Some of the kids were dressing up. Others were reading in the cozy corner. A few were drawing. One was velcroed to her permanent place at my leg when the director came rushing in. "They are bombing New York", she said.
And at first I thought she was speaking in some kind of code. What? Bombing New York? Who is bombing New York? What does that even mean? I walked with her into the hallway. Away from the kids. "There are bombs going off in New York.", she said. I lowered my voice and looked back into a room full of quiet two year-olds paying us all of their attention. "What do you mean?", I whispered as I ushered us further down the hall. My director was shaking. Tears coming to her eyes. She was serious.
Miss R gathered up the kids for distraction. I went to the front of the building to turn on the radio. I turned it on as the news was coming in that another plane had flown into the towers. A second plane. And I felt a vice grip on my throat. This is real.
For the next hour Miss R and I took turns listening to the radio in the break room while the other acted as though nothing was wrong and went about the routine with the children. But children are especially intuitive creatures. They knew something was terribly wrong. I never let on, but they knew. They could feel the fear rising up in the building. They could feel it. And they reacted to it.
Eventually I dimmed the lights and gathered all of the kids into the cozy corner where I told them stories. I held them and smiled into their eyes. I did everything I could to convey that everything was ok. Inside I was terrified.
My next shift in the break room came and I listened as a frantic reporter described the South tower falling. As it happened. I don't remember her exact words but I remember her voice coming unglued.
"Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, it's falling. It's falling. It's coming down. The tower is falling"
Tears came hot and my cheeks were on fire. I turned to another worker and mumbled something like, "So many people are dying right now." and I broke. Embarrassed and pissed at myself for losing my composure when I had children to care for, I slipped into the bathroom to pull myself together.
Get yourself together, Colleen. These babies need you to get your shit together.
I returned to the room with a smile on my face. "It's snack time!", I called out cheerily. They came to the table. Slower than normal. They knew.
Forty minutes later they were all gone. The flurry of parents rushing and scooping and hugging and holding and moving fast back out of the building with their most beloved. By noon, there was not one child in the building. I was free to go and be with my beloveds. And as I drove home, crying and listening as report after report came in, I passed the police station in my town. The flags were already lowered. I pulled over my car and I wept.
For days, I sat watching those towers fall over and over again. Watching the planes hit over and over again. Watching people run. Watching people covered in white dust. People hiding under cars. Papers flying. Smoke. So much smoke. My eyes never left the screen. And the screen continued to run beneath my eyelids when I closed my eyes at night.
Three days later my niece was born. And for a few hours during those first days, I held her and was reminded that life goes forward. That life is precious. That life is beautiful. What a gift she was.
Where were you? Who were you with? How do you remember September 11th, 2001?