Like many people, I wasn’t eager to get back on an airplane after 9-11. I knew I would fly eventually when I had more book research to pursue or when I grew tired of the long, two-day car rides from the Midwest to visit my East Coast children or when I’d stopped reliving the shock of the morning when my daughter called with the news of the planes hitting and I did not know for hours where my son was. But I hadn’t yet crossed that line.
At Thanksgiving of 2002 I did. American as I am, I have a sense that the freedom to travel is an inalienable right, and I hadn’t realized just how depressed the shakiness of that particular freedom had made me feel until I boarded an airplane once more. Suddenly I felt liberated. My husband and I were flying to Washington in order to drive to New York with our son and to meet his future in-laws and, though I had visited Washington in the interval since 9-11, this time I was flying into Reagan over the city’s monuments. It was exciting and not a little emotional. The monuments are beautiful, I thought. So is the Capitol. Could people please leave them alone? Could these buildings stay just this fragile, approachable, and untouched?
I had not been to New York since 9-11, but I felt equally liberated on the Friday after Thanksgiving when my husband and I took the train into Grand Central and, over a long afternoon, walked down the island, stopping only to see an occasional gallery. When we reached the tip of Manhattan and the site for our son’s January wedding, I had stopped thinking about 9-11. I was in New York. I was having fun.
Yet as the wedding date approached, I found myself telling my son that perhaps, given the various warnings from John Ashcroft and Tom Ridge, he might not want to mention to family and friends that the amazing view at his reception would be of the night-lit Brooklyn Bridge. For his part, my son did not tell me that when we returned to New York in January, flying into Newark and taking the train past derelict New Jersey warehouses–a sight that made my husband want to rush off the train with his camera–we would go to Penn Station and catch a cab to a hotel that would be just one damaged building away from Ground Zero.
It was a cold weekend and a beautiful, spectacular wedding. Perhaps put off by the idea of January or perhaps uncertain still about a trip to New York or perhaps worried that war and the wedding would meet at the same place, some of the invited guests had sent regrets. There were occasional notes of ambivalence. Our three year old grandson, fresh from a viewing of The Lord of the Rings and instructed by our daughter that he was to be the boy with the ring who would keep it away from scary monsters, started up the aisle in his sweet tux, got a third of the way, turned back, and then found his father’s safe hand for the long walk to the front of the room. Later, our son’s Peace Corps friends danced long into the evening at a party that would have felt inconceivably lavish to them when they’d first met in China. And later still, when the wedding had become the wedding night, and the fire alarm had gone off in the hotel, and guests, who were scattered through thirty-eight floors, decided whether to heed the announcement and stay where they were or to trek down the stairs to the lobby, we watched from our window as fire engines arrived. We saw no smoke; we smelled nothing that could tell us we’d been irradiated; we felt nothing that meant we’d been poisoned with an unknown substance. And so we waited until the voice on the intercom told us to do what we realized later we’d already started to do with the rest of the country: resume normal activities.