I’ll never forget how I felt this day 18 years ago as an American, a volunteer firefighter and as a father — and how each held its own kind of hurt that has never completely healed.
But of the three, being a father watching the sparkle in my then six-year-old daughter’s eyes noticeably fade just a bit continues to be the memory that lingers most.
My alarm clock went off the same as it always did back then, coming to life with the morning news — my preference over the annoying, high-pitched alternative of chatter. Instinctively, I swatted the snooze button and bought myself another seven minutes of sleep.
In the years since, I’ve thought a lot about those seven minutes, and how the simple push of a button postponed a bitter reality for just a little longer.
When the news came on again, word of the first airliner crashing into the World Trade Center stopped my hand just short of another seven minutes of blissful ignorance — a time span that now seems like an eternity.
Lying there, listening to the details, I regretted not pushing the button one more time.
A hundred more times.
In that same moment, I also understood that the impassive gaze of terrorism could only be averted for so long, and that, eventually, I’d have to meet it — along with the questioning gaze of my daughter.
As a parent, I debated whether I should shield her from these events, essentially pushing the snooze button to allow her at least a few more minutes of childhood before waking her to this new, colder world.
But how long, I wondered, would it be before she discovered reality on her own?
There are at least six news stands near our home, all with their front pages displayed at eye level for a child her age.
I thought about the images that would be appearing in those small plexi-glass windows in the coming days and weeks. I thought about what she might overhear during playground conversations as children put their own interpretive spin on the language of adults heard from the radio, television and from discussions between parents after they thought their children were asleep.
My daughter suddenly appeared in the doorway, and I realized that I was still poised — frozen really — with my hand over the snooze button, still listening to the account of terrorism on the radio.
It was at this point that fragmented accounts of an attack on the Pentagon began, along with word of a downed jetliner somewhere in Pennsylvania.
And maybe a car bomb near the capitol — a story that was interrupted by word of a second airliner crashing into the trade center towers.
“Dad, what’s happening?” my daughter asked.
She remained in the doorway, a departure from her normal routine of diving onto the bed. I noticed this instinctively, in much the same way she must’ve noticed my hand still hovering above the snooze button.
Neither of us moved; neither of us wanted to. At different levels, we both understood that moving meant setting things into motion that could somehow never be turned back. Slowly, I drew my hand away from the alarm clock and gestured for her to join me on the bed.
There was no running, no broad-smiled dive over the footboard. She approached with obvious hesitation, her eyes moving between the radio and me.
“What’s going on, Dad?” she asked again.
Pulling her close, we listened to the radio as I struggled to find the words to answer her question. After a series of false starts, I decided there was really only one place to begin.
As the events of that morning continued to unfold from the radio, we allowed our voices to carry over the reports of terrorism — and spoke, instead, of what it means to be an American.
Today marks 18 years since I’ve stopped setting my alarm to go off with the morning news.
I write this in memory of those innocent lives that were lost, as well as for the loss of innocence we all experienced in some way or another…