Sunday, September 11, 2011

Letting Go, How 9/11 Changed our Lives Forever

I've written this a thousand times in my head but every time I've sat down at my computer to write it out, I'm unable to say what I need to say.

It's been 65 days.

I'm never going to be able to tell our story in a way that people will understand. I'm never going to understand how, 10 years later, the anniversary of 9/11 paired with being the wife of a firefighter has brought up such raw emotion each day leading up to today. I'm never going to fully comprehend how what we experienced in Norway 65 days ago relates to 9/11.

All I know is that it does.

It all does.

We live on the west coast. A continent away from the attacks that took place on 9/11, but as any firefighter will tell you, those were his brothers racing towards the burning buildings. Those were his brothers pulling people out. Those were his brothers being crushed when the towers fell. Those are his brothers still dealing with the physical effects and emotional scars of what happened on September 11, 2001, every single day.

When you're married to a firefighter, you don't get to "forget." You don't get to "move on." Much like the military is a family, the firefighter family spans age, race and gender and unites us all no matter where in the world we may be. Every man is your husband, father, uncle, friend or son. Every tragedy could have been him.

If Seattle had been the target of an attack, my husbands department would have been one of the neighboring departments called in and I could be in the same exact situation as those who lost loved ones in NYC, DC or Pennsylvania.

So when my children turned their heads to me and asked, "Could that happen to Daddy?" I had to answer as truthfully as I knew how, "Yes, but it won't."

This is what it's like for a firefighter family.


Sailing into Oslo that morning, we knew immediately this place reminded us of home in the Pacific Northwest. It was green and hilly, a stark contrast to the flatness and lack of evergreens in Denmark. We felt an instant ease and familiarity although we had never been there and didn't understand the language. It felt right.

It had been raining heavily off and on that Friday, but that hadn't stopped us from seeing the city. The first thing we did after leaving the ship that morning was to take a 2 hour bus tour of the city, Holmenkollen and Vigeland Gardens. We figured that since we truly would be on our own, without our Copenhagen family to act as tour guides, it would be a great way to get an overview of Oslo and acquaint us with some local facts and maybe even some insider tips on how to do the city. We were really excited.

The bus left the City Hall and wound its way through the narrow cobblestone streets that make up a lot of the surface in Oslo. We drove by the parliamentary buildings, famous museums and the government buildings which flanked a large parklike space of land.

We did the touristy thing, following our tour guide and her little golden flag around at each stop. She shared stories of Norway and we were grateful for her chipper execution despite the pouring rain. When the bus dropped us back off at City Hall, we felt prepared to tackle what little bit of Oslo we could see in the time we had.

After waiting out the rain in City Hall, touring the incredible rooms and reading everything we came in contact with, we braved the rain to find a cozy spot for lunch. We nourished ourselves with a delicious fritatta and even more delicious coffee before going souvenir shopping and eventually finding our way back to the waterfront and the Nobel Peace Center, which was a priority on our "Things to see in Oslo" list.

There, we inhaled the messages of peace, non-violence and humanity that seemed to shout from every square millimeter of space in that building. We gazed upon the faces of Nobel Peace recipients and felt humbled. We sent an email home from an interactive exhibit about Nansen.

That's how my mom knew where we were when she heard the news that morning.

When we walked out of the Nobel Peace Center in downtown Oslo on July 22nd, we had about an hour before we had to be back to our ship to Copenhagen. It was "that time of day," the time of day we'd grown accustomed to (in a very short time mind you) to having a little pre-dinner snack of pastry or soft ice. We looked to our left, back towards City Hall and the downtown area that we'd already seem much of. We looked to our right, a meandering walkway along the harbor flanked by retail shops on one side and what looked like ice cream kiosks on the water side. We knew which way to go.

No sooner than had we begun walking to the right, we heard a loud noise.


I don't know how to articulate what that deafening noise sounded like. It wasn't a gun. It wasn't a firework. It didn't sound like a canon, although we heard from the myriad of voices in different languages surrounding us, someone saying "canon." We checked our watches, thinking maybe this was a customary Oslo thing to do at this time of day on a Friday, but nothing made sense.

What we did know, was to get moving.

We could see a giant cloud of smoke, ash and debris from where we were standing. Little bits of unknown. I kept thinking it must have been an accident, something went wrong somewhere or maybe it was a gas explosion.

Brett knew that it wasn't.

Things you know when something unexpected happens in a place where you are unfamiliar and you have zero access to information: you want to be anywhere other than here and you would give anything for a cell phone.

We had no phone, nothing. We relied on observing what those around us were doing, staying together and listening to our instincts.

Instinct told me to get out of there.

Instinct told Brett to get out of there, and to see if anyone needed help (the firefighter instinct, the instinct that makes him such a wonderful husband, father and person, the instinct that I love).

We decided that everyone seemed calm enough to turn left into the city streets from the relative safety of the waterfront to see if we could help. We passed people pressed into doorways, speaking in different languages. "Terrorista" and "bomba" were words we understood. We passed a mother on a cell phone, holding the hand of a young daughter, a stricken look on her face that all was not right. We passed a mother with a buggy, running the opposite direction from the way we were walking. We kept walking. But nobody seemed to be panicking too much.

We were almost to the open area where the government buildings stood when we saw them.

A half a block away, so many people, running towards us. A mob. Running away from something.

Brett grabbed my hand, looked at me, and said, "Nice, easy jog back to the boat. Here we go."

I stood for what seemed like a moment but was probably only a tiny sliver of a second, willing the tears not to come out of my eyes, willing myself to stop thinking I'd never see my children again, willing myself to hold it together and I ran with my husband back towards the waterfront.

I never looked back.


When people say they don't understand what the big deal is about 9/11, and that we are giving too much attention to the anniversary, I want to slink into my skin and become invisible.

We've always honored this day as a firefighter family, by doing things that we thought were meaningful. A moment of silence at the dinner table, telling our children our memories of that day or by going somewhere peaceful, away from it all. We know turning off the media is important. We know bombarding them with images is harmful. But we also know that we are American, and like it or not, this is OUR history. We share this history with everyone.

It's been incredibly hard for us this year. The combination of being in the fire service for my husband coupled with the terrorist attack in Oslo that is now a part of our shared history, has taken it's toll and I don't know how to fix it other than to write it out and finally try to take a step towards letting go.
It's all I know.

To tell, to write, to share.

Yesterday, Brett and the kids spent all day working on a new flagpole for our front yard. It's BIG. When he called for me to come take a look at it, I was overwhelmed. There were my 3 children, holding up the flagpole so Dad could get it's position just right before putting the finishing touches on it and pouring the concrete which will keep it in place.

It has a shiny fire nozzle on top and two 2011 dollar coins pressed into it's base, along with my daughters initials since she wasn't born when we raised the flagpole at our first house.

This morning at 5:46am, we got up, bleary-eyed and full of sleep, to raise the flag.

It's not much, but hopefully it will be enough to help us remember and to let go of the terrorist experiences that have become a part of our story, our history, us.

The kids helping with the placement of the flagpole, 9/10/11