Too much. She no longer travels to LA and back. She found work in her field at home. Not out of fear but out of understanding how important being with the kids really is to her. Suddenly, she couldn't simply fly back and forth. It brought new light to an old issue.
Today, I’ll think about all the paths I’ve chosen since then. Sometimes, clear forks mark distinct choices- it’s easy to remember them. Something as little as changing a flight, an ever so slight shift, though, can end up making the biggest difference.