Once the bridges were reopened in the early morning of September 12th, I borrowed a friend’s car and drove back to our little apartment in Alexandria. Lying in Jamie’s arms in our little bed, in our little apartment so far away from home, I whispered, “I just want to go home. Can’t we go home?” He answered back in the dark, “We aren’t going to let this change us, Elizabeth. This is our home. No matter what, we aren’t going to let it be taken from us. We cannot be afraid.”
I knew he was right, but I was afraid.
When we were little girls, Daddy quoted to Ginny and me from Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” from Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. Infuriating at the time, Daddy’s answer to most of our fears was, “Face your jabberwocky, girls. That’s the only way to beat it.”
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son
The jaws that bite,
The claws that catch!”
In the days that followed September 11th, for those living outside of Washington, DC and New York City, life likely returned to some sense of normal. The world and the way we observed it was changing and changing quickly, but if you weren’t living and working in one of the places oiling the gears and cogs that were making most of those changes possible, I assume it was less terrifying. It must have felt like change by degree.
For us though, change and how much we could stand of it was on a sliding scale. Some enormous, unseen optometrist held lenses over our eyes in those dark days and asked, “What can you stand today? One or two. Which one is better? One or two?” We answered, and he would click that lens in place for the day. And we would try to work and eat and live and breathe with these lenses of acceptance on our eyes, while we waited for the next day. And the next day the question appeared again, “What can you stand today? One or two? Which one is better? One or two?”
The air space over Washington, DC was restricted and new flight patterns strictly enforced. Commercial flights could no longer fly over the Capitol, its office buildings, or the White House. Once flights resumed on September 13th, pilots had to learn those new boundaries. In those days and weeks following the attacks, pilots entered the restricted airspace often, and their every entry garnered an evacuation.
Convinced there would be more attacks, sirens alerted already quavering congressional staffers of possible incoming planes. With every alert, all offices were cleared, and staffers ran into the streets surrounding the Capitol building until given the all-clear to return.
It was terrifying. Drills didn’t feel like drills anymore. The clicking heels from shoes on marble floors were always fast and loud. Each alarm felt like the first alarm. As soon as we got outside, all eyes searched the sky for whatever it was we thought might be looming there – coming for us.
My most clear memory of those days after is the day a young, blonde intern from one of the congressional offices was running down the street right in front of me when she collapsed. Without warning, her knees gave way and she crumpled into a ball on the concrete sidewalk, put her hands over her head and started screaming.
I stopped and pulled her into the doorway of a nearby townhouse, thinking if a plane did crash, we were safer in a doorway than on the street. The stairs to the townhouse were white stone and the door was heavy and wooden and I rested my back against it as I held her in my arms and comforted her like I would a baby. Hysterical, she kept screaming, “I can’t do this anymore. I just can’t do this. I want to go home. Can’t I just go home?” I cried right along with her but told her the only thing I knew to say, “We have to face our Jabberwocky. All of us. You’re not alone. We are all doing this together. Everything’s going to be alright,” my head upturned in a prayer that what I was saying was true and there was no plane screeching toward us.
Once during those days, I dreamt our office had been hit by a plane. Only a few walls were standing, jagged edges surrounded us, and fire licked around corners and up through the floor. All my friends were running by me, but I couldn’t run. I just stood in the middle of calamity and watched in slow motion as everything familiar turned to ash. After a little while, I was able to move. I ran into the orange flames and threaded my arms under the arms of strangers, pulling them out into clean air and blue sky. When I got one out, I ran in for another. When I awoke from that dream, I was sweaty but smiling, and my heart felt full.
He took his vorpal sword in hand;
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree
And stood awhile in thought.
I’ve been down in the dumps this week. Detached and quiet, I’ve pulled into myself. I don’t know why. Everything is fine, truly. But I feel like spilled watercolors.
Tuesday, as I was driving home from work, I noticed the farmer who owns the pecan grove that I enjoy on my commute had stacked all the broken bits of pecan trees and their disconnected limbs into big piles throughout the orchard. With the sun setting in the horizon, broken pieces reached toward the sky. Their arms long and their fingers cramped, the dark silhouettes looked macabre and ominous.
On Wednesday, the big piles were on fire. They had been burning a long time by the time I saw them. Bright orange, ferocious flames engulfed the dark piles. The flames were fast, angry. They were quickly consuming the branches and limbs. White ash had already formed along the bottom rim. Dense, thick smoke crinkled my nose and clogged my throat.
Yesterday, the stacks were smoldering, and thin white veils filled the orchard and circled the still-standing trees. It was beautiful and sad. I was reminded of the feeling when you dive in the deep end of the pool and wait for a little while on the bottom, looking up at the sky far, far above. It was that quiet space between me and the sky that had me pondering.
Maybe that’s why people call it ‘having the blues’? It’s quiet and disorienting, full of questions with no answers. Lingering doubts that resurface and jeer and clomp around in your mind in a pair of boots that are way too big. Memories old and new that taunt and poke and hiss and make you close your eyes and breathe in long and deep. Whispers and sighs and remembrances too dear to speak out loud scurry like mice in little circles around my brain. All those things slinking around my mind are colored in shades of blue: the blue that circles the outer edge of an oyster shell, the blue satin on the back of a little boy’s baby blanket, blue sky observed through deep water.
This happens every now and then, to most everyone I suppose. When it happens to me, I sit with it a little while and accept that it is here, just like thin veils of smoke or fog. I know it will pass soon, and I will feel better. Until then, I’ll not engage it much. I am not afraid.
“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.