Remembering 9/11

Peace Arch rail border crossing. Photo by Vmenkov. Source: Wikimedia.

Even today, the whole thing seems unreal, slowed down, like a film sequence shot underwater: weeks have stretched into years of unreality, each subsequent event stranger than the one preceding it. And strangest of all, the life I now live here in Vancouver actually began to emerge in me weeks before the attacks on the World Trade Center.

That Tuesday morning in Maine 10 years ago, I was sweeping leaves from my front stoop with an old broom which suddenly fell apart. All the bristles simply let go and scattered down the steps.

I looked up to see a taxi driving slowly by my house. The passenger in the back seat looked ill, his face drawn and grey, as if he were dying.

From my next-door neighbor’s house, I could hear a muffled, excited radio voice. I couldn’t make out the words and assumed it was a report about a sporting event.

When I stepped back inside, I remembered a dream I’d had twice the month before on my long drive back from New Mexico. In the dream I drove across the Canadian border, heading home. Awake, I assumed something about a scenic route through southern Quebec and into northern Maine, but in the dream, it was clear that I wasn’t going back to Maine; I was going home—to Canada.

On that Tuesday ten years ago, I had a lunchtime meeting at the art school where I taught part time, the beginning of a school-wide strategic planning process. On my way to the meeting, I stopped at the post office to mail a cheque to pay a speeding ticket I’d gotten in the Texas panhandle.

At the post office, the radio was on and the clerks were describing what I thought was a new movie, a futuristic thriller. One of them explained that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center, and another plane had crashed into the Pentagon, and some guy had pulled out a gun and had threatened to shoot people in Monument Square further along Congress Street, where I was heading.

This last, he said, was probably only a rumour.

When I got to the art school, everyone was standing around, waiting.  The meeting had been called off, but the lunch had arrived earlier, and so everyone sat at long tables eating sandwiches in a stunned silence. I thought of walking back home, but then decided to stay. My friend Charles who taught graphic design told me that his children had been “locked down” in their schools.

“What does that mean, locked down?” I asked.

“Locked inside,” he explained.

“But why?”  

“Because of the plane crashes in New York.”

I felt stupid asking any more questions, so I ate my sandwich, and then Charles and I decided to drive to the Audubon Center, not far away, until it was time to get his kids.

I’d been away all summer, so we had a lot to catch up on. We walked through the fields and along the trails, stopping from time to time to look out over the marshes of the Presumpscot River.  Somehow we both needed to be in the presence of something bigger than what was happening on TV, bigger and more lasting than office buildings and terrorist attacks. While we were sitting on a bench, a young fox came within three feet of us, stopped, and looked at us for what seemed a long time, then, crossing in front of us, he walked on.

Later that afternoon, I met Charles at his house. His wife Margo suggested we go to a prayer service at the Congregational Church down the road, and after that we met with some of their neighbors on their front porch. Someone had ordered pizza. No one really knew what to say, except that we were grateful to be safe, grateful that we lived in Maine.

Later, when Charles and Margo put their kids to bed upstairs, I turned on their TV and saw the images that some had been watching over and over again all day. I needed to see it once—first one and then the other plane crashing. Then the collapse of each tower. I turned off the TV, had a cup of tea with Charles and Margo and drove home.

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